Oh, Man! All This Noise?

February 26, 2011 at 01:58 AM ·

I'm especially interested in feedback from current and former orchestra players; but no one is excluded -- it's a wide-open thread.

In my teens, I set my sights on becoming a professional symphony player.  Yet, after a couple of years of heavy training for this, I gave up the whole idea.

It was more than the big-group environment, long evening hours, and lack of individual freedom and creativity that got to me.  A significant factor that pushed me over the edge was the decibel level of some orchestral pieces.  The music that had previously so engaged me as a listener -- Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Wagner, for starters -- well, some of it put me off as a player.

Now, be assured, it wasn't the technical challenges that put me off.  I'm a tenacious fighter; and I knew how to zero in on hard parts, work them out, and pull my own weight.  But in the tidal waves of sound, sometimes I could hardly hear myself think, let alone hear myself play.

It wasn't a physically painful sensation -- just something that really grated on my nerves.  Still, I probably would have resorted to earplugs if the three other negatives I listed above hadn't already gotten to me enough to make me call it quits.

What about you?  How do you cope with the high volumes?  Do you use ear protection?

Replies (12)

February 26, 2011 at 02:15 AM ·

 Yes. Which is why I now play in a 26-piece string chamber orchestra.

February 26, 2011 at 02:43 AM ·

I use earplugs. I also play in a small chamber orchestra where the earplugs aren't necessary, but I have very sensitive ears and the noise is mostly painful in the big, full orchestra I play in.

The ones I use are here: http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er20.html , and they work great.

February 26, 2011 at 04:19 AM ·

Wow, I'm not even able to listen to electric tools.  Or power tools as Mr. burgess calls them : )  The round saw that makes a little metallic sound, drills ect make me crazy.  The more it's a high pitch tool, the more I hate it.

Yet, I shoot violin sound from my own violin in my ears and that doesn't bother me...  Nor that it does bother me to listen to another violinist. 

Perhaps I would find it too painful in a big orchestra.  I would be afraid of trompets.  I do love trompet but musicians who are directly in line with the trompets lose more hearing than the others.   (a study told that)

oups, sorry if I replied.  I've just  read your post again.  I have very limited orchestral experience...

February 26, 2011 at 04:29 AM ·

I just turn down my hearing aids. Seriously.  45 years of flying did my ears in.

February 26, 2011 at 05:02 AM ·

My current orchestra can't usually produce the big volumes you're talking about in rehearsal at least (we rehearse in two different groups in different locations, so numbers are small), plus I sit far enough away from the brass and percussion; but when I was in a better and bigger orchestra for awhile I did very occasionally wear earplugs (especially for a big production of Britten's War Requiem where we joined forces with John Nelson, some of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra people and several choirs, plus our own big orchestra!  I was also sitting at the back of the second violins then, very close to the "bombs" - smile! - and started noticing my ears would ring for a little while after.  All fine now though).  But - perhaps because I have not yet had a decade out of university where I got my music degree in the first place and am not good enough to be jaded - to me it is always still so fresh and absorbing, and such a privilege to get to play, that I rather want to absorb more sound than less!

February 26, 2011 at 02:20 PM ·

"…sorry if I replied.  I've just read your post again.  I have very limited orchestral experience."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
No problem, Anne-Marie.  I'm glad you replied.

I just now edited my opening statement to read: "I'm especially interested in feedback from current and former orchestra players; but no one is excluded -- it's a wide-open thread."  I originally had something like this last part but cut it soon before posting yesterday.

You know, I consider my own orchestral experience quite limited, too.  Though I began playing in elementary school, I didn't begin orchestra till high school, about 14 y/o, and didn't do any more of it beyond 21 y/o.  Looking back, I sometimes find it hard to believe I went as far with it as I did in 7 years.

