Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding

The refined world of classical music and the murky depths of addiction are not typically mentioned together. But now a new documentary brings together addicts to face their biggest fears and play, not only together as an orchestra, but on stage for a special performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The documentary was the brainchild of the composer and musician – and recovered alcoholic – James McConnel, whose son Freddy, a talented singer-songwriter, died of a heroin overdose aged 18 in 2011. McConnel tracked down 10 classical musicians, many of whom had long since abandoned their once promising careers in music, and packed up their instruments, banishing them to the cupboard or attic. The irony is that while for many, music is cathartic and helps at times of difficulty, for others performing becomes panic-inducing.

One of these 10 musicians is Rachael Lander, an award-winning cellist who started playing at eight, became a junior at the Royal Northern  College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester aged 14 and whose career launched with a four-year stint in the National Youth Orchestra. As a member of its 18-player cello section, she played annual performances at the BBC Proms with world-class conductors including Simon Rattle. It was expected that a career as a professional orchestral musician would follow, in the footsteps of her parents (her father is a contrabassoonist in a philharmonic orchestra and her mother performs in musicals in the West End), but while she was studying at the RNCM, performance anxiety struck.

“I remember having my first on-stage panic attack during an NYO concert at the Albert Hall”, the 30-year-old recalls when we meet at a London café. “It was the Queen Mother’s centenary prom, a string snapped in the middle of the concert and I had to string it back up, and by the time I had done it I was so nervous,  shaking, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh God I hope I’m not dying’, because I didn’t know what was going on. After that I started to dread every performance.” She tried talking to friends, but her fears were dismissed as the everyday practical anxieties – over playing wrong notes or missing cues – that tend to plague musicians.

“I was afraid that if people knew how bad it was they’d think I was nuts. It was more like – can I sit on the stage without having a heart attack? I was ashamed of it and I spoke to my parents. They said, ‘Everyone goes through it, you’ll get through it’, but I don’t think they realised how bad it was.”

Then she found a solution to the panic. Alcohol. During her earlier days at college, drinking was for Lander, as for many other students, a way to relax. At first she started taking beta-blockers and enjoying the odd drink before concerts to curb her anxiety, but the drinking escalated after a panic attack during a concert at college. “I was leading the cello section, and the panic was so bad my hands seized up and black spots were scudding before my eyes, I thought, ‘I’m going to faint or scream on stage’, so I just walked off. It was so humiliating and I thought ‘It’s never going to happen again.’ So the next night I drank at the concert and I was fine, so I thought, ‘this is how I’m going to get through it’ and then of course it takes more and more to get that feeling. Then I’d have a drink before a rehearsal, on the way to rehearsals, until I was drinking to get out of bed.” She would sneak vodka into water bottles to drink on stage. “It just seemed like a brilliant solution at the time. I didn’t realise that it was going to get so ugly so quickly.”

The professional engagements were rolling in, but at 22, during her final year at college, Lander decided to put music behind her for good. “I couldn’t even be in a Tube station where they played classical music, and when I’d see people with cellos, the grief was really bad because I thought I’d never do that again. It was heart breaking.” In place of music, she became a waitress and took up temp roles, dispensing parking permits for the council. “I thought, ‘If I put the cello away I won’t be this frightened and I won’t have to drink’, so that’s what I did, I became a waitress, and unfortunately the panic was still the same. Nothing had changed.”

Thankfully, Lander’s addiction was relatively short, lasting four years. She’s now married to Rob, an internet consultant and analyst, whom she met at rehab. The couple live in south London and are expecting their first child.

The Addicts Orchestra The Addicts Orchestra  

It was her best friend Kirsty who persuaded Lander to return to her musical roots. The violinist suggested forming a string quartet, RaVen, an antidote to the formal, structured orchestral role that Lander had come to associate with fear. For years now she has been an in-demand session cellist in the rock and pop world, performing for the likes of Elbow, Ellie Goulding and Robbie Williams. She performed on Alt-J’s Mercury-winning debut album An Awesome Wave, and most recently she has been on tour with the Ivor Novello-winning band of the moment London Grammar, and will be joining them at Festival No 6 next month.

In some ways, you could say that of all the musicians that bravely take part in this gripping and worthwhile documentary, Lander, as the only professional performer, has the most at stake. This was a fact brought home during the making of the documentary when the Addicts Orchestra joined forces with the LSO, and Lander faced the awkward situation of explaining to musicians with whom she’d studied that she was on the other side, with the addicts. But she feels it was important to take part.

“The nicest thing was to connect with people who were willing to talk about that stuff,” she reflects. “One of the reasons I did this is because I know I’m not the only one struggling with it and I’m hoping that people will maybe get some kind of courage to talk about it.”  µ

‘Addicts’ Symphony’ is on tonight at 11pm on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before