Occupational noise management is an important Workplace Health & Safety (WHS) priority. Noise exposure is a significant difficulty in many workplaces and not confined to what would normally be considered noisy workplaces, such as factories and construction sites. It is also an important issue for serious consideration by musicians.
Legislation in Australia, the UK and the EU mandates that employers and employees have a duty of care to look after their hearing health. In Australia, noise exposures for employees are limited to an LAeq,8h of 85 dB – meaning an employee can be exposed to an equivalent noise level (LAeq) of 85 dB for eight hours. These regulations apply not simply to those using noisy power tools but also to musicians making music . Due to the nature of musicians’ work, mitigating measures that apply in other fields, such as control at source, may be inappropriate. Other measures are required.
Noise exposure reduction measures fall into several broad hierarchical categories ranging from elimination and administrative responses at the top of the scale, to the use of hearing protectors at the bottom. With music, practical solutions may include repertoire selection to balance ‘harmful’ works (i.e. louder) with ‘less harmful’ (quieter) and/or rostering to ensure that musicians are not subject to prolonged periods or multiple calls of high decibel sound. The use of ‘acoustic shields’ to reduce exposure to loud passages of music has been increasing over recent years.
In order to address specific problems faced by individual musicians, Symphony Services International (SSI), in the 1990s known as Symphony Australia, worked with the National Acoustics Laboratory (NAL) in Sydney, Australia and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) to develop an acoustic shield that would improve æsthetic and acoustic performance compared to the transparent shields in common use. In particular, what became known as the Goodear Acoustic Shield (or Goodear), improved on the performance of clear shields by creating an ‘impact shadow’ while preserving the musician’s perception of the ensemble’s sound quality without creating ‘reflections’ or ‘virtual noise sources’.
One might expect that the Goodear Acoustic Shield would therefore be accepted for use with enthusiasm by both musicians and orchestras. Articles testifying to the effectiveness of Goodear have appeared in previous editions of Acoustics Australia . But how readily has Goodear been accepted?
A brief history of Goodear
Commencing in 1996, one of the authors of this article (WW), was involved in the creation of a personal acoustic shield that could ‘wrap around’ behind the head of an individual player and protect them. It was intended specifically to address the problems associated with other ‘engineered’ solutions such as earplugs and transparent shields.
Earplugs have significantly changed and improved in recent years. Custom-moulded and level-dependent earplugs are welcome as improvements on generic earplugs that were regularly considered to mar a musician’s ability to assess their contribution to the ensemble and overall musical effect. However most musicians do not like the experience of listening to their own playing while wearing earplugs. This is mainly due to the ‘occlusion’ effect in the ear.
Acoustic shields have the advantage of sparing a player the discomfort of earplugs and, by the musician adjusting their head position within the ‘impact shadow’ in front of the shield, being able to reduce noise ‘hot spots’ that occur in the music. Clear, plastic shields often create ‘knock on’ effects – reflections or virtual sound sources – that exacerbate problems for adjacent players. Goodear is designed with a non-reflective outer surface to prevent unwanted reflections. When used appropriately, Goodear can provide up to eight decibels of reduction in loudness  with no detriment for adjacent musicians.
Kate Lidbetter, CEO of SSI notes that since 2012, Goodear Acoustic Shields have attracted increasing interest around the world . Goodear is currently used by organisations such as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK and the San Francisco Opera and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the USA. This would suggest some overcoming of initial reservations about the shields related to appearance and impediment of sightlines.
It had also been claimed that the absorption of sound on the Goodear surface caused musicians to overcompensate and play louder, exacerbating hearing issues. Artistic standards are always an issue with musicians being nervous of anything that may alter the music as it actually sounds. Brass players sometimes express apprehension about a perceived ‘wall of foam’ effect as they face several Goodears shielding the woodwind players conventionally seated directly in front of the brass; a sense that Goodear creates a sound ‘shadow’ on the down-path side travelling around and over the Goodear to the audience.
