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Home » Organizing » Symphonic Workplace Safety Issues: Sound and Lighting Levels

Symphonic Workplace Safety Issues: Sound and Lighting Levels


by Nathan Kahn, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator

The symphonic workplace, be it on stage or in the pit, presents a variety of hazards to musicians. High decibel sound levels are an ongoing issue for symphonic musicians, but certain concerts have evolved into a much more dangerous situation as Nashville Symphony and Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Laura Ross describes during recent Nashville Symphony pops (and rock) concerts. Inadequate backstage lighting became a safety problem for musicians during Colorado Springs Philharmonic concerts when the employer sought a completely dark backdrop to the stage. 

An Open Letter to Pops Artists, Managers, and Sound Engineers

Contributed by Laura Ross, Nashville Symphony, violinist (Local 257)

To whom it may concern,

Please turn down the sound during pops rehearsals and concerts. It really isn’t necessary to produce that much sound in a 1,600-seat acoustic concert hall.

Please help us protect our ability to hear by listening to us when we tell you it’s too loud.

With appreciation,

US Symphony Musicians

During a Nashville Symphony concert season, the orchestra works with a significant number of pops artists. These same artists speak in highly complimentary and enthusiastic terms about how delighted they are to be able to work with an orchestra that is so sensitive, flexible, and able to consistently play any style of music. We are proud of our reputation and the high regard in which we are held. 

Yet it is unfortunate that some of these same artists, their bands, and more importantly the onstage monitors, under the control of the artist’s sound engineer, are too loud. During at least one concert series this past season, multiple musicians were forced to leave the stage during the performance because the sound levels and frequencies were excessive enough to make them physically ill. 

Even worse, when the sound engineer was asked to turn it down, the drummer—who was already incredibly loud—played louder; both the drummer and the onstage monitors were even louder during the final performance. After the concert, the bass player was compelled to come backstage and apologize for the sound levels onstage.

Artists come and go but their excess sound levels can do irreparable harm. Not only can they damage musicians’ hearing in just a few minutes of exposure, but they can drive away longtime patrons and audience members. That concert I mentioned? Audience members were asking musicians for earplugs, and as much as I looked forward to working with this artist, the sound levels killed any possible enjoyment. 

State of the Art Facilities

A number of orchestras have, in the past decade or so, built new state-of-the-art performance halls that have acoustic abilities far beyond those of the usual multipurpose auditorium. The softest pianissimo can be heard and singers and instrumentalists can perform unamplified. Many of these halls are smaller, have fewer seats, the audience is much closer to the stage, and some also have a smaller stage.

Because our concert hall is so sensitive, and because of concerns for the aural health of the musicians onstage, our management includes a rider in every artist’s contract stating that they may not exceed an average maximum level of 95 decibels (dbl). According to the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration—because we are covered by a state agency—hearing protection is necessary at 90 dbl. According to the Vanderbilt Audiology Clinic at Vanderbilt University, rock concert decibel levels average around 105 dbl, and can begin damaging hearing after just five minutes without hearing protection.

What we do requires great sensitivity and keen hearing. Foam earplugs cut out far too much sound to be able to play with confidence and accuracy. Most of my colleagues hate wearing earplugs; some refuse to wear them because they can’t hear themselves. Delicate playing, careful intonation, and the ability to perform at peak levels are inhibited when wearing earplugs, even those that are custom fit with interchangeable filters.

When artists and bands use stage monitors, the sound is much louder than when in-ear monitors are used. Many artists don’t like the in-ear monitors for the same reason orchestras don’t like earplugs—they muffle what they hear along with the audience response. However, new in-ear monitors add ambient reverberation to make the sound more responsive.

Whether artists and musicians wear earplugs or not, excess sound levels are unnecessary. And of course, there’s one other piece to this—enforcement. Levels cannot be judged from the sidelines or from the back. They must be measured from the source, and generally that’s the center of the stage and near the drums. While Nashville may be the only orchestra to stipulate a maximum level in its agreement, that level is above what is already acknowledged to begin causing hearing damage. And anyone who believes maximum levels cannot be enforced need look no further than Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, which is well known not only for strict sound level enforcement, but also for its fines when those levels are exceeded.

So we’ll continue to ask nicely to turn it down and try to find ways to work together. But when an orchestra manager tells you it should not be so loud—because they know the hall’s limits far better than a visitor—you should honor the contract your artist’s management has signed. Let’s work together, shall we?

Read part two of Symphonic Workplace Safety Issues here.