Cannon Fodder

May 27, 2009 at 03:10 AM ·

My orchestra is playing the 1812 overture in a POPS concert in a few weeks.  This is my first time playing it.  It's harder than I would have expected, even in the shorter arrangement we are using.

The first thing my teacher said, when I brought the music to my lesson, was "wear earplugs."  She should know; she's been playing this piece every year with the Boston Pops since 1977.  She also mentioned a time when they were playing somewhere outdoors, on a lovely estate, and the cannons were pointed right towards the orchestra.  "I thought Seiji Ozawa was going to have a heart attack."

She has an earplug routine that she follows, of which I didn't get the specifics, but it involves having them on the instrument down below the bridge where the mute is, and putting them in quickly and surreptitiously at some point during the piece before all he** breaks loose.   

I don't know if I can pull that off.  First of all, I'm a bit of a klutz.  (My mute has been known to fly off if I put up my instrument too fast).  Also, I'm sitting first chair.  How will it look to the audience if the first chair violinist puts in earplugs in the middle of a piece??

We are playing indoors, in the Arlington Town Hall, so there won't be real cannons.  Would you wear earplugs in this situation?  If so, when?  How?

Replies (23)

May 27, 2009 at 04:06 AM ·


yes wear earplugs.  Put one in your left ear in particular.  Do it for the whole p@iece. Incidentally,  downwind of outdoor cannos you may also need noseplugs and an oxygen drink.



May 27, 2009 at 04:37 AM ·


If you're willing to spend the $$, they make earplugs that are designed for musicians -- so that you can still hear everyone else to some degree.

- Ray

May 27, 2009 at 06:37 AM ·


indeed.  In the original invasion some idiot ordered standard earplugs that shut out all sound for Napolean`s troops.  Thus although he kept shouting `retreat,  this isn`t California. My map was upside down,` they just kept rolling along.  or not....

For more historical updates stay tuned.





May 27, 2009 at 12:49 PM ·

Karen - what is it they are going to do in the Arlington Town Hall to create the cannon sound?  It is not clear why you need earplugs for this concert any more than for any other.  Sorry to be dense, but it is not clear from your post what the problem is.

May 27, 2009 at 02:12 PM ·

Oh, Karen! Been there, done that! In a high school auditorium with live gunpowder and muskets! Not only was it deafening to the musicians, but the gun smoke set off the fire alarms. The local fire laddies actually chopped through the locked loading doors with big axes, and no one heard them because there was so much noise! This was a bit extreme, but I'm sure that there are at least eighty other people who will remember the day. It was over 30 years ago, and my ears are still ringing.

I've become somewhat familiar with hearing loss among musicians. It is a real problem that most of us are dangerously unfamiliar with. I was recently at a concert at the School of Music in my city and heard a piece in which the composer called for an air raid siren! I will leave it to others to decide whether a WW II-vintage hand-cranked air raid siren qualifies as a musical instrument, but I can tell you that even sitting toward the rear of the hall, I had to cover my ears with my hands. I could only pity the young second violinists who were sitting just a few feet from this device (these sirens are designed to be heard several miles away).

I am digressing, but for your immediate concerns I would recommend a type of earplug that is especially effective when the wearer is in a zone of percussive sounds. The plug is normally open, so that in a normal acoustical environment there is no attenuation and you can hear the ensemble as usual. The plug closes instantly when there is a loud report, then opens again. Attentuation at the ear is about 10 dB, which is adequate for your purposes.  If I have time later I'll try to find this product again on the Internet. Perhaps some others could try as well.

May 27, 2009 at 03:31 PM ·

Robert's earplugs sound neat! I'm not sure where to get those but I can recommend earplugs made by etymotics... While I haven't tried their plugs specifically i own a set of their canalphones and they are incredibly good.

