WARNING: PLAYING IN AN ORCHESTRA MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH!
[READER ALERT! YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A MINORITY OPINION ZONE.]
Here is the link to a very interesting article from Limelight Magazine about hearing loss among orchestral musicians. It is entitled, EARPLUGS ESSENTIAL FOR ORCHESTRAL MUSICIANS, STUDY FINDS.
The first sentence of the article gives you the gist: “A new study from the Netherlands has found that earplugs are essential for orchestral musicians, revealing that physical measures such as placing screens between sections or creating more space between players are largely ineffective.”
For decades, there has been a debate about decibel levels in classical music performances that has heated up in recent years. Some orchestral musicians have even sued their employers (and won, I believe) for hearing loss they have suffered. After all, as musicians the most precious tool we have are our ears, right?
All kinds of strategies have been employed to reduce the negative effects of loudness: two of the most common are placing Plexiglas shields in front of the brass and percussion sections, and putting the musicians on risers of various heights so that the sound goes over musicians’ heads rather than into them. Apparently, however, the study referred to above suggests the benefit of these strategies is minimal (and in some cases, unsightly as well). Apparently the major culprit is one’s own instrument, and that the only effective solution are industry strength earplugs.
Ear plugs for musicians have been around for a long time. These days, there are literally bucketfuls of little yellow spongy cylinders in the wings offstage, for musicians to grab as they prepare to do battle with Mahler, Strauss, and Stravinsky. Most musicians who use them keep them on the music stand until, at an auspicious moment before the dastardly decibels descend, stuff them in their ears, then remove them when the coast is clear, only to stuff them back in the next time the trumpets raise their bells. Many string players even write in their parts reminders when they will need to go through these calisthenics, so as not to be caught by surprise. For some musicians who are extra serious about their ears, these mass produced earplugs are nowhere near sufficient, and spend good money to get the best that aural engineering has devised. Chances are, they will have better hearing for a longer time than if they hadn’t worn them. But I always wonder what the audience thinks when they see musicians inserting earplugs during a concert. Could it be, “How can the musicians play well if they can’t hear what they’re playing?” Or, “Is it that ugly that they need earplugs? Maybe I won’t come next week.”
So here’s where my dissenting opinion comes in. I started playing in orchestras when I was eight years old. When I entered the profession full-time at the age of twenty-two I acknowledge and accepted the fact that playing about three hundred rehearsals and concerts every year for over thirty-five years (let alone the hours of daily practice above and beyond that in which my left ear is right next to my violin) would probably negatively impact my hearing. How could it not?
So why did I accept that? Is it because I’m a wimp? Because I’ve resigned myself to a world of silence in my dotage? Not at all! (And by the way, you’ll be happy to know my hearing is still pretty good for people my age, in and out of music.) For me the answer was simple. I accepted that because to play music right you need to be able to hear it. I don’t deny that there is some contemporary repertoire that is so over-the-top earsplitting that remediation is necessary. Here’s an article about a composition called State of Siege that called for machine gun fire, which was ultimately taken off the concert program. Those exceptions not withstanding, the few times I used earplugs (usually for Pops concerts featuring rock bands) I hated the quality of sound I was hearing. My violin sounded like a tin toy and the rest of the orchestra sounded as if it was two stations away on the 8th Avenue subway. What joy can there be for a musician to hear music like that?
There are moments in almost every great 19th century symphony when the brass section is called upon to soar above the rest of the orchestra. That moment of triumph, of victory, of ascendancy. Moments when it’s less important for the strings to be heard than seen playing with all the energy they can muster. I wish there was a musical term composers could have used for such moments: obliterando, or con tutte cojones.
I have no regrets having suffered what I consider minor consequences in order to have fully participated in the glory of a Mahler symphony. On the contrary, how many others can claim to have been so lucky for such a small sacrifice?