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How to do hearing protection right

0 Robert Levine

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, 2019 here: reut.rs/1BNy4EZ).

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.


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