Protecting the hearing of orchestra musicians just became a little more complicated in the US with the release of a new policy from OSHA, the federal agency responsible for workplace health and safety. The new policy declares that the simple provision of earplugs is insufficient, unless all other administrative or venue-renovation options have been exhausted first.

Pin Drop Acoustics has an interesting blog post about OSHA, the new policy, and what this might mean for orchestras. I’ll be curious to see where this takes us.

I wear earplugs some of the time. I hate them, but I wear them. After my whole what-I-thought-was-a-virus story (you can read a bit about it by going here, I had to purchase some. I should have purchased them many years ago. There is no way I can wear them if I have a solo, but if I have a solo the orchestra is playing softer anyway. If the orchestra is blasting the earplugs go in. I have to rely on my years of playing to count on playing with a good sound, as I can’t hear what I’m doing very well. I have to deal with the sound of my tongue clacking (not sure what else to call it!) on the reed. I have to deal with being a wee bit unsure about intonation. But no one can hear me, so there’s that.

But what is the solution to noise exposure? PinDrop (as I’ve now nicknamed him/her) mentions some. What I don’t want is for us to never play above a mezzo forte (fat chance!). Certainly placing louder instruments in spots that aren’t directly behind musicians helps. Sometimes we can play a bit less fortissimo, too.

I do think every musician should go in for an annual hearing test. And every musician should own a pair of musician’s ear plugs. I have these, although I only have flesh colored ones. Gee … I think colors would have been fun! But I’m not about to spend another $215 (or more; I’m guessing prices have risen since I purchased mine).


  1. HEAR, HEAR!!

    I’m the poster child for Patty’s recommendations. Any doubters out there, please contact me for the harsh truth about loud sound and hearing loss. Patty will give you contact info.

    And by all means, read the ‘PinDrop’ link to see the state of affairs in the biz today…

  2. Thanks for that comment, Bob!

    I continue to urge my students to wear earplugs. I’m not sure I’ve managed to get through to them. Sigh.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Patty! This is Greg, and I wrote the post for Pin Drop Acoustics (I run the company and write the blog with my partner Evelyn).

    I’m fascinated to hear your experience with earplugs; I had suspected that they made it very difficult to perceive your own tone quality. I have a a pair of the Etymotic earplugs (similar to the Westones) and I always feel a bit disconnected even from my own voice.

    There are definitely a number of ways to “ease the pain” for your ears on stage that don’t require limiting dynamics, but they require commitment from musicians, orchestra managers, and (especially) conductors to embrace… playing around with different seating layouts is one of the simplest to work with, but I find it is used much less often than I’d expect. Old habits die hard, I suppose. The thing that irks me the most are orchestra shells in multi-purpose halls with ceilings that are installed way too low; that is just asking to damage musicians’ hearing.

    I am still waiting to hear the first report of an OSHA investigation into an orchestra following the release of the new directives, so I’m not yet sure what steps OSHA will demand in order to be satisfied.

  4. I really enjoyed what you wrote, Greg, and I printed it out for others to see in the opera orchestra pit.

    This is an issue that is frequently discussed in my symphony, and we have moved the brass … who says trumpets MUST blast into the bassoonists’ ears anyway?! I’m hopeful that we’ll find better solutions as we go along. I am usually in front of bassoons so they do provide a buffer for me, but it still can be an issue. I have hearing loss in my left ear and I don’t want it to get worse!

    What concerns me even MORE than this are all the middle and high school bands. They have a lot less control over dynamics, and play in those horrible little band rooms. I hate to think of what is happening to their ears! Sigh.