It is tempting to think that successful implementation indicates an overcoming of these objections. The lead author was present at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference, Dallas, 2012 when musicians and/or administrators pointing to the dark appearance of the shield were persuaded that the ‘blackness’ of the shield is no more oppressive than the blackness of normal concert wardrobe or music stands.
Following an unfavourable introduction of the use of a Goodear by an individual musician in an American orchestra prior to consultation with colleagues, Kate Lidbetter  noted,
“After this we decided it was better to respond to requests from orchestra managers rather than individual musicians, and that’s worked quite well. We invite musicians to talk to their management and get their support before placing an order. I also wrote an ‘information sheet; which is posted on the SSI website and which I give to any prospective client.”
The subsequent adoption of Goodear by several orchestras indicated that education and cultural change is a significant factor in enabling the shield’s acceptance.
The Royal Opera House (ROH), Covent Garden, began using transparent plastic shields, but according to Ross Hendrie , the ROH’s Orchestra Operations Manager, “this resulted in issues with the brass players having their sound reflected directly at them”. The first aspect of Goodear that appealed to the ROH was therefore its outer absorbent material construction. Players also liked the ‘U’ shape which was ‘much more conducive to redirecting sound waves around and past the shield rather than back at the source’. They felt that the shape gave them ‘a bit of extra protection during very loud passages when they can lean back into the curvature of the screen’. Hendrie concedes that even though the organisation has occasionally had sightline issues due to the opaqueness of the shield and some other concerns for individual players who preferred earplugs, in general “Goodear is the one [acoustic solution] which has been most widely welcomed and requested. We have had to do very little to encourage their use”.
Indeed, the ROH is one of the organisations that has made subsequent additional purchases of the shield. Why was this? Says Hendrie ,
“The follow up purchase was generated simply by demand for the Goodear shield from players for production specific seating arrangements that we have at the ROH. For shows such as Romeo and Juliet we have had as many as ten screens being used to shield the back desks of Violas and Celli from the brass section and the rear of the Violins from the percussion. Goodears were very well received from the ‘off’ and we have had to do very little to encourage their use. They are actively requested as a superior option by most of our players.”
The experience of the Brisbane-based Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) probably needs to be read against that orchestra’s exceptionally detailed strategies to protect musicians’ hearing. The QSO is the state symphony orchestra of Queensland. It comprises 88 full-time musicians who give more than 145 live performances a year in a variety of venues, ranging from the 1,800-seat Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane to smaller regional theatres and halls.
Goodear Acoustic Shields form part of a highly-detailed strategy for protecting the QSO musicians’ hearing, as outlined in the publication Description and Evaluation of a Hearing Conservation Program in Use in a Professional Symphony Orchestra . The QSO has a 10-point plan for protecting its employees’ hearing that includes: constant monitoring of orchestral sound (including plotting noise maps); constant refining of the engineered controls such as orchestral layout; supply of earplugs; frequent convening of a noise committee that includes player representatives and members of the artistic committee; and an education package for musicians (including casuals) and management. In the words of Matthew Farrell , whose role at the orchestra includes direction of orchestral management, “We have worked for a long time on changing our culture so that musicians realise that hearing conservation (i.e. occupational noise management) is important”.
It is worth also noting that the QSO’s orchestra personnel must be among the most literate in the world regarding hearing issues. The orchestra formally educates its musicians as to their audio health at the induction stage and through annual workshops. Orchestra members also have regular audiological testing. Their weekly rosters include an assessment of hearing risk in a concert with a rating of ‘1’ (low risk) to ‘3’ (highest risk). Perhaps one of the biggest factors is the presence in the French horn section of a qualified/practicing audiologist, Ian O’Brien, co-author of the paper cited above. Given their level of audiological ‘literacy’, why did the QSO choose Goodear? Says Farrell ,
“The Goodear product was readily available and was assessed as being state of the art. In particular, the Goodear product creates the least noise problems for the instruments behind the screens, because it has absorbent surfaces on all sides. [However] …“Goodear cannot and does not replace personal earplugs. We use Goodear in conjunction with these measures”.
