(I confess I still struggle with earplugs. I hate the clacking sound I hear from my tongue hitting the reed. Of course I should use them as much as possible. Sigh.)

Imagine an artist who puts on clouded glasses in order to paint. Or a ballerina who adds weights to her feet. Now consider a musician who puts in earplugs: not a rock star, who’s protecting his ears from deafening noises, but a classical soloist who by comparison works in near silence, and who believes that filtering out sound leads to a more nuanced performance.

Meet pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Alban Gerhardt. They’re both world-class soloists who will be featured at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, which starts Wednesday in Millennium Park. And they both consider earplugs as essential to their music-making as the instruments they play.
About 15 years ago, Osborne started to hear a quiet high-pitched noise in his left ear. It came and went; he didn’t think much of it. After a while, it seemed to move from his left to his right ear. And then, alarmingly, one day it stayed. A doctor determined that Osborne had developed tinnitus from practicing too loudly in a small room.

There’s no way to cure tinnitus, but earplugs can keep it from getting worse. Osborne was custom-fitted with a special “musician” pair of earplugs, which filter out a calibrated amount of noise while allowing other sounds to enter.

Osborne discovered that it was helpful to practice with the devices, and shared this with his friend and collaborator Alban Gerhardt, who doesn’t have tinnitus. Curiosity piqued, Gerhardt tried and liked them. He said they forced him to listen more carefully, and he found it easier to hear the “core” of his cello sound, to get to its essence.



  1. I was also bothered by the same effect (I’m a flute/piccolo player). Once I switched to the custom Etymotic earplugs it went away altogether. The “clacking” you describe is known as the occlusion effect. It results primarily from the resonance of the airspace between the end of the earplug and the eardrum. Reducing the volume of that space greatly reduces the effect, so earplugs that fit waaaay down in the ear work better. But they have to be molded to get down there without driving you mad. That’s why the custom-fit earplugs (such as those by Etymotic) are the best bet to reduce the effect.

  2. I have custom-fit earplugs, but I still hear that clacking. It’s not as bad as it was with the ones symphony handed out, but it still does bug me!