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Noise And Musicians’ Ears: What's Next?

Our associate noise in entertainment expert, Ruth Hansford, reflects on the Royal Opera House vs Goldscheider case and what it means for orchestras and other musicians and employers going forward.

In March 2018, a decade almost to the day after the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came in without exception (the period of grace for the Music and Entertainment sector ran out on 6th April 2008), the judgment came out on the test case everyone had been waiting for: the Royal Opera House (ROH) was found to be in breach of duty under the Noise Regs and had to award around £¾m to viola player Chris Goldscheider who claimed he had suffered “acoustic shock” in the ROH pit during a Wagner rehearsal.

The ROH was eventually given leave to appeal the ruling and, with an intervention from the Association of British Orchestras, UK theatre Association and SOLT, they went to the Appeal Court in March 2019. Though the ROH lost the appeal, the outcome is better for orchestras in one key area: the blanket enforcement of hearing protection for musicians has been overturned.

A feature of classical music is that the sound levels (noise levels) vary hugely within a piece – especially an opera. A manager cannot be reasonably expected to count players in and out and walk around a pit full of trip hazards, doing spot checks for ear plugs that are designed to be practically invisible. 

However, the idea that deliberate, artistic ‘noise’ should be treated differently was thrown out: it was re-stated that there is no difference between a factory and an orchestra pit. It has also potentially stoked the debate about whether these musicians are artists or workers – it will be a long time before that is resolved. 

Where does it leave us? First, paperwork relating to noise risks has to be in order. Employers have to show what they have done and second, musicians need to be equipped to make their own choices about aspects of their hearing health. They need to understand about noise, hearing and hearing-protection options and their rights and responsibilities under the Regs.

Playing classical music is a mostly freelance profession. Very few players have the good fortune to work in a contract orchestra with deep pockets and lots of insurance and a company pension. In any case many of them don’t want that. With the festival season starting, musicians need more than anything to know what to do. If they are expecting a noisy time in a makeshift or under-sized pit, they shouldn’t avoid speaking up for fear that everyone is too busy, budgets are too tight, “we’re all friends” or “we mustn’t rock the boat or they won’t ask us back”.

The Appeal didn’t tackle the “acoustic shock” diagnosis: the two sides were too divergent and evidence was not conclusive but the Opera House QC David Platt asserted that the Noise Regs are directed to two broad risks: long-term exposure to high sound levels (which don’t cause NIHL - Noise Induced Hearing Loss “in an afternoon”), and acoustic trauma (not shock) “from a bomb blast”. Though there is no published advice to guard against “shock” the prior ruling stands: managers should protect against all noise risks.

When the Regs came in, there was a sense of “we’re doing Noise now and then we’ll move on to something else”. If nothing else, this ruling goes to show the problems of noise and hearing risk are a long-term project for managers and musicians alike. Two further days in court also showed that there are no easy answers or quick fixes to the complex problems of noise and hearing health in this context. We can’t stop now. We all have to keep talking to each other.

Ruth Hansford worked with the BBC Performing Groups on Noise at Work from 2008 and in 2011 produced the Musicians’ Guide and Managers’ Toolkit with a cross-sector working group. She is working towards a PhD What does it mean to have a musician’s ear? Listening to musicians.

Ruth is 1st Option’s associate noise specialist and is available to help clients with the management of noise in their performing groups, venues and events. Contact us today: info@1stoptionsafety.com