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14. I've been reading about problems with people complaining about excessive "noise" levels on stage in orchestras and bands, leading some players who sit near brass players to complain of hearing loss. What insights do you have on this situation?

The issue of volume levels on stage at concert venues is a hot topic among musicians. Faced with the prospect of sitting near the "high volume" instruments of the orchestra, which would include all brasses, piccolo and percussion, many players are complaining that hearing loss is inevitable. Unfortunately, this situation is escalating into an issue where the government is being asked to step in because colleagues often cannot get along well enough to address the issue in a productive way.

Recently, a complaint made to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has brought this issue to the fore in the modern American Symphony Orchestra. My article, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players? which can be found in the articles section of this web site, caused an unprecedented response when it was first posted on the trombone-l email discussion group and later reprinted in the International Trombone Association and T.U.B.A. Journals. This discussion is a healthy one, and one that I believe is already making an impact on our industry.

Below are comments, with some modification, I made on this important issue to the trombone-email discussion group.

For many months I've been talking through my web site, published articles and the trombone- email list about excessively loud brass playing and the fragmenting of the modern symphony orchestra, whereby many players are out for themselves without a concept of teamwork and unity of ensemble.

Several months ago, I arrived for work at Symphony Hall and saw a memo hanging on our bulletin board (excerpted in part below) which speaks for itself on both issues. The person bringing the complaint remains anonymous to prevent possible retaliation directed at the "whistle-blower."

The potential implications of this on ALL performing ensembles are profound. This situation is further evidence of the fracturing of the American symphony orchestra, as colleague turns on colleague. Could we see the day where players are totally enclosed in soundproof booths to "protect" them while the federal government comes to the library and marks dynamics in our parts?!

Don't laugh. Truth is stranger than fiction. This is the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT we are talking about here. We now have "victims" and "perpetrators" and the Boston Symphony is being required to justify to a federal agency why what we do should be allowed to continue as it is. Anything can happen.

Note, as stated below, that what a symphony orchestra does has now been classified as "noise."

October 20, 1997

United States Department of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
639 Granite Street - 4th Floor
Braintree, MA 02184

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc.
Symphony Hall
301 Massachusetts Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

Dear XXXXXX [BSO Benefits Manager],

On October 7, 1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received a notice of health hazards at your worksite at:

Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

We notified you, by telephone, of these alleged hazards on October 17, 1997. The specific nature of the alleged hazards is as follows:

Symphony Hall:

We have not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace; and we do not intend to conduct an inspection at this time. However, since allegations of violations and/or hazards have been made, we request that you immediately investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections or modifications. Please advise me in writing, no later than October 24, 1997 of the results of your investigation. [NB: the BSO asked for an extension until November 24 in order to comply with these demands.] You must provide supporting documentation of your findings, including any measurements or monitoring results, and photographs/video, and a description of any corrective action you have taken or are in the process of taking.....[etc].....

This letter is not a citation or a notification of proposed penalty which, according to the OSH Act, may be issued only after an inspection or investigation of the workplace has been conducted....[etc]....An inspection may include a review of the following: injury and illness records, hazard communication, personal protective equipment, emergency action or response, bloodborne pathogens, confined space entry, lockout, and related safety and health issues....[etc]....

Brenda J. Gordon
Area Director

We now need to look at what the Boston Symphony Orchestra was already doing to address the situation before this complaint was registered:

Let us remember that we are not just talking about brass players (in particular the high frequencey of trumpets) that generate a lot of sound.

So, it is all well and good to say the situation needs to be addressed. There IS a problem. What is the solution?

Concern is well placed. But solutions are harder to come by (more on them a little later). Being "sensitized" to a problem is a piece of the puzzle, but when all is said and done, you have a group of people on stage together who need to play together. It is not a perfect world - dealing with loud dynamics is part of the job. We all know it, we all need to find ways to deal with it on a personal level.

Not long ago, a member of the BSO kept glaring at various members of the brass section whenever he came on stage - whenever we bowed, sat, came on stage - you name it. The hairy eyeball was coming back as a laser beam, trying to intimidate certain players. One colleague went to the personnel manager asking that this childish behavior stop, that the player, by his staring and rude faces, was creating a "hostile and intimidating environment." A threat to file a complaint of discrimination (brass discriminiation - a new category!) with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) was made if the "harrassment" didn't stop. So you can see how all of this takes on a life of its own when people just don't want to get a long. Adults acting like children, running to the government when they don't like something.... OSHA, EEOC, whoever....

Everyone deals with loud sound in different ways. I remember going to hear the Charlie Mingus band a few years ago in New York City at the invitation of bass trombonist David Taylor. It was a high powered, over amplified band in a small room that seated about 300 - it had ear-splitting dynamics. I was DOUBLE plugged and it still hurt. Dave Taylor wore plugs. Art Baron, playing jazz trombone chair, had Lew Soloff's trumpet IN his head. Art just kept smiling, playing solos, enjoying the whole thing. No plugs. Every now and then Art would push a finger in an ear (probably to push his brains back in) but just kept on smiling.

