Monday, December 14, 2009

Will playing in orchestra damage our hearing?

Emmerich, Edeltraut, Lars Rudel, and Frank Richter. “Is the audiologic status of professional musicians a reflection of the noise exposure in classical music?” European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology 265 (2008): 753-758.

The authors of this article wished to explore whether there is a link between hearing loss and exposure to the sounds produced in the orchestra by examining the hearing status of professional musicians at various stages in their careers. The subjects for the study were 109 professional musicians, ranging in age from 30-69, from three major German orchestras and 110 students of an academy of music, 11-19 years. Data was collected through various hearing tests and questionnaires completed by the subjects. The authors also tested noise emissions at the performance venues (pit, stage, and rehearsal rooms) during rehearsals and performances for both the entire orchestra and single instruments/groups of instruments. Very few of the subjects used hearing protection regularly and none of the musicians participated in noisy activities in their leisure time. The results demonstrated that over 50% of the musicians had noticeable hearing impairment, highest losses within the strings and brass. A musician’s location within the orchestra also had some effect on the amount of hearing loss. Hearing acuity declined the longer a musician had worked in an orchestra. The young musicians in training already showed evidence of hearing loss, with no loud hobbies in their leisure time. The authors of this article suggest that hearing protection is of great importance to professional musicians, that hearing function should be assessed on a regular basis, and that hearing loss in musicians should be acknowledged as an occupational disease.

Since I began playing in orchestras, I have often found myself wondering about this very topic: whether exposure to the sounds of the orchestra could be affecting my hearing. As a harpist, I have been placed in all sorts of different locations in various orchestras. Frequently I have been in close proximity to the piccolo, or beside the brass, I have even been in a very tiny pit right beside the percussionist’s drum set up (although they did kindly erect sound barriers). The article mentioned the fact that the sound peaks were particularly high in front of the piccolos; this could be a little concerning for neighbouring instrumentalists.

The first time I saw a fellow harpist pack up her harp for a rehearsal and put a pair of ear plugs into her gig bag I was quite mystified. I had never before considered the fact that exposure to the sound created within the orchestra could actually be detrimental to my hearing. I now have a pair of ear plugs that live permanently in my gig bag and come to every event. I must say that I have rarely used them, but am ready when necessary.

This topic also brings up for me the question of whether my instrument itself could cause damage to my hearing. When most people think of the harp, they imagine very gentle quiet sounds, but often orchestral works involve the high pitched shrill strings being played very loudly (to cut across the sound of the orchestra) and of course, all these sounds are being created specifically at the right side of my body. I would be curious to discover whether harpists after a long and successful career demonstrate any right side hearing loss.

The authors of this article state that “the sound in classical orchestral music is louder than noise emissions allowed by national rules in industry”. They are of course talking of German law; I would be very interested to know how the levels of allowable noise emissions in industry compare around the world.

I actually came across quite a few articles on the topic of hearing loss in orchestral musicians; it has clearly been explored in some depth. From reading different studies, it is obvious that playing in an orchestra carries some risk of decline in hearing acuity. However, there is nothing more satisfying than the experience of contributing to the orchestral texture of a beautiful piece of music. Wearing adequate hearing protection when warranted, having rest periods with no noise between rehearsals and performances, and increasing the education that we receive about this issue seem to be some of our best options for reducing our risk of this condition.


Natasha Rollings said...

This is a subject which I have been aware of for quite some time. Growing up as a violinist, my private teacher was a violinist in a professional orchestra. As an amateur orchestral player myself, my teacher often spoke to me about good rehearsal technique; stretching your arms when possible, sitting with good posture, taking breaks when necessary (if allowed!) She also spoke to me about hearing loss. She had been a violinist in orchestras for over thirty years, and her hearing she said had greatly deteriorated. She consistently wears ear plugs to rehearsals and concerts.

The first time I noticed this to directly affect me was in my first year as an undergraduate student. The UTSO was playing Shostakovich 11 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I remember leaving the rehearsals with my ears ringing. It's a problem that we as musicians must be aware of, and take necessary precautions. Murray Shaffer comments on our constant sound pollution (not that orchestral playing is sound pollution!) and that we are causing serious damage to ourselves. It is so important that we are aware, and we respect our bodies.

Brian Graiser said...

On one hand, this should seem embarrassingly obvious to anyone who's played Mahler (particularly those of us who, rather exuberantly, played the tam-tam part)! However, I think this reveals an underlying issue in not just music rehearsals, but MANY aspects of our day-to-day lives. Whenever I step into a large cafeteria or hopping center, I'm immediately struck by how NOISY it is. Yet, within minutes I've completely forgotten about the noise floor, and I pay it no heed. In particular, I noticed this when preparing for my final undergraduate recital; one of my pieces ended with a loud, bombastic timpani and gong solo, and another piece began with a soft marimba chorale. Naturally, I quickly learned NOT to follow the timpani piece with the marimba piece; when I DID make this mistake, I had a hard time figuring ot why the marimba piece felt so much more difficult...until I realized that I was playing MUCH louder and harder than usual, in order to accomodate my ears!