The QSO’s support of the Goodear has always been strong and it is surmised that this could be put down to the high importance the orchestra places on audiological health and the presence in their midst of a musician who knows a lot about audiology.
Although a long-standing member of the network of orchestras that uses SSI as a service organisation, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has only recently begun to make significant use of Goodear. Their purchase is of some significance, given the SSO’s current position as the most sizeable orchestra in the SSI network and their participation throughout the period of development of the shields. The SSO does not perform in a pit for opera and ballet. Pit use is a significant factor driving the purchase of the shields by other orchestras .
It would be fair to say that it took a while to introduce the shields successfully into the SSO but now they’re used fairly regularly. What made the difference? Laura Daniels, the SSO Production Manager, reports ,
“A number of factors played into this one. Prior to me starting with the SSO, there had been a trial period of these shields. I am led to believe that this was received with a high level of resistance… reasons for this are/could be many (i.e. not introduced properly, technical staff were not on board with using them). When we started looking at the shield as an option again, it became clear to me that we would need to introduce them in a much more detailed and educated capacity and “trial” them first. So we did. We provided information at the WHS committee meetings (on which I sit), emails were distributed to players with information and musician WHS reps were helpful in discussing the shields and their benefits with their colleagues. During the trial we engaged with players on stage in direct conversation around the shields and they had a tangible document to fill out to provide us with feedback. What really made the difference? Inclusion, discussion and giving space for voices to be heard.”
Clearly, work is required to establish with certainty whether education and ‘change of culture’ is what has led to the greater adoption of Goodear acoustic shields in recent years. For example, has Goodear been more readily accepted by pit orchestras such as at the Royal Opera House, where their location in an enclosed theatre pit dramatically illustrates the solution?
Evidence in relation to other hearing protection programs suggests that workplace education is of prime importance. O’Brien and others concede that these days, as a result of the QSO’s hearing protection program, “…the anger [that once existed in response to hearing protection measures] isn’t there…” . There is a degree of anecdotal evidence suggesting that cultural change is required in order to introduce a solution that may be strongly indicated by scientific evidence.
While it is difficult to develop and implement a comprehensive study to provide unarguable evidence of the need for cultural change when introducing relatively novel solutions to occupational noise management in orchestral settings, good evidence is available. The reported results from orchestras who have embarked on appropriate introduction as opposed to mandatory implementation of acoustic shields indicate that they are satisfied with their use and encouraged by positive outcomes.
This goes to emphasise the fact that WHS involves people and consultation with people must always be undertaken when introducing solutions to new or existing WHS hazards.
- Presbury, J, Williams, W. Occupational noise exposure management in an orchestral setting, J Occup Health Safety – Aust NZ, 16(4): 337 – 342, 2000
- Williams W, Stewart G. Noise Exposure Reductions for Orchestral Musicians., Acoustics Australia, Volume 39(2): 73 – 74, (2011)
- Personal communication, Symphony Services International, inventory records, September 2015
- Personal communication, August, 2015
- O’Brien I, Driscoll T, Ackermann B, Description and Evaluation of a Hearing Conservation Program in Use in a Professional Symphony Orchestra, Annals of Occupational Hygiene 59(3): 265 – 276, 2014
- Personal communication, September, 2015
- Personal communication, Anna Kuwabara, Vice President for Orchestra Operations & Facilities, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: The orchestra originally purchased the shields to help with orchestra pit conditions when the orchestra plays for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis but subsequently found them helpful on stage for their subscription and special concerts at Powell Hall, 23 Sep 2015
- Personal communication September, 2015.
- Personal communication September, 2015.
Denis Daniels, former CEO of Symphony Australia.