Can piano practice damage your hearing ?

This blog is concerned with the cumulative risk of piano playing on hearing over many years.   My childhood piano teacher lived to around 95 years of age. Although her mental faculties were intact, she couldn’t bear to listen to music for the last 10-15 years of her life. Apparently, all the notes would be a ‘jangle’, distorted and in the wrong key. This was obviously very distressing to a musician, and was clearly more than the usual age-related deafness.   Two great pianists are also on record as having suffered from remarkably similar problems. Sviatoslav Richter suffered from severe depression before his death in 1997 age 82 because of changes in his hearing which altered his perception of pitch, according to the biography by Bruno Monsaingeon. And Alfred Brendel stated, in his Desert Island Discs interview of 15/11/2013, that his hearing had suddenly ‘broken down’ the previous year, and that he ‘rarely went to concerts’ and ‘hardly listened to music any more’ because of problems with his hearing – perhaps suggesting more than simple age-related deafness.

I have played the piano since a young boy, and although I pursued a medical career, I always kept up my playing, and practiced and performed ‘big’ repertoire pieces , such as the Liszt Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata, Schubert ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and the Brahms concertos, on noisy grand pianos.   After a spell of hard practice before a performance of Brahms second concerto, around 1995, I developed tinnitus, and an audiogram showed the typical ‘notch’ and marked loss of higher frequencies, confirming the diagnosis of acoustic trauma. I have had tinnitus ever since, and I have no doubt that it relates directly to the cumulative exposure, over many years, to piano sound.   Fortunately, I tolerate the tinnitus well, and have not experience any of the distortions of pitch described in individuals above – yet.   However the marked loss of higher frequencies has reduced my perception and enjoyment of music, particularly orchestral and vocal music. I wish that I had been more aware of these potential problems when I was younger and practising hard on noisy pianos !  Yet my lifetime’s exposure, after a busy career in acute hospital medicine, can hardly compare with that of most professional pianists.

There seems to be debate on the relevant forums as to whether playing the piano can result in permanent hearing damage and tinnitus, hence this post.   I have no doubt that it can do so.   I suspect that the damage relates to the cumulative impact of the sound over many years, rather than its intensity at any given moment.   Perhaps it might be regarded as a price worth paying, for a lifetime’s pleasure at the keyboard !   Yet I suspect that many practice pianos, and practice rooms, in music schools and conservatories are bright, over-loud and over-resonant, and that this may store up problems later on.   One practical measure to decrease the risk might be to put blankets over a piano so the overall sound level is reduced without recourse to special hearing protectors, which I have tried but found to be unsatisfactory. My two pianos are thus covered in blankets and sleeping bags !   But the damage is done in my case, and is irreversible. Perhaps this blog might help younger pianists to avoid similar problems in the future.   I think it is a real and unrecognised problem.


Paying our musicians…

Our concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas are all ‘free admission, with a retiring collection’.   We receive no sponsorship from any source, and no grants from any funding bodies.   Yet our musicians are always paid for their services.   On principle, we wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.   They are invariably professional musicians, and one wouldn’t expect to employ the services of a plumber for nothing.  However, this contrasts sharply with lunchtime concerts held at prominent church venues in Central London, and some well-known private venues as well, where the musicians are expected to provide their services free of charge.   Whatever the justification for this – supposedly because the concerts are raising money for other more worthy causes – this would seems like blatant exploitation.

It is worth detailing the financial arrangements for musicians at the two venues where my concerts are held.  At St Mary’s Perivale, we attract an audience of around 50-60, and the average sum donated at the end of a concert is usually around £7 per head, with a wide range from £1 or less to £20 or more, reflecting the different circumstances of members of the audience.   With the extra funds from Gift Aid, this provides about £8-9 per audience member, or a total of around £450.  We pay around £300-£350 to the musicians, split proportionately, and use the residual £100-150 to cover expenses, such as the free wine and crisps (costing about £30 per concert) and all the usual overheads such as insurance, heating and lighting, and piano maintenance.  So if a concert comprises a first half  piano recital (45 minutes) and a piano trio in the second half, we might give £120 to the pianist, and a total of £210 to the piano trio.   If the whole concert comprises one ensemble, say a piano trio, they will receive around £300, or £100 each.  This is admittedly a paltry sum when one considers the calibre of most of our musicians, but at least it is something, and is much appreciated.  They also receive a free high-quality video recording of their performance, many of which can be seen on our Youtube  channel ( .  Certainly, virtually all our musicians are keen to return for future concerts.   For the Friday lunchtime concerts at St Barnabas we have adopted a fixed scheme whereby soloists receive £100 for their 45 minute performance, duos receive a total of £120, trios receive £150 and quartets receive £160 (usually increased to £200).

