Not so long ago I was asked a terrifying question by a much respected musician friend.
“Do you think you play better when you are drunk or stoned?” he wanted to know.
I thought for a long time before replying, and finally told him that I very much hoped not, though at the same time, I didn’t think it necessarily made matters that much worse if I had had a drink or spliff before going on stage. I’ve done enough gigs with this guy over the years that there’s no point lying to him about it - as if there was much point lying about this anyway - and the truth is that I have not been exactly sober at most of those gigs, though I’ve not been exactly off my tits either.
That part of the conversation ended there, but the question has remained with me. I think it is a key question for many musicians, because the horrible truth of the matter is that for some of us, sometimes, we do seem to play better when slightly chemically enhanced, and not just to ourselves, either, but to others.
This has been brought home to me in a very real and direct way since I received my London Underground busking license this past January. Drinking while busking is something that is heavily frowned upon in this scheme - I’m told it’s an instant and permanent ban if caught - and the one time someone kindly donated a beer to the cause while I was busking I did something I almost never do - I stopped playing in order to hide the beer in my bag. However, while I have never drunk while busking, and I have never busked while drunk drunk, there have been a couple of occasions when I have arrived slightly early to a pitch for one reason or another and found myself spending the intervening time interrogating a sneaky pint in some nearby pub.
Those sessions have always gone better than usual. Without exception.
Similarly, while I am no longer quite the pothead I was in my twenties, I have been known to still happily take the occasional toke of the occasional jazz cigarette, and this has included, once or twice, the hour or so before a busking session was to begin.
These sessions also have not been too bad in the scheme of things. At all.
You are never quite sure with regular gigs. Either you are paid or not anyway, and whatever you think of the performance, and whatever people tell you, there is no metric, no indicator that gives you a sense of, objectively speaking, how well it went. But with busking, there is a very clear indicator - money in the hat. And my experience so far with busking is that a slight element of substance induced relaxation appears to improve the money in the hat indicator on a regular basis.
This is information which I really do not want to know.
Of course, this is an issue affecting all musicians. Never mind children like Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty - I grew up on a diet of Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, CSNY, John Martyn and many many other musicians with severe and often fatal drug and/or alcohol problems. The honest truth of the matter is that I could probably do with chilling out a bit on the drinking myself, in general, in my life, in the scheme of things. So what I absolutely don’t want is to end up feeling like I need to be mildly chemically enhanced in order to play my best. Yet the evidence at the moment is pointing in that direction.
But there is another explanation and another solution, which I discovered just this week, after rereading the excellent clarinet book by David Pino. (I have been playing clarinet less than a year, so you won’t see me busk with it any time soon. But I am learning.) Pino’s book is not merely an excellent repository of wisdom and knowledge for clarinet players - it is also worth reading for any musician, though obviously certain parts of the book are somewhat clarinet-centric. However, there is one piece of advice in the book, repeated over and over again in different sections, which suddenly struck me as being directly connected to the constant theme of musicians and substance abuse.
The advice is this - relaxation is the most important part of any musician’s repertoire of technique. In the case of the clarinet, there are such things as embouchure (the way you hold the mouthpiece and reed in your mouth) and airflow (how you blow into the thing) which dictate whether or not your playing sounds as it should, but these things, says Pino, over and again, are entirely subordinate to relaxation. Basic fingering technique also, he says, is not possible if the hands are too tense. As a beginner on clarinet, I have found that he is quite right - my fingers sometimes go so far as to lock up completely if they get too tense and it is simply not possible to put them in the right place or even get them to move how I want them to at all. Pino advises trying to actively relax the palms of the hands in order to get the fingers to follow suit, and in my experience this works a treat. If you play any musical instrument at all - try it. I have also found that his advice works equally well for me on piano and guitar.
This, I think, is part of the key to the problem of musicians and drugs. It is not that we need to be drunk or stoned or whatever to play our best. But we do need to relax in order to do so. And here is both the problem and the solution. Too much drink or drugs, or whatever, and you lose actual motor control. But just a little - enough to take the edge off the world if you will - and you are both relaxed enough to play well while still retaining the motor control required to do so. And many of us find it easier to relax this way than any other.
Multiply this by every gig you ever do, most of which are in licensed establishments anyway, and Houston, we have a drinking problem. It’s not just me. It’s all the musicians I know. We all struggle with the same thing in different ways - and yet some of the best musicians I know are very much straight edge. Their secret is that they can relax anyway.
I don’t have an instant solution to the problem of musicians and drugs. But I do have a better answer to my friend. It’s not that I play better when I am drunk or stoned. But I do play better when I am relaxed, so long as I am not too relaxed. As do we all.