Edit: Perhaps Robert was thinking of these Surefire EP-3/4s

May 27, 2009 at 03:51 PM ·

Years ago I joined a community orchestra the week before the concert, so I only had one rehearsal. Being a decent sight-reader, most of the program was OK, but it included the 1812 Overture, and they wouldn't let us take the music home. Yes, Tchaikovsky was not kind to violinists - the music looks like wallpaper. Anyway, I was scared silly. I was sitting in the last stand of the 1st violin section. At the actual concert, I found that I was placed right in front of the massive percussion section brought in just for this piece. I think I was sitting in front of an intercontinental ballistic missle. Anyway, I couldn't hear myself think, let alone anything coming from the violin. I did the best I could, but I sure it was lousy. However, I looked MARVELOUS!! So, my advice is - look good!!! No one will hear you anyway.
:) Cheers, Sandy

May 27, 2009 at 05:03 PM ·

Yes, Allan, the Sonic Defenders were the plugs I recalled. Man, how can you forget something with a name like "Sonic Defenders?"  Check them out, Karen. You can put them on between selections so fewer people will notice. :-)

I second Allan's comments on the products from Etymotic Research. I know the company's president, Meade Killian, and he is very dedicated to creating products of the highest quality. He's a great music lover, too.

May 27, 2009 at 07:54 PM ·

In a pinch tear off a small piece of Kleenex, wad it up, wet it in your mouth and stick it in your ear. It works very well. The price is right, also. Speaking of the 1812:

Way back when, our Stamford Symphony conductor, Skitch Henderson, brought in 8 starters canons from his yacht club, plus he got West Point to haul in a howitzer. Yes, all were inside the auditorium. The howitzer was aiming out the side door. Every time it went off at the concert I was physically lifted off my chair a few inches. Soon the smoke was so bad you could not see the music, or breathe that well either. My wife, our ticket chairman at the time, stopped two cops who came running in with guns drawn thinking they heard gunshots. Well, they did, in a way. LOL. The 1812 went over with a BANG!

May 27, 2009 at 09:00 PM ·

I tought the Canon's fodder was Pachelbel. Don't ask me about the modder. 

May 28, 2009 at 05:21 AM ·

Firemen axing down the door, running cops with drawn guns, violinists lifted out of their chairs, I'm gonna start making sure I make any local performances of this.  And bring my camera phone.

May 28, 2009 at 12:55 PM ·

Alas, I don't think our performance is going to be quite that exciting!  The current plan is to get some party poppers ( and have strategically placed people with them around the hall and in the balcony. 

May 28, 2009 at 08:31 PM ·


what`s next?  The Spanish Armada with water pistols?



May 28, 2009 at 09:23 PM ·

The current plan is to get some party poppers ( and have strategically placed people with them around the hall and in the balcony.

Now see, that's what I'm talkin' about...

May 29, 2009 at 12:59 PM ·

I hesitate to post this diatribe and had never registered but lurked the last 3 years or so a couple of days late....  Thanks Laurie, great site.

Three and a half years ago I started learning to play the violin, fiddle to us old timey folks, and immediately noticed that the sound under my left ear was near to the pain level. I use two walmart wooden clothspins on the bridge as a mute.  I have a hard rubber mute but know I will sooner or later destroy my bridge.  History shows this.

To find ear plugs try sporting goods stores that sell guns, target shooters require ear plugs, Walmart, sporting goods section, for example is where I bought my last plugs. Not very expensive. Your doctor or medical clinic may also be a source, some more pricy for custom fitted but smaller and less noticable. I like the newer cheapie ones with the string between them. May look geeky and not so fine in your tux or formal dress but at least you won't have to keep saying "what did you say" in your old age as I do.

I even use to use my ear plugs when driving on longer trips with my car windows open. Much more relaxed when I got there and I did not hear ringing for the next few hours.

Last January I had the misfortune to attend, for the first time in many years, a highschool basketball game with my teacher daughter and grandkids. I wound up sitting in the stands, two seats away from the horns section of the enthusiastic band. Wow, Yuk. 100 decibels or so of sound right in my ear. It hurt. For you non technical types that 100 decibel level or higher is about the level needed to blow out your ears. 90 decibels noise or lower may not do you any lasting damage but the upper end is still pretty loud. I'm sure we all know about the couple of generations or so of rock or similar music and stereos and car music systems with powerful amplifers ruining the listeners hearing. 20 years or so worth of ruined ears for those music lovers and cool cats and those among us to close to them.

I used to hunt using shotguns without earplugs. I used to be an engineer on a naval air base and my office was right next to a jet aircraft parking ramp. Jet fighters are very loud even while idling along. I am 76 years old. When youger I did not notice loud or pay attention to sounds. I was in the Air Force from 1952 to 1956 and was an air crew member around and on large aircraft of that day and they were noisy. When on guard duty, I was an enlisted type, I used to stand behind 6 engine, B-47 jet bombers in the winter time on that Nebraska aircraft parking ramp when they were getting ready to fly because it was the only warm place around. That did not help my hearing. Dumb things people do but I was freezing. Tradeoffs.

