Oh, Man! All This Noise?

Does the decibel level of some orchestral music — especially from the late 19th century onward — get on your nerves, too?

As a kid, I set my sights on becoming a professional symphony player. In my later teens, I auditioned for and played a couple of seasons in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, training school of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

It was an honor to be part of this group. Yet, after a couple of years of this heavy-duty training, I gave up the whole idea. At 21, I decided to resign my chair and let someone else have a shot at it — someone who really wanted this kind of work. I no longer wanted it. From that day to this, I haven’t done any more orchestral playing.

It was more than the big-group environment, long evening hours, and lack of individual freedom and creativity that got to me. A significant factor that pushed me over the edge was the decibel levels of some orchestral pieces. The music that had previously so engaged me as a listener — Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Wagner, for starters — well, some of it put me off as a player.

It wasn’t the technical challenges that put me off. I’m a tenacious fighter; and I knew how to zero in on hard parts, work them out, and pull my own weight. But in the tidal waves of sound, sometimes I could hardly hear myself think, let alone hear myself play.

The sound wasn’t physically painful. It just grated on my nerves. For me, that’s the way it is with loud noises. They are just plain annoying — long before they reach the danger zone. Still, I undoubtedly would have resorted to earplugs, as many professional players do these days, if the three other negatives I listed above hadn’t already induced me to call it quits.

I’m especially interested in feedback from current and former orchestra players. How do you cope with the high volumes? Do you use ear protection?

Adapted from my initial post, February 26, 2011, in a discussion thread at violinist.com.

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