Can music heal recovering addicts?

Music outreach programmes for children and the elderly are commonplace. But what about projects for the more vulnerable in society? James McConnel tells Clare Wiley why he created an orchestra of addicts

The scene was much the same as at any other classical concert: a group of musicians, deep in concentration, coming together on stage to bring a piece of music to life. But the orchestra that featured in Addicts’ Symphony, a documentary that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 this summer, was made up of classical musicians whose lives had been blighted by drugs and alcohol.

The piece of music they played wasn’t Mozart or Beethoven, but Rhapsody for the Tamed, a dark and painful original composition inspired by the players’ personal experiences of addiction.

The moving concert, played alongside members of the London Symphony Orchestra, was the culmination of eight difficult rehearsal weeks under LSO workshop leader and composer Paul Rissman, supported by violinist Bindi McFarlane and double bass player Matthew Gibson. The final performance proved to be an intense moment of catharsis for the recovering addicts, and a powerful reminder of the ability of music to heal.

Read: Injured musicians – why suffer in silence?

The man responsible for bringing these players together was musician and composer James McConnel, himself a recovering alcoholic. ‘It took about a year and a half to go from the idea to the acceptance of the idea,’ he says. ‘The main problem was finding our participants, finding our addicts.’

McConnel and the production team, Big Mountain Productions, turned to social networks to spread the word. He also used charitable organisations like Action on Addiction, as well as treatment centres, to find musicians – amateur or otherwise – who were recovering from addiction and who might be interested in forming an orchestra. It was an unusual request, and it posed obvious problems for potential participants.

James McConnel
James McConnel

‘It’s quite a big deal to go on TV and say: ‘this is who I am, I’m a classical musician, and this is my problem.’ It is a sort of risk, their friends and neighbours knowing about [their addiction], and it could have an effect on their career. It was quite a brave thing for them to do.’

Nevertheless, McConnel says, the team got a good response. ‘We found about 30 or 40 people, and whittled that down to 10. We had to make sure that they were the right people, that they were absolutely committed, and that they would remain sober. They had to be completely 100 per cent honest with us.’

In terms of the documentary process, McConnel and the producers laid out very clear and open preconditions for participants. The players had to remain dry throughout production, and in return would receive care and support before, during and after filming. ‘They were always looked after, and they were always told the exact truth,’ he says. ‘Casting was a very involved process, and I think we chose very well in the end.’

Among those featured in Addicts’ Symphony was Rachel, a former National Youth Orchestra cellist who tackled her panic attacks with vodka and prescription drugs, and Marco, a violinist in his youth who later turned to drink to combat stage jitters.

Orchestra members Marco and Joolz
Orchestra members Marco and Joolz

McConnel specifically wanted to include musicians who had been affected by the stress of the classical music industry, and the pressure of that particular profession. ‘To be a rock star these days, you practically have to go into rehab before you’re accepted into the rock world,’ he says. ‘It’s very different in the classical world, where you know that the pressure is equally enormous – but you cannot be seen to be weak. Classical music is a very exacting art form; if you’re playing in an orchestra, you have to get it spot on. Anything that’s perceived as a weakness could endanger your career and professional life.’

‘The other thing I wanted to bring out was the fact that addiction is not confined to rock stars,’ he continues. ‘It’s everywhere. It’s in every strata of society. And I just thought that classical music was a very good way of demonstrating that.’

McConnel suspects that addiction is a more prevalent issue for classical musicians than many people realise, but stops short of calling it widespread. ‘I think orchestral musicians and people within the industry probably know what goes on. But of course addiction is a very secretive condition, so people will always do it on the sly. But I think it’s a lot wider than assumed. I’ve met orchestral musicians who have kept [their addiction] a secret despite being full-blown alcoholics. One or two have lost their jobs. It’s hugely pressured.’

What’s noticeable when watching the documentary is the extent to which, for many of the participants, the stress and anxiety associated with playing music in public is what drove them to drink or drugs in the first place – and yet now, that very process of making music and performing with others is crucial to their recovery.

Addicts Symphony in rehearsal
Addicts Symphony in rehearsal

‘In a way, that’s a paradox,’ says McConnel, ‘in the sense that the pressure of music is what causes the addiction in the first place. I think addiction boils down to self-esteem – or a lack of self-esteem – and feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, so you find some way of medicating. I’m sure there are musicians out there who will have a little pill or a little drink just to get them on stage, and then don’t go any further than that.’

‘But for some people, what happens is that the little cure becomes the curse,’ he continues. ‘Once the curse, the addiction, kicks in, then you’re in the grip of some- thing over which you have no control. And I think that once you’ve made the decision to quit, once you’ve reached rock bottom, that’s the point at which playing music can help. In Addicts’ Symphony we had a bunch of people playing together and boosting their own self-esteem together, in order to rejoin the human race, in a sense. And that was done through music.’

It’s certainly evident from watching the show that these people’s lives have been profoundly changed for the better. Does McConnel feel that the idea could be developed into a longer-term project? ‘This is something I’m investigating at the moment,’ he says. ‘Nothing’s firm yet, but I do think it’s possible. It doesn’t even have to be music related: it could be painting, or anything that allows you to bring a group of people together, doing things where they can be honest with each other.’