As I enter the Conservatory’s Robertson Hall, I stop for a moment in the covered passage to enjoy the chorus of instrumental chatter filtering through the space. As a pianist, I appreciate the fragments of piano pieces that I hear, and I am struck by the clarity with which I can recognize a piece from an individual rehearsal room, whether it is the feverishly rapid stroke of the Chopin’s right hand Winter wind Study or thunderous arpeggios of the left hand from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
The clarity with which I hear the music emanating from rooms in such a large building raises a question: how loud are Robertson’s pianos and do they endanger the hearing of pianists and those who play with them? pianists in Robertson’s rehearsal rooms?
To answer this question, I first drew on my past experiences as a musician. Having been a pianist and orchestral oboist in high school before focusing solely on the piano in Oberlin, I was faced with the dangers of loud music. As an oboist, I would sit directly in front of the brass section, getting particularly close to high-decibel sounds. In the hours after a concert or rehearsal, I remember the bewildering realization that my ears were ringing and that I couldn’t do much except wait for the sound to dissipate.
I decided to meet with an audiologist, who performed a series of hearing tests. The test results were a serious wake-up call. At 16, I had mild hearing loss in my left ear – not enough to have a noticeable impact on my life, but enough to raise concerns that I might experience more noticeable hearing loss in the future if I continued on my own. habits.
My experiences as an oboist motivated me to become a conscientious user of earplugs while playing in ensembles, but I never seriously thought that my solo piano practice could be a threat to my hearing until. ‘to stop in Robertson’s walkway and ask myself: My hours of piano practice each day are also affecting my hearing? “
Curious, I tested the volume of the pianos at Robertson’s with a commercially available decibel meter on my phone. In a sample of 10 pianos, I received readings in the range of 80 to 100 decibels while playing on what I considered to be mid-level dynamics. American Academy of Audiology recommends the use of hearing protection for all sounds over 85 decibels, and the Association for Occupational Health and Safety says sounds over 90 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss without proper hearing protection . Robertson’s pianos often exceed this level. I wondered how they had gotten so loud.
The reason has nothing to do with their quality but, on the contrary, has everything to do with the frequency with which they are played. From early morning until late at night, Robertson’s dozens of pianos are played nonstop, impacting the hammer mechanics of pianos over time. These felt-covered hammers, which strike the string to create a sound, gradually become more and more compact with each strike. The harder the hammer, the brighter the sound and therefore the louder the piano sound.
The most straightforward solution to this problem is complete re-harmonization – the process of softening the felt of hammers so that when they strike the strings, the sound produced is more muffled. Considering that there are over 100 pianos in Robertson and a limited number of technicians, such an undertaking would represent a considerable logistical challenge.
More importantly, I hope that the Conservatory seriously considers tackling the problem not only through technical means, but also by going further and raising awareness of the issue of hearing loss for musicians as a whole. In my experience, exposure to potentially damaging sound can seem like an inevitable part of the relentless chore of practice, rehearsals, and lessons. It is a price to pay for dedication to the instrument.
The problem with this mindset is that it completely ignores how deeply music is related to our health. Music nurtures our emotional and intellectual well-being, but at the same time, the choices we make as musical artists persist in parts of our lives away from the rehearsal room. Choosing to ignore your hearing health in the practice room can have huge consequences in the future.
In light of this, I hope that the Conservatory is seriously considering tackling the problem not only by technical means, but also by going further and raising awareness of the issue of hearing loss for musicians in general.