Alcohol and playing an instrument

May 12, 2019, 3:04 AM · We hear of brass players' fondness for beer.
But I'm going to assume that alcohol and playing the violin is a total no-no, but I want you to fess up - how many of you have ever combined the two?
When I was 17 I drank a pint of weak beer before a piano lesson, and my playing was very, very bad, but the teacher didn't say anything.
The only time I ever played the oboe drunk (half a bottle of Southern Comfort drunk) was one Christmas when a relative brow-beat me into it.
30 years later that same relative said to me "I remember you once played the oboe for me, and, frankly, you wasn't (sic) very good."
I mostly play the uke after at least one beer, but then I'm singing too.
I hope I never play the violin after alcohol. If only because I don't want to damage the instrument.

Replies (39)

May 12, 2019, 3:13 AM · I would never drink before a lesson ( too early anyway) or anytime that someone had to listen to me, but I’m sure I’ve got home, after a hard day, and grabbed a glass of red to nurse before heading into the practice room.
Sometimes being slightly relaxed allows me to be more creative- haven’t measured the effect on my playing. But that’s not drunk - I’d still be legal to drive.
Edited: May 12, 2019, 3:21 AM · There are a handful of players who seemed to be able to combine the two activities. Szeryng is one that springs to mind. On the whole, though, it is a bad idea.

I once stayed too long at a Champagne reception as part of a college event connected to an opera production— And then went to dinner and followed that by a run through of the Marriage of Figaro. I was the concertmaster...

Apparently, it wasn’t until Act III that I really got my act together. No conspicuous accidents, but some pretty sub-par playing until then, of which I was unaware at the time.

May 12, 2019, 3:30 AM · I'll usually have a pint before a concert - no problem (or at least, no complaints). When in the audience I hate to watch players who seem inhibited; you'll never get that from me.
May 12, 2019, 3:40 AM · I've had a drink before a rehearsal maybe half a dozen times over the years, and once I played an evening concert after having two beers at a very late lunch (3pm). No ill effects from any of those. I think the concert performance may even have been helped slightly by the alcohol because I was playing with a shoulder injury and that shoulder was constantly tense. But I've never played a string instrument when anywhere near drunk.
Edited: May 12, 2019, 8:20 AM · I played guitar in a cover band many years ago. We usually had two beers before we started at all and three or more while playing... never a problem.
But with the violin? No alcohol, zero, nada. No matter if I play irish trad, jazz or Brahms.
Once, in a vernissage, I held a glass with a *very* small quantity of champagne. My pianist looked at me with big eyes and said "WHAT ARE GOING TO DO WITH THIS???" I put the glass away.
She was right. You don't drink when you play the violin.
Will be a new experience when I start the gigs with the touring zydeco band I just joined ;- ).
Edited: May 12, 2019, 12:33 PM · There's some written about this subject in Artur Rubinstein's memoir. About how he'd go to a dinner party, and after being wined and dined people would expect him to "play something." And of course -- according to him -- he nailed it every time.

I find that if I go to a jazz gig (on the piano), drinking one pint of beer over the first two sets works well, although of course I can play completely sober too, and I don't "power up" in advance or sneak in my own airplane bottles if I'm going to play a gig where there's no beer. More than one pint is bad though. None with the violin, regardless of genre.