Everyone deals with it differently ....

Of course, what this is NOT about is an attempt to justify in any way, shape, or form out of balance, crude and rude playing by brass players. Readers know I began the ball rolling on the issue of working together as a "teamplayer" many months ago. It is a constant theme I hit upon over and over, in every fora I possibly can. I will come back to this in a moment with an interesting perspective I've just received.

But a summary of where we really are - in real world terms, not just in the abstract - is worth looking at now.

So, in summary at this point, while the problem of painful dB on stage is with us and will remain, there are clearly things that we can do as INDIVIDUALS to help the situation. The constant drum beating about how we should play, what we can do to balance things and all the rest must continue.

Here, now is an interesting perspective.

As mentioned earlier, my article, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?, was printed both in the International Trombone Association and the T.U.B.A. Journals.

Tubist Gene Pokorny, the member of the Chicago Symphony brass section for whom I have the greatest respect, wrote a long "Letter to the Editor" of the TUBA Journal which he copied to me (dated October 24, 1997). It was subsequently published in the T.U.B.A. Journal in their Winter 1998 issue. Gene made a few comments I'd like to share with you - comments I am so very grateful he is making because the more voices we add to this important issue, the better. Here are a few excerpts from his letter....

Congratulations on a well-written article by Doug Yeo and special commendations to editor John Taylor and anybody else who was responsible for getting that ITA article in the TUBA Journal. That article has been needed for some time. Those of us who are lucky enough to be playing music professionally in symphony orchestras can become lax in some of the most basic tenets of team playing. That lack of attentiveness to teamwork is unfair to the composer as well as to out colleagues, the people who listen to us and those players who learn from our example...

I have very few conflicts with his article. The biggest one is only a matter of perspective. Foolish comments and foolish playing are not completely indicative of inexperience. On the contrary, some of the dumbest actions and words I have witnessed on stage have come from some very experienced players. Their listening and teamwork muscles are all but dead unless a conductor sits on them. What is then disturbing is when these players start playing WITH the group demonstrating that they simply chose not to earlier.....

It is easy to be empathic and understanding with Yeo's article. My first reaction was to think of all the OTHER people who should read the article. Well, the fact is that we could ALL use to be reminded of some of the points in this article....

Teamwork is the highest attainment in orchestral performance. Unfortunately many musicians (professional as well as non-professional) believe the highest result targeted should be to play one's own part independently well. As noble a pursuit as that is, nowever, it is only the prerequisite in getting into the next level of performance. Interdependence, synergy, the "we" paradigm, is not only a higher level of performance but it is a much higher level of maturity....

When I was in high school in the early 1970's, I was taught a very important concept of balance from Benton Minor in California. The pyramid concept basically says that the highest voices in any ensemble should be supported slightly stronger and at least as reliably (in tune, rhythmically accurate, etc) by the immediate voices below. Those voices should be supported slightly stronger and more reliably yet by the voicesbelow them, etc, until you reach the bottom voices which are the strongest and most reliable. This does not mean that the tuba players should be playing loud all the time. What it does mean is that tuba players should be most responsible for dynamic contrasts and reliable intonation. This particular concept is not unknown in the band world (W. Francis McBeth) or in the orchestral world (George Szell). Part of the problem with balance is when the voices at the very top of this "food chain" are playing way too loud. Although it is easy to play in a unified way since everybody can hear the "Tyrannosaurus Treble Tyrants" on the top, the pyramid concept of balance is in shambles: The woodwinds are overblowing their instruments into non-Western scales, the string section takes ont he significance of tape hiss in the total mix, and the brass section sounds like a three-alarm fire in the elephant house at the zoo. Any low brass, low woodwind or low string player who tries to keep up with this "feeding frenzy" adds to the insanity. Yes, there will be people out there who think it is really great, exciting as all get-out, etc, and there are the perpetrators after the concert who enjoy hearing that EVERY one of their notes was heard in the hall. And who doesn't enjoy an exciting performance? The question is, "Was it exciting because it was loud?" or "Was it loud because it was exciting?" or "Was it just loud."....

Unless smart players are courageous enough (or stupid enough, depending on your perspective) to encounter those who chosse not to control themselves, the responsibility rests with the conductor, as Yeo points out. Unfortunately, many conductors are so intimidated and grateful when them come in to conduct some of the top orchestras, they are reluctant to actually stop the music in order to correct and control balance, pitch, inaccurate rhythms, etc. Those few conductors who actually offer valuable comments and try to tighten up some of the llose ends may bruise the egos of some of the "sacred cows" (which every ensemble seems to have). Coincidently, these purposeful conductors may not be asked back again.....