When younger I had a problem with ear wax which also cut down on hearing and I had to regularly clean the wax out or have a doctor do same but it was like using ear plugs.

Do not put anything in your ear you can not easily get out. If you use kleenex leave some hanging out.

Sorry about all the wimpering above but PROTECT YOUR EARS.... You will appreciate being able to hear a little better when you are elderly especially if you are a grandparent and love the little ones or not so little ones or possible you want to hear the orchestra or band or jam partners. You need to hear what you and they say and play. It is worth it. Think, use your brain, don't be DUMB like I was.

Enjoy. Don Redmond Oregon, OOFTA


May 29, 2009 at 02:16 PM ·

Thanks Donald for your advice.

You mentioned ear wax. You had ear wax, which acted like a ear plug. I am thinking about that. Is ear wax a bad thing? Is it OK to leave it in there? My son has a lump of wax inside his left ear. The paed tried to wash it out, but it refused to budge. I have left it as is, since it is not affecting his hearing, and it acts like a natural ear plug when he plays the violin. But I am also concerned about long term problems? Like the ear wax growing and posing a problem later?

May 29, 2009 at 04:23 PM ·


Everyone's talking about earplugs. However, it is the responsibility of the orchestra to provide sound shields. Are they? If not, have you asked?

I was in one symphony that shall remain nameless, the Nashville Symphony (oops, there I go) years ago. We had a game, the symphony and I: "do we have any sound shields-I'm getting killed back here!"

"Nope, we don't have any left"

"Well, I'm not going on stage till you get them, as per union rules."

"I'll see what I can do"

Somehow, magically, the sound shields would always appear.

May 29, 2009 at 06:12 PM ·


Well, ear wax can be a problem if there is to much, which varies with people.  Mine would completely fill the inner part of the ear and knock down hearing.  For most folks it is not a problem and falls out or works its own way out but mine did not.

It can become fairly firm if there is excess and it is left untreated  so I recommend keeping the ears clean if you can.  Just keep an eye on it and hopefully it will work it's way out by itself.

Maybe use slightly warm or room temperature olive oil, the cooking type is ok, using an eye dropper to get it in the ear and let the wax soften for two or three days.   Then carefully irrigate the ear, with that ear pointed down  using warm water and the eyedropper to try to flush the wax out of the ear.   If there is a lot of wax and it is hard it may take several treatments with the olive oil.  Be very careful about putting anything beyond the ear entrance.  You don't want to damage the ear drum!!!


May 29, 2009 at 08:39 PM ·

Thanks Donald. I will try the olive oil treatment.

May 30, 2009 at 07:48 AM ·

Party poppers? Seems like that would be a little underwhelming. When we did the piece in middle school we used a starter pistol in a metal garbage can. I guess they didnt want kids shooting off howitzers!

May 31, 2009 at 01:34 AM ·

I don't know - the party poppers sound kind of festive to me.  And they've got shrapnel too - whoops, I meant confetti. 

In truth, I don't think explosives do much for this piece.  I know folks always think it will be great, but it seems like it's mostly just really loud and not very good.  Although I would enjoy seeing a performance which attracted the fire department or the police, I think.

August 19, 2009 at 07:49 PM ·

Hi there, probably far too late to this discussion to be helpful, but with regards to question about earwax:

Yes it is a normal thing, and under usual circumstances, the ear is 'self cleaning' in that the skin grows outwards towards the pinna (the visible part of the ear).  My ENT colleagues have a saying - Don't stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear - i.e. don't stick anything in your ear to clean it (cotton buds especially are the ENT doc's nemesis).

If wax does become impacted, the first step would be olive oil (as mentioned above) or something like otex drops.  Otherwise see your doctor!

August 23, 2009 at 03:15 AM ·

I don't know if this has been said before but all you have to do is go to a gun shop.  Yes, I did say gun shop.  They regularly sell all kinds of earplugs.  There's the general cheap kind that block out everything.  You don't want those.  There is an earplug that is comfortable and will block out impact noise with a little valve inside.  These plugs allow almost normal hearing but stop loud booms, like that from a hand gun or shot gun.  I wear them when I trap shoot.  They are inexpensive, about ten to fifteen dollars, and work quite well.  They are OSHA rated.  Ask the clerk.  He/she will get a laugh and help you out very nicely.

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