May 12, 2019, 11:57 AM · Unfortunately, I have some relevant experience with this topic. Before or during a classical concert or rehearsal--Never. The technical difficulty, complexity of the music, and the expectations of the audience are high. But non-classical genres are different, different musical sub-cultures. If ethyl alcohol were a new drug instead an ancient one, it would probably not be approved by the FDA because the therapeutic dose [1] is too close to the over-dose [2-3] level, and the risk of addiction is too high; 2-10%, depending on how you define it. Benefits of 1 dose: relaxes the muscles, slows down my vibrato, suppresses the distracting mental chatter when playing from memory, releases the inhibitions when improvising (fear of playing a wrong note), kills stage-fright. I have never tried beta-blockers.
Most of my professional playing is as a Mariachi violin and singer (!). They are notorious for drinking on the job, and it can be hard to turn down a free drink from a paying customer. A few top-level bands have a no-drink policy at a performance, most do not. It's a different world- We leave the cases in the car, tune in the parking lot, and vocal warm-up is a shot of tequila. It opens up the nose and the sinuses. Some of the solo singers don't do beer because of the bubbles and and cold liquid affecting the vocal chords. The maltose in beer is a safer source of needed sugar than the sucrose in soft drinks.
May 12, 2019, 12:21 PM · Some studies have show that, if one is to perform well "under the influence", one is supposed to practice under the same conditions (a.k.a. intoxicated).
Alcohol is carcinogenic and has got way more negative effects than the commonly appreciated relaxing effects. In fact, the initial positive effects are at certain moment lost and one has to drink not to feel bad, instead to feel good. There is a well known interplay between gaba and glutamate in alcoholism.
Unfortunately, many musicians use alcohol to self-medicate and cope with work-related stress.
Being a musician, you already have a bridge to transcendence, why do you need to take a chemically introduced shortcut?
May 12, 2019, 12:46 PM · Rocky, I see your point, but suppose one actually likes beer? Then it complements the enjoyable activity of playing a few sets of jazz with good friends. And a pint of a nice dark stout has all kinds of wonderfully healthy chemicals in addition to alcohol. It's all about moderation. I don't smoke weed, but we could be having the same conversation about that.

One of my old acquaintances who is a professional recording engineer and studio manager told me that his worst days are when a rock band will rent the studio to record an album, but they're completely fractured two hours in. He had to make a "No Jack" rule.

Edited: May 12, 2019, 4:14 PM · I play a mix of pop, classical an everything in between.

Alcohol and weed detach me somewhat from this emotionally. Quality always suffers and I feel far less emotion doing it.
However - weed in particular makes me also mellower, so I get less mad when I hear (or make) the same mistake for a billionth time.

May 12, 2019, 4:36 PM · Violin requires too intense of focus for booze to do anything positive for your playing, but despite that, I have mixed the two many times in the past.

My main issue with alcohol is it makes me rather apathetic. I don't tend get energized like some people do; mainly just sleepy, and I don't really lose my inhibitions, so I can still feel anxiety (thus, it's not even useful for stage fright, unless I drink so much that I'm incoherent).

I drank pretty decently at a tango milonga concert one time and ended up playing the full Tango Jalousie on a kazoo. That was definitely the star of the performance.

I also distinctly recall arguing with someone one time about Lindsey Stirling, and unfortunately was too inebriated to realize they were just trolling me, so I whipped out my violin to do an impromptu super Mario Bros. Theme. It was not a good rendition and I felt deeply disappointed that the alcohol had prevented me from proving my point.

May 13, 2019, 2:08 PM · I do a sort of relaxed get-together with a friend weekly and we rehearse stuff. Sometimes we'll get some food and have a drink beforehand, and it never helps. Even one drink, doesn't destroy my playing or anything, but just makes it a little bit sloppy.
Edited: May 13, 2019, 10:53 PM · I had a few glasses of wine once and recorded myself playing the Mozart oboe concerto in C that I was playing for my recital, and it was terrible, haha! However, I've also been recorded playing guitar and singing after a few (read: at least four) beers and it sounded pretty darn good.

However, I don't drink that much anymore; it's not healthy. The most I'll drink while practicing anything or making reeds is a glass of wine, or a 12-16oz beer/cider, or a somewhat strong highball.

May 14, 2019, 7:29 AM · A useful rule of thumb during a concert is to encourage the audience to imbibe more than the orchestra during the interval ;)

Now I've seen that happen almost the other way round on a memorable occasion when we were on holiday in the Austrian Tyrol some years ago.

One fine evening a group of us walked down from our hotel into the village to hear a concert given by the local brass band. The band smartly marched into the village square resplendent in their uniforms and the concert got under way. After each number there was a pause while young ladies in national costume passed among the band handing out steins of the local beer, similarly in the audience. This was repeated many times during the concert. The pieces played, being for a brass band, were fairly short, and I noticed that the band's original precision was starting to drift . . .

When the concert finished the band literally staggered out of the square in some disarray; likewise quite a few of the audience. Anyway, a good time was had by all, so it was deemed a great success.

