By Peter McKinnon
– Bass trombone, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
1) What is happening to the level of sound in our symphony and opera orchestras?
2) Why are we brass and percussion players injuring our colleagues with dangerous decibel levels?
3) Is it really necessary for string and woodwind players to use hearing protectors and a forest of plexi-glass shields after a long and demanding musical education?
These are three questions that all brass players should ask themselves!
One sure way out of this is for us all to concentrate on being part of the orchestra rather than being heard above the string and woodwind sound. Thus complimenting it, as I’m sure was the composer’s intention. Of course, it is the responsibility of the conductor to correct imbalance in the orchestra but, honestly, do we always so as he tells us, especially on concerts and very especially if he’s a guest that we may never see again?
Responsibility and diplomacy
The responsibility is ours to ransack our artistic consciences and to make sure that we are team players as well as inspirational soloists. If conductors on the other hand go to the opposite extreme and demand what we know is harmful levels of sound then we must use a diplomatic approach, and seek to discuss the problem at the appropriate time. That is not during a rehearsal but rather off-stage during a break. I am sure we can count on the help of the concertmaster in such a situation.
Due to my work as work environment ombudsman for the GSO I come into direct contact with the victims of over loud playing. Colleagues who have sustained damage to their hearing due to unacceptably dangerous noise levels.
Our safety engineer has recently measured the sound levels at two concerts, and the results were very disturbing. They indicate that unless we do something to reduce the decibel level we run the risk of not being physically capable of pursuing our chosen careers to pensionable age unless we all use some form of hearing protection. This is obviously not the way to go so we must all contribute to reducing sound to less dangerous levels.
I firmly believe that we should choose equipment that enables us to blend in with the string and woodwind sections, and create a really homogenous sounding brass choir even if it means not being able to dominate the sound picture.
Resist the temptation to try to sound the way some orchestras sound on recordings, where sound engineers can do all sorts of weird balancing, and listen as much as possible to live concerts instead.
My own choice of instrument and mouthpiece are of late much closer to the dimensions of pre-2nd World War instruments than previously, and I will be pleased to give details on request. There are going to be occasions when the use of earplugs and shields are going to be unavoidable so such equipment must be readily available by our employers. (This is the rule according to the Labour Law of Sweden). Hopefully their use will be the exception rather than the rule.
Why large bore = too loud
The reason for the high dB count when using large and over large equipment is quite simply due to the fact that one must play extremely loud to achieve the required quivré (brassy) sound necessary to portray the effects demanded by the composer.
Most composers are not that interested in sheer volume, but rather in colours he can use on his palate. What we brass players are really seeking is equipment that will allow us a greater ranger of variation of sounds and not just changes in volume, from the inaudible to the excruciating!
We cannot turn the clock back but awareness of the historical facts surely will help us to find a proper balance irrespective of the types of instrument we choose to play on.
A very brave young viola player once asked me, what the number of noise variable on a bass trombone was? After admitting that I wasn’t sure he told me: “There are two”, he said, “On and off!”
Some food for thought
I would like to draw attention to Brahms’ orchestration towards the end of the finale of his 2nd symphony. It is a real ear opener! There have been numerous concerts and excerpt sessions when I’ve both heard and played this exhilarating music, please note that the scales don’t finish with the first trombone run but with the first flute!
Check it out!
Peter McKinnon was the Health and Safety Ombudsman of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra between 1998 and 2003.