Using Substances Is Bad For the Music
Some people may not want to hear this. It’s true, though. If you like to get buzzed or high when you play music, cool. To each their own. But it hurts your playing. God’s honest truth – doesn’t matter who you are.
I used to like to have a few beers, maybe puff a little bit before the gig. I was actually a daily smoker from high school into my mid to late twenties. And I used to think it made me play better. I sure thought I enjoyed it more. Until I started to know what it was like to consistently play stone-cold sober. What a great experience!
When I was 27 years old I became a complete teetotaler for six months. I even quit smoking cigarettes for that duration. Guess what happened? After a few weeks I was on fire. I think giving up the nicotine opened up my arteries to let more blood flow to my fingers, because my technique was at an all-time high. But it was more than that. I was relaxed, completely in touch with my true emotional self, and it seemed that all the blocks to self-expression had been removed. I was channeling music from my soul at the highest level I had ever reached. It was my first taste of what pure improvisation (the kind that requires no thinking whatsoever) felt like, and I realized this was why I play music.
Wanting to Feel This Again…and Again
A lot of musicians think that using substances makes them play better. This could be because they are chronic users, and they feel uncomfortable without using. Nobody wants to play music while they are uncomfortable. Or maybe they mistake the euphoria from the substance for an honestly created euphoria from playing music. Or maybe they just see all the screwed up famous musicians who play drunk or high and they assume it must make you better. Whatever the reason is, let’s not fool ourselves. When I stopped playing intoxicated at all, there were a couple times afterward that I chose to test the waters one last time on a gig. What I learned was that I could feel the effects of even one beer or one hit off a joint. The beer made me just a little duller, and made my fingers just a bit clumsier. It was frustrating. The weed made me make mistakes, plain and simple. I just wasn’t as much on my game as I was sober.
The best thing we can do for ourselves as musicians is get into the habit of never playing on substances of any kind. This means practicing sober too, not just performing sober. If you practice while high all the time you are going to feel out of your element when you go to do the gig unless you use before the gig too. The bottom line is that music is an art form. It is an expression of self, and a channel for which to portray emotions. If you are under the influence you simply can’t connect with yourself at the deepest level; it is impossible to portray one’s true self while in an altered state.
My best advice to musicians is take a period of a couple sober months to adjust and see what happens – it will probably be the greatest thing you ever did for yourself. I would tell this to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and any other legendary artist who struggled with addiction, and I would tell it to them without reservation. Just imagine what they could have achieved!
I don’t expect everyone to take my word for this. It’s just something that takes a certain level of musical maturity to realize.