May 14, 2019, 7:48 AM · Music appropriate to this discussion:
- Handel's Firewater Music
- Bach's Brandyburg Concerti
- (can't think of any more at the moment)
May 14, 2019, 10:05 PM · Sander,

How about the Moonshine Sonata in C# minor?

Edited: May 15, 2019, 10:18 AM · I had a russian teacher who seemed to me was a in an intimate relationship with alcohol. Every time I went to class, he had a bunch of bottles scattered around his studio.

This is what he told me one day when I was about to leave:

"To practice you do this: on your way home buy bottle of vodka. Play piece, then drink one glass. Play again. Drink second glass. Repeat this until you're out of vodka. You have learned the piece only if you can still play it after drinking whole bottle."

May 15, 2019, 6:23 AM · I always play MUCH better after a few drinks. Well, as long as you don't ask anyone else that is...

My L hand fingers go funny...

May 15, 2019, 8:52 AM · Clearly mention of the word "alcohol" immediately causes a polarization into pro- and anti- factions, even before it's associated with "playing an instrument". Each to his or her poison; we're all dying at faster or slower rates and apparently even sausages will accelerate the process.
May 15, 2019, 9:12 AM · One of the greatest trombonists I know will/can only play a concert drunk with a flask in his tux jacket to pass around his section.
May 15, 2019, 11:30 AM · Bazzini - Round of the Goblets
May 15, 2019, 2:26 PM · Martini - The Devil's Thrill Sonata
Handel - Brandy Alexander's Feast
Edited: May 15, 2019, 4:34 PM · Here is a Latin haiku poem descriptive of more than one Irish session I've been to:

tibia planxit,
virgo tympanum pulsat,
fidicen bibit.

the flute wails
the girl bangs the drum
the fiddler drinks

Edited: May 15, 2019, 5:02 PM · Alcohol? You need to find something more natural.
May 17, 2019, 5:22 PM · I found that ANY alcohol before I play is an absolute no-no. Even half a pint of beer. My co-ordination and control just isn't there.
I have to catch up afterwards.
Edited: May 17, 2019, 7:23 PM · Yeah definitely no alcohol before a concert for me. Henryk Szeryng always played his concerts completely drunk. So it’s possible if you’re super brilliant like him.
May 18, 2019, 11:23 AM · A functioning alcoholic is still an addict.
May 18, 2019, 12:52 PM · There is a famous story about Rostropovich and Shostakovich. ""[Shostakovich] gave me the score of his first Cello Concerto, and in four days I memorized it and played it for him while he accompanied me on piano. We were so happy, we drank a little vodka together.? We then played it again, not so perfectly, and drank more vodka. The third time I think I played the Saint-Saens Concerto while he accompanied his own concerto. We were very happy."
May 21, 2019, 9:59 PM · Once I was asked to play in a musical trio for an evening dinner for an Episcopal women's group. Statewide group with 200 or so attendees. I was on lead acoustic guitar at the time (before my viola days) and joined by a rhythm guitarist and a cellist. We had a fifth of Woodford Reserve with us and have to say it was a very laid back and enjoyable session.
May 21, 2019, 10:05 PM · Bruce that's a great story. And I can imagine Shostakovich telling the same tale - but finishing the same story with "and I played The Elgar orchestra reduction while he played mine! We were very happy..."
May 22, 2019, 4:15 AM · I once tried wine for performance nerves. Not only did it barely work, but it made me lose any technical control that the nerves hadn't already taken away. Understand why people might choose to drink, but it doesn't seem to go well with a performing career!
May 22, 2019, 12:28 PM · One glass of wine... but no more... helps for my nerves. Sort of. Nothing really *helps* them lol. I have the shakiest bow ever..
June 7, 2019, 5:09 AM · I was used to have one drink (wine, because I absolutely hate beer) in the middle of a performance when I was playing the guitar with my rock bands. But never combine alcohol with violin, it is nonsense for me.
Edited: June 7, 2019, 8:19 AM · Alcohol can be very selective it seems. It always affects my stomach: it is poison, after all. I have read that in some it only affects the legs (I have a friend who can barely walk and is never sick), although I'd guess all extremities (my friend isn't a musician, so I don't know). Dylan Thomas used to turn up at the BBC nearly unable to stand, to the extent that the producer often considered cancelling the broadcast, but upon relenting, Thomas would read his poetry perfectly in front of the microphone.
Edited: June 7, 2019, 9:22 AM · Wow, you encouraged me to create a new thread about smoking and instruments, which I've been always curious about.

