Ear Defence

John Robert Brown

Last year, James Levine gave two Proms concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as the culmination of their debut European tour. For Berlioz's Damnation of Faust there were more than 100 in the choir. At the evocation of Walpurgisnacht the choir shrieks out unexpectedly. Ruth Hansford, of the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), was there.

"I watched as everyone in the back desks of the orchestra stuck ear protection in, a few bars before the witches' shrieks," she says. "Then they promptly took them out again and carried on. Being an American Orchestra you can imagine that Health and Safety is very high on their agenda."

Now, excessive noise is high on the UK health agenda. A study by the Royal National Institution for Deaf People (RNID) has found that 90% of young people who had spent the night at a club, gig or bar showed evidence of the first symptoms of damage - these being dull or fuzzy hearing, tinnitus or hyperacusis (over sensitivity to certain sounds). The BAPAM now has a fact sheet, Don't Loose the Music, on their website.

"We tried to make it a mixture. People who work with amplified music are really at risk," says Hansford. "Whereas among orchestral musicians, it tends to be musicians who work in a pit who suffer most. They claim that a Wagnerian soprano singing a top C can reach 120 decibels. There's a lot of work going on at the Opera House at the moment. They have a data base with volume levels, quietest to the loudest, of the repertoire that was in the autumn season at the Opera House. They didn't do the Ring, but Nutcracker was definitely the loudest. As a result, players sit next to the trombones one week, and then have a quiet time next week."

The BAPAM offers practical help. "We don't have measuring equipment here, but we have a relationship with the Harley Street Audiology Clinic, which has a deal with the Musicians' Union. Members can have a test at a fraction of the normal cost." The consensus is that earplugs are a last resort; piping down is preferable.

Jay Allan, Orchestra and Concerts Director of Scottish Opera, says that the company has been monitoring the orchestra for some time. "At every rehearsal, every performance, we have five noise dosimeters strategically placed on members of the orchestra on a rotational basis, so that we can get a weekly view of exposures," he says. "Recently, every member of the orchestra has attended a hearing specialist, has had their hearing tested, and has had moulds taken for possible earplugs for the future. We are continuing to look at ways to reduce the noise levels, working in conjunction with Arup Acoustics."

The company has tried to put sound baffles into the orchestra pit in different positions, playing fairly large and loud works, and seeing what the effect is. "We now have collated a picture of all of that, says Allan. "Prior to the April legislation coming in we are arranging a meeting of all the orchestra to disseminate all the information. We are also going to have a number of speakers from the Health and Safety Executive, the hearing centre which undertook the tests which we commissioned, and another group of individuals, who will then do a question-and-answer series after the general presentation.

"We work in conjunction with Glasgow Caledonian University. Some eight or nine years ago we started with screens, seeing the effect that perspex screens had on players. The University developed a number of prototype screens for us to try. The introduction of the noise dosimeters has been as a result of the new legislation."

Allan reveals that no-one has been referred to a specialist as a result of the tests. "That's very fortunate," he says. "We tried to create as much space as possible in the playing area, so that people are not cheek-by-jowl. We've been told - both by acousticians and by the hearing people - that the most important thing is to have that space.

"Shortly we are to start looking at re-arranging the layout of the orchestra, so that those people who might always be next to the brass, and heavy impacts of sound, are not necessarily exposed to them on a continual basis. We rotate not merely the players but the physical sections of the orchestra. That's something that we will be doing in the next few weeks and months."

There seems to be a general move towards such improvement of playing conditions. It comes as no surprise to learn that the better-funded organisations are more advanced. The Royal Opera House leads the way partly because they have the money to do this.

"Within Scotland we are quite far down the line," admits Allan. "I believe that this week the BBC Scottish have been trying out earplugs. If we get to the situation where we can't reduce the exposure to noise level of our players, we will then instigate a programme of having the earplugs made, and then introducing them slowly, but on a constructive rehearsal schedule basis, so that we actually rehearse a number of works over a period of time, to introduce the players into being able to use them. We want to explore every other possibility, because we know that for the players, having an earplug makes life very difficult, if not impossible."

BAPAM fact sheet:

First published in Classical Music magazine, 26th April, 2008. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.

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