While hearing loss is a real risk for classical musicians, the existing safeguards are clunky and undesirable
MAKING music is a hazardous business—ask any violist. Quarters are close and a brass section full-bore mid-Wagner can easily go decibel to decibel with a wall of Marshall amplifiers. No wonder then, that one in four classical musicians experience permanent hearing loss.
The noise problem isn’t new. Many of today’s orchestral instruments were designed to be heard over a distance outdoors, whether trumpets (military), horns (the hunt) or oboes (rowdy shepherds). They needed several decades of finishing school before being deemed well-mannered enough to join the band indoors in the 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, bores and bells were larger, the players were better and valves meant brass could play the full rainbow of keys and colours.
What’s different in the 21st century is what is done about it. Major orchestras supply all players with custom-fitted earplugs, make various types of acoustic shields available for players seated in front of particularly piercing instruments, arrange annual hearing tests and use decibel meters to check that noise levels comply with labour laws.
But musicians regularly remove their earplugs to better hear their colleagues. Some baulk at doing hearing tests for fear of losing their job, and many decline shields because they change sound or impede sightlines. Until last month, orchestras had not been held liable for injuries players sustained when declining to use protective equipment. This is changing.
In 2017 Chris Goldscheider, a former violist at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London, brought a suit against his employer, claiming that the permanent hearing damage he had suffered was directly caused by two rehearsals for Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in 2012. There is no reason to doubt Mr Goldscheider’s claim that the noise around him reached 137 decibels. Research by Sound Advice, a British working group advising the entertainment industry, found that solo trumpet playing averages around 98 decibels and peaks at 113, from three metres away. For reference, the pain threshold is 125 decibels and rock concerts peak at around 150. In an opera pit, space is tight, the roof is low and when a Wagner opera finally gets up to something, the whole street knows it.
The judge, Justice Nicola Davies, found for Mr Goldscheider on the grounds that the law made “no distinction…between a factory and an opera house”. In the main, the comparison fits. More than a few musicians long in the business would say they work on a greatest-hits production line. The road diverges when it comes to noise. As the ROH argued in its defence, “noise is not a by-product of [our] activities, it is the product.”
Perhaps thinking they would easily win, the defence relied heavily on its duty to maintain world-class standards. Musicians use the same argument to justify not wearing hearing protection. But that argument is nonsense: an ROH at 80% is still the ROH. Ms Davies dismissed the point as well, writing that the “wish to maintain the highest artistic standards and uphold its reputation…however laudable…cannot compromise the standard of care which the ROH as an employer has to protect the health and safety of its employees when at their workplace.” She argued that the ROH should have forced musicians to wear hearing protection and marked the area around the noise a Hearing Protection Zone.
It is difficult to know what other action should be taken. In modern factories, workers receive an immediate ticking-off from supervisors and colleagues when caught on the floor without the required protective equipment. If fit-for-purpose ear protection existed, orchestra management could do likewise. As it stands, hearing protection for orchestras is still a developing technology. Earplugs that block noise only when it becomes too loud do exist and are wonderful things for gun enthusiasts. Mrs Davies is of the opinion the ROH should have supplied in-ear monitors, like the ones used by pop singers. (This is a perplexing solution as would require recording equipment to be added to an already cramped space, and the live sound mixed especially for each desk. Mariah Carey, Adele and countless others know all too well the perils of inopportune system failure.) Aside from all that, brass and wind players often suffer from occlusion—a feeling similar to ears blocked with cold—while wearing earplugs because their instrument vibrates their skull.
What of the audience? From the stalls, total sonic immersion is the point. The combination of physics and feelings produced by a big orchestra is like little else. Orchestras can play more quietly and in many cases should, but hearing loss is a foreseeable and unavoidable hazard of a life in music. The full consequences of the court’s decision are still to come—the ROH may still appeal and damages have not yet been awarded. In the meantime, now might be a good time to invest in ear-tech stock.