Two weeks ago, I walked into a small storefront office on Milwaukee Avenue and discovered something unexpected: an entire medical office dedicated to meeting the needs of people exactly like me, professional musicians who have very specific hearing issues and working situations. I was there to be tested and fitted for custom earplugs, as part of an arrangement with Lyric Opera and Sensaphonics, an industry leader in protecting the hearing of musicians. Sensaphonics was founded in 1985 by audiologist Dr. Michael Santucci, and their mission goes beyond the classical music sphere. A list of clients includes musicians from all genres (think Black Sabbath, Dave Matthews Band, and Beyonce), but also extends into the aerospace industry, professional racing, and communications/broadcasting.
How did this arrangement with the opera and Sensaphonics happen? It all began with input from some of our players about the sound level in the pit during rehearsals and performances. Orchestra Committee Chair Bill Cernota says it turned out that the concern was widespread throughout all instrument groups and all areas of the pit.
Sound levels in the pit are higher than you might suspect. For years, the opera has provided foam earplugs for use in the pit, and many of us used them. But every musician will tell you that they come with many, many problems. Sound is muffled and unclear. There is great difficulty hearing one’s own playing, so there is clearly an effect on quality of performance. And they are not quick or easy to insert correctly, making it troublesome to use them only when needed – you often must stop playing to deal with your plugs, which a violinist might get away with, but certainly not a wind or brass player who has one solo part they are responsible for. So, a better solution was sought.
Heather Wittels, violin, was a member of the orchestra committee at the time and was tasked with doing research. She was already using specialized earplugs from another company and she discovered that Sensaphonics provides custom earplugs that are tailored for the specific needs of musicians. “It was a happy coincidence that the audiologist I ended up speaking with there is a fellow fiddle player named Heather,” she says, referring to Dr. Heather Malyuk, an audiologist with Sensaphonics and performing violinist and guitarist. While most audiologists do not specialize in musicians’ issues, this is the main mission of Sensaphonics. A proposal was made and negotiated, and a cost sharing agreement was reached.
Some types of hearing damage are only detected through testing so Lyric Opera’s arrangement with Sensaphonics is ESSENTIAL to our hearing health. Not only can the high levels of sound in the pit cause damage over time, but our own individual instruments close to our bodies or attached to our faces can injure our hearing as a result of individual practicing for long hours. I was shocked to learn that my violin can top out at 102 dB (a jackhammer is rated at 102-105 dB), right under my ear, for hours at a time!
When I had my appointment, Sensaphonics founder Dr. Santucci interviewed me and tested my hearing. We then looked at a profile of my hearing loss and determined the level of protection most appropriate for my needs. He took impressions of my ear canals, and we chose a specific level of sound reduction that will enable me to hear myself and others, while providing protection.
The reviews from users are resoundingly positive. Says Heather Wittels: “What I like about the earplugs is that they cut down the level of sound evenly across the whole spectrum, so what you hear is exactly the same as usual, just a little softer. You don’t lose any high frequencies, which is what goes missing with foam earplugs.” Matt Comerford, Co-Assistant Principal Trumpet, really needed his earplugs recently when the factory bell in Carmen was positioned right next to him. And Chuck Bontrager (you may remember him as one of our tambouriza players last season, and current concertmaster for Hamilton) says, “The really great thing is that the reduction will eliminate much reflected sound entirely, so not only are things quieter, they are clearer. My plugs are the best money I’ve ever spent.”
We are always glad when the opera recognizes that our issues are important, specialized, and serious. We are also grateful to our orchestra committee and negotiating team for fighting for this tool to protect the quality of our performances, our health, and ultimately our individual careers. My custom, personalized earplugs should be ready soon. I am looking forward to my new tool of the trade!
Note: Several ICSOM orchestras publish newsletters, including the musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. This article from their most recent issue, by Lyric Opera violinist Teresa Fream, reprinted by permission, exemplifies the fine writing one can find there. To subscribe, write to email@example.com.