About the topic: I suppose you're talking about moderate alcohol drinking, not alcoholics.

If you're talking about alcoholics, then the problem is, I guess, way, way deeper, and the violin has nothing to do with that, you need help I think. Whatever happens to your $200-$7000 violin if you are an alcoholic is the very last thing to worry about your situation. You would need help to recover your life, health, good habits and remove your addiction.

If you're talking about moderate consumption, and by that I mean the quantity when there are no side effects (being too happy for no reason, laughing just because, head-ache...), then I don't see much of a problem per se.

Nevertheless, in wind instruments, where you inject your breath, I guess there could be a problem. You are exposing the internal wood and metals of the clarinet/oboe/trumpet... to the exhaled gases of your body (breath). Normally, those are Nitrogen, Oxygen, Water Vapor and Carbon Dioxide, plus very tiny portions of VOC's (volatile organic compounds), acetone, methanol, ethanol, ammonia...

If you drink something strong, even if it has no effect in your behavior or in any other way, you still are changing the composition of your breath, and I guess the portion of ethanol and methanol increase a lot.

I'm not an expert, but my point is you could be damaging your instrument because of the new composition of the breath you exhale. I don't know if it could oxidize the metals faster, damage the wood, etc...

Particularly, in the violin, I don't think it could make an impact on it. May be, varnishes that are too weak to alcohol, could potentially get damaged by your breath, but I'm not sure how long it would take. It would be another interesting experiment, to exhale your "beer" breath directly to a piece of wood with a varnish that's weak to alcohol. I guess it would take decades just to see a tiny difference, and that's assuming you're always drinking while playing.

Edited: June 7, 2019, 6:16 PM · I did play Irish violin music for a St. Patrick's Day party many years ago continually fueled by Irish whisky. Fortunately that music is easy to play, even when fueled thusly, and I was even more inspired by the drunker man who insisted on standing about a foot from my scroll practically swooning over the music and exclaiming how it brought back memories of his Irish childhood. (So, one vote for not so bad!)

When I first moved to California, 57 years ago, I was fortunate to get into a weekly string quartet, that my joining turned into a quintet that was finally able to play the great Schubert, 2-cello, C-major quintet. Wine was always served during the half-time break. Didn't seem to hurt, or maybe we just couldn't tell, but I was still in my 20s and maybe not yet so affected by alcohol. (One vote for neutral!)

A few years later I did play one orchestra rehearsal after having about 1/2 a beer with my supper - never again. (One vote for a bad idea - not good!)

But - for the very bad: My cello teacher about 70 years ago was an alcoholic. He had played in the Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta symphonies and been kicked out of every one of them because of his addiction. (I learned of his full "resumé" on line less than 10 years ago.) He was a wonderful cellist and a wonderful teacher and in the 28 months I studied with him he brought me deeply into significant cello concerto literature in that short time. When he performed a solo with our community orchestra one of the men in the orchestra would take the day off from work to chaperone him and keep him away from drink. My last lesson with him occurred just before Christmas 1951 and he was drunk - even offered 17-year old me a drink of the vodka from his pocket-size Vitalis hair-tonic bottle. And most disappointing to me, I played better than he did that day. After that he never returned to our city for my lesson or for our orchestra that rehearsed evenings afterward. (Biggest vote for very, very bad!)

June 7, 2019, 10:30 AM · One of my teachers was unquestionably an alcoholic. It never seemed to affect his playing, though, not even when he'd drunk so much he didn't feel he could drive.
June 11, 2019, 8:01 AM · Henryk Szeryng was a heavy drunker... I've heard that someone asked you "how can you play drunk?". "I have a secret, in order to play drunk, you have to study drunk".
June 11, 2019, 11:03 AM · There may be something to that. I had a supervisor who went through a bunch of dental work, occasionally coming in kind of looped from the pain meds. One time, she was enough gone that she signed papers with the wrong date-- which happened to be from the last time she'd had the drugs.

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