How one Australian symphony orchestra protects players' ears

(Reuters Health) – A program to protect Queensland Symphony Orchestra players in Australia from hearing loss is producing encouraging results, according to a new study.

Sophisticated analyses of sound dynamics in concert halls led to a variety of measures that may also help professional musicians elsewhere, and amateurs, to preserve their hearing, researchers say.

“Hearing loss amongst orchestral musicians is common - most players will know someone whose career has been affected by a hearing pathology of some sort,” said lead author Ian O’Brien of the School of Medical Sciences at The University of Sydney in Australia.

O’Brien is a clinical audiologist as well as a professional horn player with noise-induced hearing loss.

The risk of hearing loss varies by individual and instrument, O’Brien told Reuters Health by email. “A trumpet player has a much greater exposure than, say a double bass player,” he said.

One recent study found professional musicians’ risk for hearing damage is four times higher overall than that of nonmusicians (see Reuters Health article of May 9, 2014 here:

Awareness and education are the fundamental starting points in managing risk and mitigating exposure, O’Brien said, and there are many ways for individual musicians to reduce daily sound exposure with minimal impact on their music.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s hearing conservation program is one of the most comprehensive in Australia, the authors write.

Nine years ago, the orchestra started ongoing noise exposure monitoring, data reviews and plotting noise maps for concert halls and orchestra pits where the musicians played over a three-year period.

“This is still the largest orchestral sound survey on record and the results have been used by several orchestras to plan their own approaches,” O’Brien said.

They investigated how the orchestra was laid out and whether or not using risers or acoustic screens would mitigate some of the noise exposure and the extent to which player seating could be rotated periodically.

Risers enable sound to travel from the rear of the orchestra to the audience without having to push through rows of musicians, O’Brien said.

They also supplied high-quality earplugs specifically designed for musicians, and the orchestra formed a “noise committee” with musicians and representatives to evaluate how the interventions were affecting musical performance.

For the new study, researchers analyzed the orchestra archives since 2005, used player and management focus groups and an interview with the program’s administrator to assess how effective the conservation program has been.

In the most recent poll, seven percent of the musicians said they always used earplugs, 55 percent reported using earplugs occasionally and 11 percent said they still never used them, according to the results in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene.

“Players who have not taken time to develop the skills necessary to adjust to the different experience of playing with earplugs (and who are not supplied with correctly fitting, high quality equipment) will inevitably reject such devices, which underscores the importance of ongoing training in hearing conservation for musicians,” O’Brien said.

All branches of musical performance, including classical, have their own specific problems and the implementation of noise control programs, which is now mandatory in Europe, has not proven to be a simple task, said Esko Toppila of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, who was not involved in the new study.

Most programs like this in Europe have not yet had an impact on the safety of musicians, but the program in Queensland seems to be a rare success story, he said.

“The interesting thing here is that they have been able to maintain the motivation of the musicians for a relatively long time,” Toppila told Reuters Health by email. “My guess is that the program leads to an improved job satisfaction.”

Since 2005, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra has adopted wrap-around absorptive screens and a series of moveable diffusive panels for treating poor acoustic spaces, the authors write. Many brass and woodwind players now use electronic earplugs, they note.

Noise induced hearing loss happens gradually and varies from individual to individual, making it difficult to judge if this conservation program has made hearing loss less common since 2005, O’Brien said.

“The risks to amateur players are the same as that to professional players, although you would expect amateur players have lower exposure durations than full time professional players,” he said.

Hearing conservation training, as well as training in other aspects of musicians’ health, should be included in college and high school music programs and is beginning to happen in some U.S., European and Australian institutions, he said.

“As the hearing of a professional musician is central to their livelihood, it is of the greatest importance that this population are able to optimally maintain this sense throughout their career,” O’Brien said.

SOURCE: Annals of Occupational Hygiene, online November 7, 2014.