Performance Enhancing Drugs: Not Just Baseball

Musicians have long taken drugs to boost performance.

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For students, the lines between appropriate and inappropriate use of performance enhancing drugs is even less clear. Speed in the form of diet pills was common in past decades, and caffeine is ubiquitous on campus. But is it cheating for a student to take Ritalin before the SAT or the GRE? And, if beta blockers ease nerves so easily, should nervous surgeons be using them too?

Many students, even those with dubious symptoms, are prescribed the drugs legitimately. Should their scores carry an asterisk, like the Barry Bonds home run baseball headed for Cooperstown? If not, should every student be able to take the pills to compete on an equal playing field? "Attention, just like the capacity for stage fright or home run hitting ability, is a natural human attribute. Some people have it more than others," says Barbara White, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who found that nearly 17 percent of college students were taking ADHD medication in ways not prescribed by a doctor.

But do such drugs, in fact, enhance performance? That depends on the definition of enhancement. "It has become an artistic dilemma: Do you settle for less passion in your playing by taking a pill to take the edge off your nerves?" asks Barry Green, a former bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony and author of The Inner Game of Music. Green contends that musicians who don't suffer from clinically diagnosed anxiety are turning to the drugs to compensate for poor preparation as much as for frazzled nerves. And it comes with a cost. "Subtracting adrenalin from the equation," he says, "is going to make your music suffer." That might not be cheating in an audition, but it surely cheats the audience.