October 1, 2011

Psychtember Interview: Jessica Martinez

I'm pleased to welcome Jessica Martinez, author of Virtuosity, to the blog today for a Psychtember interview!

A bit about the book:

"Now is not the time for Carmen to fall in love. And Jeremy is hands-down the wrong guy for her to fall for. He is infuriating, arrogant, and the only person who can stand in the way of Carmen getting the one thing she wants most: to win the prestigious Guarneri competition. Carmen's whole life is violin, and until she met Jeremy, her whole focus was winning. But what if Jeremy isn't just hot...what if Jeremy is better

Carmen knows that kissing Jeremy can't end well, but she just can't stay away. Nobody else understands her--and riles her up--like he does. Still, she can't trust him with her biggest secret: She is so desperate to win she takes anti-anxiety drugs to perform, and what started as an easy fix has become a hungry addiction. Carmen is sick of not feeling anything on stage and even more sick of always doing what she’s told, doing what's expected. 

Sometimes, being on top just means you have a long way to fall...." (from Goodreads)

And a bit about Jessica (from her website):
I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. As a child I  played the violin, read books and climbed trees incessantly. I went on to study English and music at Brigham Young University, and since then have been a high school English teacher, symphony violinist, elementary school teacher, violin teacher, and mother. I currently live in Orlando, Florida with my husband and two children.

And now the questions...

1.) I understand you studied violin when you were younger. Did you, like Carmen, struggle with performance anxiety? How did you deal with it?

I did struggle with performance anxiety, but not to the extent that Carmen does.  I think it’s something all musicians deal with on some level. 

As a child, I found performing to be stressful but manageable.  I definitely got nervous, but I had been doing it since I was so young that it wasn’t something I had to think too much about. 

But then when I was about twelve or thirteen I became aware of myself on stage in a completely new way.  I suddenly felt so judged and vulnerable up there.  And not only was everything about me was under intense scrutiny, but the stakes were getting higher and higher at the same time.  I’d practice a piece for a year, but it could be all be ruined in one careless second, with one tiny mistake.  That pressure had a huge effect on my playing.  Things that had been completely natural before fell apart, and I had a few horrific performing experiences.  Really horrific.  Twenty years later, I’m still cringing.  Yes, that horrific. 

In the end, I just had to work through it by doing more of it.  I can’t sugar coat the process.  It was painful, embarrassing, and sometimes heart-breaking, but I had to keep getting up and trying again.  Neither my teacher nor my parents would have suggested beta-blockers, so that was never an option that I explored.  Eventually I did learn (or re-learn) how to perform.

2.) The anti-anxiety drug (Inderal) that Carmen takes is a beta-blocker, which is not physically addictive. Yet the psychological addiction that Carmen develops is still very potent and troubling. In your opinion, what are some of the misconceptions surrounding a drug that is only psychologically addictive? 

The main misconception would be that she could just stop without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  But Carmen is taking Inderal to mask severe performance anxiety, so when she stops, all that anxiety is still waiting for her.  It’s made worse by the very real withdrawal symptoms of her psychological addiction.  She thinks she needs it, therefore her body needs it.

I should clarify that Carmen’s experience with the drug is extreme.  Many musicians use it occasionally without feeling like they need more—in fact they are in the majority.  However, I personally know musicians who experienced what Carmen did.

3.) Carmen feels ashamed about her use of Inderal and keeps it a secret from several people, including Jeremy. Is this a typical reaction for performance musicians taking anti-anxiety drugs? Or is the use of these drugs so common in the industry that there isn't a lot of stigma attached to it?

This is such a great question, but a tough one to answer. 

Some musicians are vocal and unapologetic about their use of beta-blockers.  In my research for VIRTUOSITY I came across an article written by a professional musician who plays in one of the best symphonies in the country.  He defended his use of beta blockers, arguing that they didn’t make him play better than he otherwise could, but that they just calmed him so he could produce his best work.  There are plenty of musicians who take this view.

But in my own personal experience, musicians are more secretive about it.  When I was Carmen’s age I was aware of at least one of my friends being offered beta blockers by her teacher, and I knew of adults who took them regularly.   It wasn’t talked about openly though, and for that reason it’s hard to say how widespread it was amongst my peers and colleagues.  I read one article that suggested as many as 40% of musicians in professional symphonies have at least tried beta blockers.  That statistic seems high to me, but since it’s something most people aren’t shouting from the rooftops, it may very well be accurate. 

I’m one of those who believe learning to perform is part of the art.  It sucks, I know.  There are few things worse than being truly terrified on stage, but I think conquering that nervousness separates musicians from true virtuosos.  That said, I understand the pressure that leads people to take beta-blockers.  There are many shades of grey with this issue, and I think it’s much more complex than steroid use in sports.

4.) What advice would you give to a musician facing performance anxiety?

Don’t give up.  That sounds corny, but I have heard “I just can’t perform.  I get sooooo nervous,”  from a lot of people.  And then they go into a long list of how horrific it feels when they have to get up in front of an audience. 

The truth is everybody deals with nerves, and it never entirely goes away.  It shouldn’t, actually.  The right amount of nervousness gives you adrenalin to get through a performance.  But I think many people underestimate their brain’s ability to learn from each performance, even the ones where it felt like the nerves won.  So my advice is to keep at it.  It isn’t painless for anyone, but the performers who succeed are the ones who are willing to push through.

Some other advice: pre-performance routines are good.  It’s comforting to eat the same food, or do the same type of warm up, especially if it worked well for you the last time.  How superstitious you want to get is up to you.  My sister may have actually had lucky underwear that she wore for piano competitions for YEARS.  Eventually, my Mom had to chuck them because they were full of holes and too tight.  On a more sane level, a lot of people meditate or visualize the performance from beginning to end too.  That might be better than lucky underwear.

5.) Have you ever been forced to choose between music and a relationship? What did you do?

I haven’t.  I’m lucky enough to be married to a non-musician who understands that my love for music is central to who I am.  He knows that it’s the same way with writing too.  That’s a good test for men actually—a good man will love the things that fulfill you.  If you’ve got a man that’s jealous of the other things that make you happy, that’s not a good sign.

If I did have to choose (assuming he wasn’t the one making me do the choosing, because that would make him a loser) I’d pick whichever I thought would make me most happy.  That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of happiness as the goal.  It took me decades to learn this, but music isn’t actually happiness.  WHO KNEW?  It’s just a vehicle.  If it’s making me happy, then it’s a good one, but it’s not the only means to happiness in my life either.  I think the same can probably be said for relationships too.  Obviously, I’m not suggesting people and passions be discarded when things get tough.  I just think it’s good to stop and evaluate how happy the things in our life are making us.

Thanks very much for taking the time to give these excellent answers to my questions, Jessica!


  1. I was a musician for over half my life and I can identify with performance anxiety. I can't imagine how mind numbing it can be if you have to take drugs for it. That's scary. This book is going on my TBR shelf for sure. Thanks for this interview it was interesting and gave me a perspective on something I never thought of before.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful interview! There were some great questions asked and some well-thought about answers too. I'm not a musician or anything, so hearing about what seems to be a darker side to the industry has really intrigued me. I'm looking forward to reading Virtuosity to see what will happen to Carmen as she struggles with her anxiety.

  3. I loved 'Virtuosity' so it's very cool to read these responses. The difference between physically and psychologically addicting is incredibly interesting, and I really like that last answer as well. =)


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