Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Classical Music

Danger: music zone

The decibel assault on performers' ears isn't relegated to rock shows; the classical ranks are dealing with it too.

August 29, 2004|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

For violinist Matthew Faust, things finally got so bad that playing in big orchestral works felt like being in a war zone. Even his "full metal jacket" -- custom-molded earplugs with maximum filters -- wasn't enough to protect him.

"I needed a crash helmet," he says.

To Seth Mausner, a violist with the San Francisco Symphony, the experience can feel like "being assaulted."

Marcia Dickstein, a harpist who often performs with Los Angeles Opera and the Long Beach Symphony, likens it to "somebody driving nails through your head."

At symphony concerts, audiences may thrill to a piece played at maximum volume. But if you're a musician sitting with your back to the brass section, the sensation can be overwhelming.

An often-cited study by Canadian audiologist Marshall Chasin measured hearing loss among rock musicians and found that about 30% were afflicted in some way. Among their classical music counterparts, the figure was 43%. Yet while noise-induced hearing impairment is a well-known issue in the rock world, long highlighted in educational campaigns featuring the Who's Pete Townshend and rapper Missy Elliott, the discomfort from loudness suffered by classical musicians is generally kept hush-hush.

"Classical musicians do suffer from hearing loss related to the volume of sound onstage," says Steven Braunstein, a bassoonist with the San Francisco Symphony. "It's a real problem for many people," especially if "you have four trumpets and four trombones right behind your head. It gets very, very loud."

Measured in decibels, in fact, symphonic sound can soar up to 110, equivalent to the sound of a jackhammer or power saw.

Last year, the European Union set a maximum limit of 85 decibels for the workplace, including concert halls, in a directive that generated derision but also debate.

"All orchestral music in this country is facing what can only be described as a quiet revolution," Martin Kettle wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper, describing possible changes to the repertory itself. "Loud works like Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler may have to be scheduled more rarely and surrounded by quieter pieces."

In the United States, where symphony halls are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (allowing a 90-decibel level over an eight-hour day in any workplace), nobody is suggesting scrapping Mahler. But to guard against debilitating decibels, an increasing number of orchestras are experimenting with unorthodox seating arrangements, motorcycle windshields and firing-range earplugs.

"What's important to understand," says Craig Kasper, an audiologist in New York, is that "it doesn't make a difference if it's classical music, rock or a jackhammer. Hearing loss depends on how loud, how intense and how long the individual is exposed to it."

The crescendo effect

As music moved from 18th century private salons to 20th century concert halls, small chamber ensembles -- often a group of string and woodwind players -- grew into symphony orchestras with large brass and percussion sections.

"Composers want more people onstage, more sound, and the instruments become super-charged," says UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, describing this evolution. "What happens between Mozart and Mahler is the industrialization of the orchestra. Orchestras become analogous to factories where sound is produced. You punch in, you punch out. And at the same time, the instruments are getting more efficient."

As brass instruments in particular became bigger, the orchestra's sound increased. At the same time, so did audience expectations.

The result is that music "has gotten more exclamation points," says Florence Nelson, a piccolo player and secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Musicians. "People want that today. They want that loud sound."

Onstage, though, rapture sometimes gives way to misery.

"There's a kind of loud where everything starts vibrating, and it's thrilling, right on the edge of being painful," says harpist Dickstein. "Then there are the times when I'm right in front of the timpani, and I start to cry, my eyes start to water, and I have to put my head between my knees to plug in the earplugs."

In a survey of more than 400 musicians, Allison Wright Reid, a British health and safety expert, found that close to 80% had experienced pain because of loud noise, and about a third of them complained that their hearing had become duller.

"You don't go stone deaf," says Reid, who wrote "A Sound Ear," a report sponsored by the Assn. of British Orchestras. Rather, musicians may lose their perfect pitch, or experience increasingly inaccurate and unreliable hearing with "all sorts of extra noise thrown in," she says. "It's like driving a very old car: You don't know if it's going to get you there, and it constantly worries you because [of the] noise."

In other industries, people can learn to depend on visual aids, she says. "But you can't lip-read a piccolo."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|