This financial model seems fairly unusual – hence this blog – and contrasts with that of many music clubs which hold a limited number (say 6-10 per year) of high-profile concerts, charging £15 or more for tickets, to listen to more established musicians who will accordingly receive considerably more than the sums we offer.    Often these clubs have to pay steep hiring sums for the venue, and may have to bring in a piano for the concert, and the cost of the musicians will usually be closer to £1000 than £300 .They may then have to rely on sponsorship to cover their costs.  We are fortunate in avoiding many of these problems, and I think that our policy of picking the very best young musicians in London, usually in the age range 23-33,  provides a similar quality of music-making to that achieved by employing older, more established musicians with bigger reputations. It also contrasts sharply with those lunchtime recitals and evening recitals in private venues in Central London, where no payment is given or expected.   In my opinion, this is simply unacceptable.

The advantages of ‘home opera’

I am an opera-lover, and enjoy many wonderful nights at the opera every year. However, these evenings are actually spent at home, in preference to Covent Garden (ROH) or the Coliseum (ENO). This is because the overall experience of home opera seems preferable in almost every respect.   So nowadays I hardly ever go to the ‘real thing’. I should explain that I have a loft in my semi-detached home in West London, with a large TV and a Hi-Fi system with speakers either side of the TV. I also have some low staging blocks which elevate a row of seats at the back, so that 12 people can sit in comfort.

My wife and I started our home opera club 9 years ago, when she was ill, and was forbidden to travel into Central London on medical grounds. Since then we have had monthly opera evenings, or about 100 operas in all, including four Wagner Ring Festivals with the operas viewed on successive evenings.   Our audience ranges from 9 to 12 for each opera, and we naturally have a liberal supply of wine and food to complement the opera. The evenings are simply idyllic – I can’t think of any better word to describe them – and really do compare favourably with those spent at ROH or ENO, or anywhere else for that matter. It is worth listing the advantages, although most are self-evident. These are as follows :

Total choice of opera and date.   There is a huge range of opera performances now available on DVD and Blu-ray, covering virtually the entire repertoire.   There is no need to wait for a rare ‘live’ performance of a particular opera, and one can explore the whole gamut of the art form.

Wide choice of singers, conductors and productions.   There are at least 20 available versions of the most popular operas, and one can therefore enjoy most of the great artists of the past 40 years, singing in their prime, and usually giving their best performances, with no risk of cancellation due to a sore throat !   And one can choose between different opera houses, conductors and production styles, and in particular one can avoid the increasingly absurd productions which have almost become the ‘norm’ in recent years. We find ourselves concentrating mainly on productions from before 2000 for this reason.

Better visual experience.   The ability of home opera to provide close-ups of the main protagonists is a huge asset, only rivalled by a seat in the front stalls at the opera house.   And the provision of subtitles on the screen means that the performance can be enjoyed without the distraction of repeated glances upwards to read the surtitles – again a considerable advantage in practice.

Better sound and musical experience :   With a good HiFi system the sound on most DVDs and Blu-ray discs is certainly preferable to the sound in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden, which is ‘boxy’ and unsatisfactory. The difference in clarity and volume is most obvious in the overture, where the orchestral sound quality is clearly superior to the ‘live’ experience – certainly in the amphitheatre.   I accept that the sound in the front stalls is also excellent but few can regularly afford to sit there.

Better seating    Sitting in an cosy armchair at home, with a glass of wine to hand, is an infinitely better experience than sitting cramped up in the amphitheatre, with an obese stranger invading one’s ‘personal space’ all evening !

Better start and end to the evening : The journey from my West London home into Central London will typically begin at around 5 pm, and the journey home will involve a dispiriting tube journey along the Central Line with assorted drunks, arriving home tired and depressed, about 11.45 pm.   It’s either a mildly, or very, unpleasant end to the evening, regardless of what went on before.

Less expensive : Most DVDs and Blu-rays cost about £15-30, compared with the cost of two tickets at Covent Garden, which with travel, programme and drinks will be at least £120, and more likely to approach £200.    I have put this factor at the end of the list, because, in my case, it is not the prime mover.

Disadvantages of home opera :

Missing the ‘frisson’ of a ‘live’ experience. This is obviously a potential disadvantage. Occasionally evenings in an opera house can ‘take off’ in a special way.     Hearing a young singer making their first mark on the opera world is exciting, and some say that encountering the various different singers is perhaps the main attraction for going to ROH, perhaps to see yet another performance of Boheme, Traviata or Figaro in a familiar production.   I am unsure whether the same performance, seen at home if/when the recording is released, would have quite the same impact. I suspect it will be pretty close, but admittedly there is some alchemy in being there when it actually happens.   However, a more common experience is to be irritated beyond belief by an absurd production – but that’s a topic for another blog !

