Put things in your ears you should

… at least according to the BBC:

The BBC has published a report warning the musicians in its five orchestras that they are at risk from damaging their hearing. The 48-pageĀ report, written by the BBC’s safety manager, includes a number of recommendations for players who want to protect themselves against noise while rehearsing or performing.

Using earplugs and sitting further apart are two of the suggestions. Players are also told to consider chewing gum to avoid a clenched jaw, which can exacerbate symptoms of tinnitus, although the report concedes that chewing gum ‘may not be appropriate on stage’.

Violinists and violists are specifically told that they need to be protected from the piccolo and the brass, and cellists and bassists also need protection if they sit too close to the trumpets.

The report also looks beyond hearing damage to other risks associated with playing in an orchestra, such as higher stress levels. ‘The sound of your colleagues’ instruments may well contribute to increased stress levels,’ it says, adding that ‘the adrenaline rush you thrive on in performance can turn under certain circumstances to unhealthy stress that is associated with raised blood pressure, compromised immunity and changes to metabolism’.

No word on the relative effectiveness of these recommendations versus chewing ear plugs and putting gum in one’s ears…

Joking aside, I take this issue far more seriously than I did when I first started full-time in a big orchestra (most of my career prior to the age of 35 was spent in a chamber orchestra and a quartet). As a consequence, my hearing does not seem to be getting worse, although I believe there was some deterioration in my first few years here, due to 1) being closer to the winds than I am now; and 2) never wearing plugs. I find now that I can wear a plug in the right ear and get most of the benefits, although that’s largely because I sit in the front circle and at least a 45-degree angle offset from facing directly forward.

There are rare occasions when I sit in the back (usually due to being unable to do a complete run of a concert series; it works better for everyone if the assistant principal sits 1st chair in that situation). I’m always shocked by just how much louder it is in the back of the section.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • There’s such a culture to it, too. Many brass and percussion players scoff at the wimpy string players who can’t take the heat–even if they themselves are wearing earplugs. Then there are the people who wear them in both ears ALL the time, which can’t be good for ensemble! The ones who really amaze me are the people who wear them in both ears not because of the volume of the brass/percussion, but because of someone near them who doesn’t sound so hot.

    I personally don’t feel like I play as well when I have even one earplug in, but of course it’s different for everyone. I suppose I’m making some kind of silent statement in the fact I only wear them for pops concerts…

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