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Wednesday 28th August

Musical Damage

The Association of British Orchestras is arranging a series of training seminars to teach musicians how to avoid damaging their hearing when playing.

The problem is not a new one - anecdotal evidence suggests that musicians have long been aware of the fact that deafness is an occupational hazard - but new European regulations to be introduced in 2006 will reduce the noise level to which workers can legally be exposed. That means that orchestra managers will have to make sure that working conditions for musicians conform to the new regulations which poses difficult technical problems.

According to research commissioned by the ABO many orchestral players are routinely exposed to noise levels which will damage their hearing: the problem is particularly acute for orchestras which play in pits which can amplify sound levels.

Some orchestras are already trying to mitigate the problem using new techniques the Birmingham Royal Ballet orchestra has tried novel positioning of instruments - for instance by putting brass players on small pedestals so that musicians positioned in front of them don't receive the full blast of sound - and is shortly to pioneer the use of special soundproofing screens which can produce a lower sound "microclimate" around an individual player or group of players.

The director of the Birmingham Royal ballet orchestra, John Beadle, told us :"With the new legislation this is bound to become a bigger issue. We've got three to four years to get our house in order". But it's not going to be easy. Alison Wright-Reid, a health and safety consultant who is an expert in noise damage told Today :" In three to four years time the permitted sound levels will drop to less than one third of what they are now". But Ms Wright-Reid also pointed out that while workers, including musicians, are covered under the legislation, audiences are not classical music lovers don't have to worry - even the loudest concerts rarely get near permitted levels - but youngsters who attend rock concerts or who go clubbing are at much greater risk.

At some clubs noise levels have been recorded which at 120 decibels are far in excess of the current UK industrial limit of 90db. Even short exposure to a sound level of 120 decibels will permanently damage hearing.

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