Alumni Spotlight: Carrie Schafer on Sobriety in the Performing Arts

Conservatory Alumna Carrie Schafer

“I think it’s important for musicians to talk about substance abuse because you never know who is struggling with dependence. It’s also important to realize that those who struggle the most might be the least obvious to find.”

There is no shortage of literature on the importance of the performing arts on the well-being of observers, but less attention is paid to the experience of the professional performers themselves. “As a performer, we are constantly seeking this external validation.” Carrie Schafer (Conservatory ’09) recently reflected, “How was this received? Does my teacher like it? How do I stack up?” The need for this kind of validation isn’t unique to performers, but it is inextricably built into the process of honing a skill to a level expected in professional orchestras and dance companies. “Yes, performing is stressful…but that doesn’t give us permission to escape all of it by harmful self-medication.”

For years, Carrie struggled with drinking alone to cope with the stress of high expectations. Even as her professional life began taking off with major orchestras, she found herself physically changed by her addiction. “I became physically dependent on alcohol. If I didn’t have it, I would sweat, tremble, [experience a] racing heartbeat. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was terrible.” She realized she had to open up about her struggles. Carrie has now proudly celebrated over 1,000 days of sobriety.

Recently, she’s turned her energy and attention to coaching other performers on combatting harmful habits with Whole Heart Wisdom. Her unique background in high-pressure arenas alongside other musicians allows her to speak clearly to the concerns of performers. “We are prone to addiction—performing under enormous amounts of pressure with many hours spent isolated in our practice. We’re all driven to perfection, which is a concept that doesn’t exist!”

Carrie takes an artist-first approach with her clients, which incorporates self-care to ensure sustainability within the field. For those worried about how sobriety might affect them as artists, she points out that managing dependencies not only benefitted her physically, but it also led to a new level of clarity in her professional work. “There is a self-confidence in sober creation…I think clearly in sobriety. I’m able to plan for the long term. I can hear the sound I want to make in my mind…I can pick up phrasing, inflection, and musical ideas much faster…It’s impossible to actually know yourself if you are frequently under the influence. Be yourself, put in the work, and let go of the result.”

In addition to starting her own coaching business during a pandemic, Carrie returned to the New World Symphony as a visiting faculty member for the Fellows’ wellness curriculum. “I think it’s important for musicians to talk about substance abuse because you never know who is struggling with dependence. It’s also important to realize that those who struggle the most might be the least obvious to find.”

As performance halls begin to open up and the social world flickers back to life, Carrie hopes to remind her fellow performers that they are capable of handling the anxiety while remaining sober. “Just remember; nobody cares if you choose sparkling water. No one.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to get help.

Whole Heart Wisdom
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24-hour hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)