Those who attend concerts expect the music to be loud, and classical music is no exception. Whether it is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture or Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, listeners expect a certain level of excitement from a performance. But in light of these expectations, are conductors and musical directors under too much pressure to deliver an earsplitting performance? If so, what becomes of the musicians who are immersed in the potentially harmful sound on a daily basis?
A recent lawsuit in the UK is bringing the issue of hearing damage in classical musicians to light. Chris Goldscheider, a former viola player for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, is suing the ROH claiming they are responsible for his career-ending hearing damage.
A renowned musician, Goldscheider had a storied career that took him to places across the globe, from playing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to Kylie Minogue to the Three Tenors front of more than 100,000 people in Barcelona prior to joining the Royal Opera House in 2002.
But one fateful rehearsal changed his life forever. After a performance of Wagner’s Valkyrie, during which the brass instruments directly behind him in the orchestra pit reached dangerously high decibel levels, Goldscheider suffered irreversible hearing damage in the form of an immediate and permanent threshold shift. Almost immediately, Goldscheider was rendered unable to tolerate the sound of his own instrument, which he had been playing since the age of 4. Diagnosed with acoustic shock, symptoms of which include tinnitus and hypersensitivity to sound, his once shining career came to an end. At home, sounds such as the clinking of glassware or his infant daughter crying became intolerable as well. Unable to work, he was forced to sell his house.
Although Goldscheider was provided hearing protection, he says he wasn’t trained on its proper use. His lawyers add that not only was he not given sufficient training, but that the hearing protection provided was not adequate as it was only capable of reducing the noise level by 28 dB. At the performance in question, the noise level of the brass section reached 137 dB, equivalent to that of a jet engine.
When most people think about musicians and hearing loss, rock or heavy metal comes to mind. But classical musicians are at grave risk as well. There are approximately 100 musicians in the orchestra at the Royal Opera House, and according to research undertaken by the BBC, more than 25 percent report occasional or mild hearing-related illness. In the 2013/14 season alone, there were seven cases of confirmed hearing-related absence and 117 weeks of sick leave were taken.
And it’s not just the musicians at the Royal Opera House that are at risk. A study of classical musicians by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and Safety discovered that 15 percent of the musicians participating in the study suffered from tinnitus, as compared to just 2 percent among the general population. Another 41 percent of the musicians suffered a temporary form of tinnitus in group rehearsals, and 18 percent experienced temporary tinnitus in solo rehearsals. In addition, 43 percent of the musicians in the study suffered from hyperacusis, a hearing disorder characterized by intolerance of sound levels that others would perceive as normal.
According to Morris Stemp of the Musicians Union, there are numerous reasons for the hearing damage suffered by orchestra musicians.
“Conductors are allowed to ride roughshod over health and safety considerations,” Stemp says. “They put players on the stage where they will be in harm’s way. And instruments are now louder than they ever were before because of the materials they are now made from.” But Stemp sees the potential for improvement in the musicians’ working conditions. The impact of noise could be reduced by simple measures such as raising the louder instruments onto platforms, using acoustic screens for sound absorption, and keeping the volume lower in rehearsals to lessen exposure time to harmful noise levels..
The Royal Opera House thus far has denied responsibility. And according to Goldscheider’s lawyer Chris Fry, part of the Royal Opera House’s defense is the claim that the social value of the performance means that potential damage to players’ hearing is an acceptable risk. “Essentially what is being said is that the beautiful artistic output justifies damaging the hearing of the musicians performing it,” said Fry.
The case is ongoing. As for the Royal Opera House, they issued a statement that said, in part, “Mr. Goldscheider’s compensation claim against the Royal Opera House is a complex medico-legal issue, which has been going on for some time and is still under investigation.”
While the case against the Royal Opera House could set new legal precedent, hearing damage among musicians is certainly not a new phenomenon. Some musicians might say it comes with the territory. But with innovations in hearing protection, is it necessary anymore? And is a beautiful artistic performance geared toward maximum audience satisfaction justification to put the players’ hearing at risk, or do conductors and musical directors have a responsibility to put the health of their musicians first? We’d love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below. And, if you know someone, maybe even yourself, who needs hearing help, visit our extensive directory of consumer-reviewed clinics near you.