February 26, 2011 at 03:03 PM ·

Tara - thanks for the ear-plug tip.  Thats just what I have been looking for.  The web site has a store locator built in - there's one 2 miles from where I live :)

February 26, 2011 at 03:33 PM ·

From reports I've read, it seems that almost all symphony players have some kind of hearing loss as a result of the decibel levels present in large ensembles. Violinists and violists have it mostly in the left ear, while other players have it in whichever ear faces the brass and percussion sections. It seems strange that musicians should have to wear hearing protectors, but there are special kinds that lower the amount of sound reaching the ear by about ten percent and others that can actually attenuate adaptively to the amount of sound present in the wearer's environment.

I had the unfortunate experience a few years ago of hearing a modern piece (played by a college orchestra) that called for percussion instruments including, among other things, an anvil and a 1950s-style air-raid siren. (I am not kidding) The percussion section was arrayed behind the violin sections, and it was so loud that I put in my foam ear plugs about halfway through the piece, even though I was sitting fourteen rows away from the stage.

I leave it to others to defend the idea that blacksmiths' tools and air-raid sirens qualify as musical instruments, but I practically had tears in my eyes as I watched the back stands of young string players who were sitting just a few feet from a device designed to be heard miles away. I frankly thought that whoever programmed the piece was either out of their mind or so incredibly insensitive that it bordered on the criminal.

Welcome to the musical world, young players!



February 26, 2011 at 05:47 PM ·

This is a huge problem, and one that's only starting to get the attention it deserves.

I keep earplugs in my case, and am not above using them.  This fall, our orchestra played Janacek's Sinfonietta.  I told the conductor that I was going to be playing violin instead of viola for this concert, as the hundreds of extra brass players would be seated right behind the viola section.  Besides the risk to my hearing, which I've spent a lifetime trying to protect, that volume just tenses me up something awful.  A friend of mine who has chronic inner ear problems can't stand sitting on the second or third desk in the seconds, where she ends up with a flute, or worse yet, piccolo, shoved in her ear.

I've seen more and more orchestras use plexiglass shields in front of the brass to help protect the players in front of them.  Risers help, too.  This is usually only for concerts, though.  Rehearsal spaces are another issue.  Most are small enough that the problem is exacerbated, even if people are holding back a little.  Anyone who scores a piece for an air-raid siren should be arrested.

On the other hand, after a few more years of Americans blasting rap straight into their skulls via earbuds, no one will have any hearing left to damage anyway.

March 2, 2011 at 12:34 AM ·

Thank you all for your input, especially on the so-important subject of hearing protection.

One reason I never really learned how to dance -- besides the crazy steps, popular during my teens, that I couldn't make sense of -- was the noise level of the dance bands at my high school.  I couldn't carry on a conversation or hear myself think.

My girlfriend didn't like it, either.  You guessed it -- we stayed away.  More satisfying to us were the walks, hand in hand, through the local forest preserve or cemetery -- or the evenings of sitting in her parents' den, or my parents' den, watching classic films.

The gym was another place where excessively loud radio and CD volumes got on my nerves.  I complained to management.  So did others.  It worked.

Fortunately, today's gym owners, it seems, are better at setting reasonable volume limits than the proprietors of yesteryear were.  A catchy musical background -- and I emphasize the word background -- can enhance a good workout.  Still, I began long ago to keep earplugs on hand as a precaution.

March 2, 2011 at 03:18 AM ·

Most loud noises I find intensely annoying, but for some reason this never applied to orchestral music.  I enjoy orchestra noise.  Granted, I don't have trumpets directly behind me, but when things do get loud it's kind of a thrill.  Tried a few kinds of earplugs but haven't had actual money to invest in them...that may be changing.

March 3, 2011 at 09:34 PM ·

I've never found orchestral "noise" off-putting. I can't (and won't) go to discos or whatever they're called now - I think it's something to do with the distortion level. Orchestral music is just a thrilling sound. Did the Verdi Requiem recently - wow! Not even in a decent hall, but who cares?

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