How to do hearing protection right

There’s always talk about hearing protection, but I’ve heard of remarkably little action by orchestras on the subject. So this came as welcome news:

 A program to protect Queensland Symphony Orchestra players in Australia from hearing loss is producing encouraging results, according to a new study.

Sophisticated analyses of sound dynamics in concert halls led to a variety of measures that may also help professional musicians elsewhere, and amateurs, to preserve their hearing, researchers say.

“Hearing loss amongst orchestral musicians is common – most players will know someone whose career has been affected by a hearing pathology of some sort,” said lead author Ian O’Brien of the School of Medical Sciences at The University of Sydney in Australia.

O’Brien is a clinical audiologist as well as a professional horn player with noise-induced hearing loss.

The risk of hearing loss varies by individual and instrument, O’Brien told Reuters Health by email. “A trumpet player has a much greater exposure than, say a double bass player,” he said.

One recent study found professional musicians’ risk for hearing damage is four times higher overall than that of nonmusicians (see Reuters Health article of May 9, 2014 here:

Awareness and education are the fundamental starting points in managing risk and mitigating exposure, O’Brien said, and there are many ways for individual musicians to reduce daily sound exposure with minimal impact on their music.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s hearing conservation program is one of the most comprehensive in Australia, the authors write.

Nine years ago, the orchestra started ongoing noise exposure monitoring, data reviews and plotting noise maps for concert halls and orchestra pits where the musicians played over a three-year period…

They investigated how the orchestra was laid out and whether or not using risers or acoustic screens would mitigate some of the noise exposure and the extent to which player seating could be rotated periodically….

They also supplied high-quality earplugs specifically designed for musicians, and the orchestra formed a “noise committee” with musicians and representatives to evaluate how the interventions were affecting musical performance.

For the new study, researchers analyzed the orchestra archives since 2005, used player and management focus groups and an interview with the program’s administrator to assess how effective the conservation program has been.

In the most recent poll, seven percent of the musicians said they always used earplugs, 55 percent reported using earplugs occasionally and 11 percent said they still never used them, according to the results in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene.

“Players who have not taken time to develop the skills necessary to adjust to the different experience of playing with earplugs (and who are not supplied with correctly fitting, high quality equipment) will inevitably reject such devices, which underscores the importance of ongoing training in hearing conservation for musicians,” O’Brien said.

Given the potential impact on artistic quality of musicians slowly losing their hearing, and what seems like relatively small implementation costs, this seems a no-brainer for most any professional orchestra. But it’s not the kind of thing that most managements will pursue on their own, given the competition for staff time amongst existing programs and needs. So it’s likely musicians who will need to ask managements to do things like this. Of course, it’s also a perfect program to be done cooperatively.


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.

Leave a Reply