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TX: 12.01.04 - THIRD OF CLASSICAL MUSICIANS SUFFER HEARING DAMAGE AS ORCHESTRAS GET LOUDER






PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON

ROBINSON
Now we tend to think of loud pop as the music that will hurt your ears but musicians who play in orchestras also suffer hearing loss as a result of their work. A recent survey suggested that one in three classical musicians is affected. Soon a new EU Directive will lower maximum sound levels that people can face at work and this is forcing orchestras to tackle the problem of noise induced hearing damage. Sarah Woolman went along to a rehearsal of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to find out more.

MUSIC

MUSICIAN
It's like sitting in front of a firing squad. You know when rifle shots go - when somebody fires a gun it's as bad - I think it's as loud if not louder.

MUSIC

MUSICIAN
I've seen people going off the stage in tears in very loud concerts. I've seen men in tears from noise. It's a quite extraordinary thing - the effect it has on people.

MUSIC

WRIGHT REID
I'm Alison Wright Reid, I'm a freelance health and safety consultant and I produced the report A Sound Ear on behalf of the Association of British Orchestras - the ABO. When we looked at how much of a problem noise is to players we surveyed the players themselves and the answers we got were that in the main orchestras it affects half or more of the players - it's the percussion, the brass and the woodwind who have particularly high exposures. Nearly half of the brass players said their hearing had become less sensitive. It gets even more complicated than that because the people who experience pain from adjacent sections develop other types of hearing damage as well. They particularly develop hyperacusis - if you like it's a sort of asthma of the hearing.

MUSIC

MUSICIAN
In fact when I first started in the profession I used to hear people complaining about the noise and I didn't think it was bad. And as time's gone on my ears have become more and more sensitive to it and this is one of the problems - they're hypersensitive to sound, it's nothing to do with deafness, it's to do with hypersensitive to noise which now I find in the street or I find in domestic situations, if anything is very loud, I actually get very distressed by it because my ears have become over-sensitised.

MUSIC

WRIGHT REID
It's impossible to say if hearing and health is worse than it was because we don't have a baseline to refer to. But orchestras are, in experts' opinions, significantly noisier than they were in the 1960s and '70s. Partly from changes in repertoire and taste but the chief reason that they have become noisier is essentially that they can. Brass instruments have become increasingly more powerful - the bore of brass instruments has been increasing. The bore of the instrument is its internal diameter, if you're looking down a pipe of some sort, and you see a modern trombone and it's really quite thick, it has a very, very think stem on it and a huge bell on the end, it's at a higher power level than several decades ago and that forces everybody else to play louder to keep up with them.

MUSICIAN
It's been a very gradual decline but in one ear I have an 80 per cent hearing loss. I haven't let it be known generally that that's the case, I think most musicians are very careful about admitting that there is a slight weakness in the hearing but I'm sure it affects all of us to some extent, I know it does.

MUSIC

WRIGHT REID
We have a law which says that if you are exposed to a quantity of noise which if it was averaged over eight hours would be equivalent to 90 decibels then you must not be exposed to any additional noise and if it comes to it you have to wear ear plugs or ear muffs. When the law changes the limit will change to 85 decibels, the difference - the five decibel difference - is quite substantial. Decibels are logarithms, so the change - the five decibel change - is about 65-70 per cent. It's quite a stark drop.

MACLAY
I'm Ian Maclay and I'm the Managing Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We've invested in lots of acoustic screens to separate sections of the orchestra so that people in towards the back of string sections are not bombarded by sound from the brass and so on. The trouble is it's not really an exact science because we don't play in the same place every day and therefore you're never comparing like with like.

WRIGHT REID
Screens have become very popular but the sound environment may appear to be better to players, it can actually be very significantly worse and screens have to be used with extreme caution. You can elevate the extremely sections so that they play across people's heads instead of through them but that does require a lot of height, it's obviously completely inappropriate in a pit. People have taken this one step further and explored the possibilities of sometimes having extremely noisy instruments actually off stage when they're required rather than necessarily having them right in the thick of things. The simplest, if you like, is just to play quietly but if you play some music quietly it just doesn't sound right.

MUSIC

ATKINS
My name is Joe Atkins, I'm in the trumpet section of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I have instruments at home that are about 30 years old and to experience blowing them is quite a different experience, they do make a shallower sound and much more restricted kind of sound and to be honest you just can't make anything like the noise that you can with the modern instruments.

MACLAY
There are drawbacks to a number of these things and that is, of course, a symphony orchestra is normally playing to its public and if you're playing in a big 5,000 seater concert hall, like the Royal Albert Hall for example, people sitting upstairs have paid their money and they want to hear the orchestra play. So obviously if we dampen the effect too much it'll impact on the audience as well. Obviously if we haven't got an audience then the orchestra ceases to exist, so getting the balance between all these various things is going to be a very important issue over the next few years.

MUSIC

APPLAUSE

ROBINSON
Ian Maclay the Managing Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ending that report by Sarah Woolman.



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