10 Jul 2019

The importance of ear plugs for musicians

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 10 July 2019

Wearing ear plugs while performing seems counter-intuitive but touring Scottish pianist Steven Osborne knows all too well what happens when you don’t.

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne Photo: Supplied

Osborne is in New Zealand to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in five centres around this country starting this week.

He started noticing ringing in his ears during his 20s and it progressively got worse over the years.

He discovered he’d developed tinnitus – a ringing or buzzing in the ears that is not curable. He was upset and disturbed, thinking the condition could end his career.

The ringing came about from practising loudly in a small room. A grand piano can create a deafening noise.

“It’s dangerous for your hearing,” he says about playing in confined spaces. “If someone shouts… two inches from your nose, you physically recoil. When you play the piano at its loudest, it’s unpleasant. To play Rachmaninov it’s uncomfortable.”

In New Zealand about six percent of the population have some form of tinnitus.

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne

Scottish pianist Steven Osborne Photo: Supplied

Osborne started wearing custom-fitted ear plugs during practice but soon employed them on the stage as well. The ear plugs equal out frequencies, but he can still hear what’s going on around him.

“You still hear everything, but it’s quieter,” he says. “Sometimes if my tinnitus has got louder, sometimes it interferes with what the conductor’s saying.”

The ear plugs do affect the way he hears acoustics in the concert hall though.

“It takes away the sense of the acoustics. You could argue it’s a bad thing,” he says. “It’s very unnerving to not get the feedback from the acoustics. But start to trust the feel you have. You know what you have to do to make a certain volume.”

According to Osborne, aural health is something musicians and music students should be aware of, and not all ear plugs are created equally. “The foams ones change the quality of the sound a bit,” he says. “[You] need something slightly more engineered.”

Steven Osborne is performing as part of the NZSO Mātauranga concert series which features two programmes. The first includes works by Michael Norris, Mozart, Golijov and Nielsen in Wellington and Auckland on July 13 and July 20. The second features Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Norris and Mozart in Napier, Tauranga and Hamilton on July 17, 18 and 19.


Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes