John Beder knows well the joys of being a musician, and he knows the sometimes debilitating fears.
A percussionist since childhood, Beder took part in youth orchestras and attended a performing arts high school, then continued his studies at Boston University.
And like many of his fellow musicians, Beder became accustomed to popping an occasional pill to calm his nerves at audition time. Beta blockers—commonly prescribed for the treatment of hypertension—have long been used by anxious musicians, though few dare to admit it. For many, it seems, use of the drug is viewed as a sign of weakness, or as a means of gaining an unfair advantage.
Intrigued by the murky subject, Beder pursued it for his first feature film, a new documentary called Composed. In it, dozens of classical musicians—many of them from major American orchestras—share their passion for music and their sometimes crippling fears of performing and auditioning. Among those interviewed are Oberlin Conservatory faculty members Peter Slowik (viola) and Robert Walters (oboe and English horn), who performs with The Cleveland Orchestra. Filmed over a nine-month period in 2015, Composed also includes the insight of mental-health professionals who help artists overcome their anxiety.
Released last month in New York, the film will be shown at Oberlin’s Apollo Theatre at 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 30. Presented by Oberlin Conservatory, the exclusive screening is free and open to the public. It will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Beder, Slowik, Oberlin Professor of Singing Salvatore Champagne, Associate Dean for Academic Support Chris Jenkins, and a representative from the Oberlin College Counseling Center.
“I was fascinated by the discussion surrounding beta blockers,” Beder says of his inspiration. “It started that way, and it started with the fascination with how I used them and talked about them with my percussion friends—but otherwise didn’t have open conversations about something that everybody seemingly was using.”
The project soon widened in scope to focus on the phenomenon of performance anxiety and the multitude of ways—healthy and otherwise—musicians cope with it, from alcohol to meditation, and from hypnosis to yoga.
“I made this film specifically for musicians, hoping that others who experience stress in their lives can find something to relate to and something that might help them in their own moment of high stress,” says Beder, 30, who made Composed with only the help of his wife and numerous friends who assisted with filming.
Early returns have been encouraging. At screenings in recent weeks, Beder has been touched by an outpouring of gratitude—even tears—from viewers, many of whom are shocked to learn that they are far from alone in their anxiety. (In fact, the film notes, 98 percent of musicians admit to feeling performance anxiety at some time or another.)
“Any musician who has spent any time preparing something for an audience knows that feeling of hoping that it will be received well,” Beder says. “At one point, I just hoped that someone—at least one person—would watch the movie and say that it was good. If that person was my mom, that would be enough.
“Then you keep adding on these hopes and dreams and expectations for it. Eventually, I hoped that someone would say, ‘Thank you. You’ve helped me in some way. You’ve shown me something that makes me feel better. That makes me a better person. That makes me feel empowered.’”
Learn more about Composed at composeddocumentary.com.