It may be inexperience which dictates some players to not be a part of the team on stage but in many cases it is CHOICE. There are many venerable professionals out there who know how to be ensembel players but, for whatever reasons, choose to not be part of the group. Some of it is carelessness, but some of it is choosing to "get back" at a conductor, make a point to a player on stage, impress some friend in the audience, etc. Whatever the reason, the choice of not playing together with everybody else on stage is a mistake in which everybody pays for somebody else's lack of maturity.....

I appreciate Gene's thoughts and insights very much. Would that even more players would have the courage to go against the flow and work to improve the situation that is literally ruining many of our modern symphony orchestras.

I return now to how the issue that began this discussion, the complaint to OSHA regarding "excesive noise levels on stage."

The "noise" consultant's report was completed and I include pertinent excerpts below :

Boston Symphony Orchestra Noise Evaluation Report
November 1997

Prepared by Aon Risk Services Inc. of Massachusetts
99 High Street
Boston, MA 02110

A noise evaluation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was conducted on November 4 and 8, 1997. The evaluation was conducted by Mr. Stephen E. Cerven, CSP, of Aon Risk Services of Massachusetts, Inc. The evaluation was the result of a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On October 7, 1997, a complaint was received by OSHA alleging that:


Quest Electronics Micro-15 Permissible Noise Dosimeters were used for the noise evaluation. The dosimeters were used in the dosimeter mode. The dosimeters were last calibrated on 9/13/96 and 8/30/97. Prior to the survey the dosimeters were calibrated using a Quest Electronics Permissible Sound Calibrator. The calibrator was last calibrated on 8/30/97. The musicians wore the dosimeter with the same serial number for both the rehearsal (November 4) and performance (November 8).


Rehearsal Program

The orchestra rehearsed Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute for approximately 40 minutes, changed musicians for approximately 5 minutes, rehearsed Prokofiev's Symphony #6 for approximately 35 minutes, took at 20 minute break, and rehearsed Prokofiev's Symphony #6 for approximately 55 minutes.

Performance Program

The orchestra played Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute for approximately 7 minutes, moved the concert piano on stage for approximately 5 minutes, played Mozart's Piano Concerto #24 in c minor for approximately 30 minutes, took a 20 minute break, and played Prokofiev's Symphony #6 for approximately 42 minutes.

Musician Time Weighted
Average dBA
Peak Level
Time Weighted
Average dBA
Peak Level
1. Horn 78.51 115.1 77.28 114.3
2. Cello 76.11 114.0 76.89 123.3
3. Violin 78.65 115.1 76.81 122.2
4. Viola 76.07 119.6 73.18 119.6
5. Horn 79.25 124.5 70.23 115.1
6. Bass 76.19 110.2 73.88 113.6
7. Cello 78.08 117.3 74.57 108.0
8. Horn 79.02 121.5 76.42 120.0
9. Bassoon 77.94 121.5 76.42 128.6


The dosimetry results indicate:

Respectfully submitted November 10, 1997:

Stephen E. Cerven, CSP
Manager, Casualty Loss Control Services
Aon Risk Services of Massachusetts, Inc.

Here is an important thing to keep in mind when evaluating the data above.

The personnel chosen to wear the noise dosimeters represented those players considered to be most "at risk." In the chart above, the personnel were in the following locations:

Careful readers will notice that in many cases, the dynamics at the rehearsal were louder than the concert. It is in rehearsal that we should be exploring how much is enough and how much is too much. The old joke, "I'll do it the conductor's way in rehearsal and MY way in concert" is as foolish as it is immature. People who think that way should be flipping hamburgers, not sitting in a performing ensemble.

There are intangibles about good performances that hopefully cause players to be MORE sensitive to what is going on around, to have better "radar" in relation to their peers, to step up and play a little "over your head" on occasion. In rehearsal, I test things out - alternate slide positions, various slurring devices, try to balance with this or that instrument - but even with 4 rehearsals, there are only so many options you can try on any given thing. So, at a concert, it's time to take a chance and "go for it." This is the fun and hilarious joy of playing concerts - you get one chance and you can't wait to do it.

In concert, you also need to be aware of how your colleagues are playing - if all of a sudden the first trumpet, or the tuba is playing more or less than in rehearsal, instant adjustments need to be made by EVERY player around him. You can't teach this - it's just got to happen. When it does - when everyone on stage is really listening, taking chances, and stepping up to the challenges presented by the composer - the result can be downright thrilling.

So, we return to the issue of "noise" levels on stage. This whole discussion is not really a conclusion but rather just a beginning. Perhaps others will be provoked to consider and act upon the observations herein and, in the long run, I believe our performances - and our very physical and emotional health - will be better for it.

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