If you're an orchestral musician you could be at serious risk of long-term hearing damage. Janet Horvath looks at some simple and effective solutions
Symphony orchestras are loud - very loud, in fact. Flutes easily reach 112dB and piccolos can enter the damaging range with noise levels of up to 120dB. Trumpets and trombones make as much noise as flutes, and horns can hit 106dB. A violinist's left ear is particularly vulnerable, since the sound from the f-hole can reach 100dB.
So how can we protect our ears?
Practise more quietly: it's important to practise and rehearse at softer dynamics. Save high volumes for the concert and avoid practising in small rooms with hard surfaces - the smaller the room, the greater the risk. We all sound fabulous in tiled bathrooms, but playing in such spaces can be harmful to our hearing.
Distance yourself: whenever possible, increase the space between yourself and the noise. On stage this means staying away from the percussion, brass and piccolo. When distancing is impossible, use hearing protection.
Use plexiglass shields: some orchestras have hearing protection clauses in their contracts and many provide plexiglass shields. To provide any benefit the screen must be placed a few inches from your head. If they are placed too close to the brass or percussion, their own sounds tend to be reflected back to them, making it difficult for them to judge their volume and projection. Experiment until everyone is satisfied. Shields are effective at reducing the impact or attack of loud sounds, but they offer limited protection because they cannot reduce the absolute volume of the orchestra. If you feel that you are at risk, use additional protection.
Use ear plugs: keep the small EAR foam plugs or the ER-20 off-the-shell reusable plugs in your case, pocket, bag or locker. These are inexpensive and effective, and can reduce the noise levels by 20dB when inserted correctly. Unfortunately, these plugs can cause pronounced occlusion effects - making your own swallowing, tonguing and speech seem too loud - and this can interfere with performing.
Etymotic Research ER-15 & ER-25 Musicians Earplugs are designed specifically for musicians and reduce the noise levels by 15dB and 25dB respectively. Since they are deep-fitted earplugs there is also less occlusion, but they must be custom-fitted by an audiologist.
Minimise your exposure: be vigilant about your exposure to noise, both on and off the job. Be vocal about your discomfort and insist on amplifiers being turned down or redirected; also insist on a shield and plugs. Away from the job, avoid loud music and be aware of your exposure to environmental noise. Wear ear protection when you operate your snow blower, leaf blower, lawnmower, chainsaw or drill. Think 'moderation'. If you attend or perform in a loud concert on Friday, don't mow your lawn until Sunday. Allow yourself auditory rest periods of 16-18 hours whenever possible and carry plugs around with you.
Avoid air travel when you are congested with a cold or have a sinus or ear infection, otherwise serious damage can occur. When travel is unavoidable, use a nose spray when you put your seatbelt on and, if the flight is four hours or longer, once again, prior to the descent. But remember, no performance is worth the risk of damaging your hearing.
Alternate your repertoire: whenever possible, practise by alternating noisy pieces with quieter ones. Different repertoire places different demands on the body as well. This protects you from overusing one particular muscle group, as well as your ears.
Experiment with platforms: try putting the brass on platforms so their sound goes over the heads of the other orchestral musicians.
Avoid overhangs: it is helpful to avoid placing violins under an overhang which may muffle their sound, as the higher frequency sounds are easily absorbed by acoustically treated surfaces. This reduction of the high frequencies may cause the violinists to play louder in order to hear themselves better, not only increasing their dose of sound, but also putting them at risk of an overuse injury.
Hum: humming immediately before and during a loud sound like a cymbal crash will offer significant protection. Chasin says this is due to the stapedial muscle in the middle ear which, when contracted during the hum, partially blocks loud sounds from getting through to cause damage.
This feature was first published as part of a larger article in The Strad's December 2003 issue.