Woodwinds and Large Stringed Instruments – information sheet part #2

Marshall Chasin
December 5, 2011

This is the second in a list of 6 fact sheets that can be copied onto your office letterhead and provided to musicians.  There will be one that relates to each musician instrument, and this one is obviously (as can be seen in the title) about woodwinds and large stringed instruments such as the bass and cello.  These are used in the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada (www.musiciansclinics.com) and I would appreciate citing the source of this information if you choose to use them as one of  your clinic handouts.  Like all information sheets this, and those that follow, can be used as part of the counseling session.

• Woodwinds such as clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, and the flute are all found in symphonies and smaller chamber groups. So are the larger stringed instruments such as cello, string bass, and the harp. These instruments generate similar sound levels (albeit at different frequencies), and are subject to similar music exposure from other instruments. Many of these musicians need to sit in front of potentially damaging trumpet and percussion sections.

• Most of these instruments possess significant low-frequency sound energy with very little fundamental and harmonic energy in the higher frequencies. And, these same musicians need to sit “downwind” of the brass section. Most of the damaging energy from the brass section is in the higher frequency ranges, so it would be ideal to have ear protection that lets through the lower frequency sounds, but attenuates (or lessens) the higher frequencies from the other instruments. Indeed such a “vented/tuned ear plug” is useful for these instruments. A tuned cavity is created in the ear plug that allows the musician to hear their own instrument while ensuring that the damaging elements of the trumpet and percussion sections are reduced.

• For those woodwinds (clarinet, saxophone, flute) that also play in jazz and blues bands, a wider form of protection can be useful. These are called the ER-15 earplugs. They allow all of the music to be attenuated (lessened in energy) equally across the full range of musical sounds. That is, the low-bass notes are treated identically to the mid-range and high-frequency treble notes. The balance of music is therefore not altered. These earplugs have been in wide use since the late 1980s.

• Plexiglas™ baffles can be erected between the cymbals and the jazz/blues woodwind players, but should not extend higher than the drummer’s ear. Such baffles can attenuate the sound energy of the drums for the other musicians. Ensuring that the baffles do not extend too high, ensures that the drummer is not subject to their own high-frequency reflections, which may increase the potential for future hearing loss.

• Ear monitors are small in-the-ear devices that look like hearing aids connected to small wire cables. They can be connected directly to the amplification system. These not only afford some protection from overly loud music, but allow the woodwind players to monitor their music better. Generally however, these are not necessary unless the music levels are very intense. Frequently, the overall sound levels on stage during rehearsals and performances are quieter while using these ear monitors.

• Acoustic monitors are stethoscope-like devices that can be used by acoustic bass, cello and harp players to allow them to better hear their own instrument. A length of hearing aid tubing plugs into one’s custom made earplug on one end and by way of a suction cup or similar attachment, it plugs onto the tail piece, bridge, or body of the bass, cello, or harp. The musician can better monitor their own instrument which has the benefit of not overplaying. Wrist and arm strain is usually reduced with such a set-up.

• The human ear is much like any other body part- too much use and it may be damaged. The ear takes about 16 hours to “reset”. After attending a rock concert or a loud session you may notice reduced hearing and/or tinnitus (ringing) in your ears. And if your hearing was assessed immediately after the concert, one would find a temporary hearing loss. After 16 hours however, your hearing should return to its “baseline” (hopefully normal) level. After a loud session or concert, don’t practice for 16-18 hours. Also, its a good excuse not to mow your lawn for a day or two!

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