Give over, Beethoven!

Musicians in top orchestras fear they'll go deaf as instruments get ever louder, reports Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
FOR THE audience, it is the high spot of the performance. The cymbals crash, the strings soar - and then there is the cannon. But for the musicians, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is almost guaranteed to induce deafness.

A new report from the Association of British Orchestras claims that the big bangs in many famous works are seriously damaging the hearing of professional musicians.

An advisory committee of musicians, orchestra executives and venue managers will examine the findings and draw up a plan of action to reduce the risk.

The musicians claim that works such as Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring can be loud enough to exceed European law on safe noise levels at work.

The problem is getting worse because modern instruments, notably brass, sound bigger and bolder and orchestras have become louder. Audiences now expect the thrill of a big sound.

The ASB report, funded by the European Commission, will make clear that the situation is dangerous and requires action.

The author, Alison Wright Reid, a former BBC health and safety expert who has spent the past 18 months analysing all available scientific data, said the review had made the case much stronger than before. It is expected to be published at Christmas, after discussion with the industry.

An idea had prevailed that music was less harmful than "noise", she said. But the research showed that it depended on whether you liked the music. In many cases, damage could be caused even if you did.

But some of the most obvious solutions, such as ear-plugs, were hated by musicians because they affect sensitivity. "There are other occupations where people need to be able to hear what they're doing, but not to the same extent as orchestras," she said.

Musicians with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic, who volunteered to take part in ear-plug trials five years ago, complained they were uncomfortable and prevented them from being able to hear the rest of the orchestra.

But Ms Wright said there were other options. Spacing the players further away from each other and at different heights would help. "People have been presented with pretty unpalatable solutions in the past. It's better to have something that is a slightly imperfect solution but is routinely applied than something that is brilliant but hardly ever done."

Pauline Dalby, health and safety officer for the Musicians' Union, said its members were very concerned about hearing damage. The union is carrying out trials of a new type of individually tailored ear protector with volunteers from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

"I think the problem is widely accepted now," she said. "More and more of our members are becoming aware that high exposure levels are causing damage and once the damage has occurred, there's no turning back. There is now no stigma to wearing ear protectors."

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the directives protecting workers from the risk of noise which were laid down in 1986 were due to be re-examined in 2001. It is thought they might be tightened further.