Missing the social scene.   Many people go to the opera for the social occasion rather than for the opera itself.   This has always been the case, and is fine.   Enjoying a drink and good company with friends in an attractive environment is an important part of any opera evening.   However, watching the opera at home with a dozen close friends, rather than casual acquaintances, all of whom are interested in opera, is an immensely social experience, and we inevitably enjoy lively discussions about all aspects of the performance in the intervals and the end, lubricated by much wine and food.   It doesn’t get any better than this !

Neglecting to support the ‘live’ opera scene. I do feel guilt about this, which is why I am still a ‘Friend’ of the ROH.   Opera does need active support if it is to survive as an art form for future generations to enjoy.   It would be disastrous if my pattern of operatic experience were widely adopted.   However, I do think that at least some of the blame must be taken by those in charge of our opera companies, aided by opera critics, who pour scorn on ‘traditional’ productions – i.e. those aiming to emulate what the composer intended. I feel that opera has to some extent lost its way over the past 10-20 years.   But as stated previously, that’s another topic, for a separate blog.

So I am very happy with my opera-‘going’ at the moment – which in practice is opera-‘staying at home’ !   If you are, like me, primarily interested in the opera itself, rather than the social scene surrounding it, then I would suggest that a home opera club experience is the equal, and in my view markedly superior, to ‘live’ operas at ROH and ENO.   I realize that this will be an unpopular view, particularly to the opera establishment. Anyway, you might like to try setting up your own opera club. You may find, as I have done, that it is a life-enhancing experience.

Hugh Mather

Piano balance problems in chamber music – ‘long or short stick ?’

I have a slight ‘hang-up’ about piano balance in chamber music.   This is based on my experience in hosting over 1000 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas, Ealing, as detailed on my website, with performances by over 300 pianists. Perhaps 700-800 concerts have involved a pianist performing with at least one other musician, either an instrumentalist (usually a violinist or cellist) or singer, and possibly 250 have been larger ensembles – piano trios, piano quartets or piano quintets.   I estimate that the piano has been definitely and unequivocally too loud in about a quarter of concerts, and slightly too loud in another quarter.   I don’t recall it ever being too soft! Yet the majority of ensemble pianists play with the piano lid fully open, on the long stick. When asked, I always suggest to pianists that they should use the short stick, because this helps to solve many of the balance problems, but this advice is usually ignored, and is sometimes perceived as a grave insult to the pianist’s musicianship or pianism !

The problem is obviously particularly relevant when playing with cellists, either as a duo or in trios or larger ensembles, but also occurs in performance with violinists. To state the obvious, the audience must be able to hear both string parts in a piano trio clearly, at all times, regardless of how thick the piano textures are, and regardless of whether the strings have the melody or are, in effect, accompanying the piano.   The notes which the composer wrote on the page for the violinist and cellist are meant to be heard. This is easily achieved in recordings by using separate ‘mikes’ for each instrument, but in the real world of ‘live’ performance, there isn’t scope for this manipulation, and the pianist must never risk obscuring the other musicians, however slightly.

The reasons why some pianists play too loud in chamber music are several. Firstly, obviously a modern grand piano has a much louder sound than the instrument for which the core masterpieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were written for. The combination of a modern concert grand piano and a solo string instrument is inherently an unequal contest, and the pianist has to be constantly aware of this imbalance, and adjust his playing accordingly.   Secondly, the pianist has no clear idea of how loud his playing will sound to the audience. Piano sound tends to travels sideways, directed by the lid, towards the audience, rather than towards the pianist. Additionally, his fellow-musicians will be facing away from the pianist, towards the audience.   So a pianist in piano trio or quartet has to make an inspired guess as to whether his playing, as heard by the audience, is too loud, relative to that of the other musicians, and it isn’t easy – however well they ‘listen’ to the other parts.  Thirdly, opening the piano lid fully, rather than on the short stick, obviously increases the risk of imbalance.   Some pianists in my concerts use the long stick, and then proceed to play most of the concert ‘una corda’ (using the so-called ‘soft pedal’) – in order to reduce the sound volume, rather than to produce a different sound world, which is a bad pianistic habit.   If the piano lid is on the ‘short stick’, then this inappropriate use of ‘una corda’ can be avoided. It then becomes much easier to control the dynamic range of the instrument and avoid balance problems.   The position of the piano relative to the musicians and the audience is also relevant. If there is a gap between the strings and the piano, there is more chance that the strings will be easily heard.  Solo violinists and cellists often prefer to perform close to the pianist, rather than placed in front of the piano, to project to the audience.   The latter configuration might make communication between the musicians more difficult, but is important in ensuring that the string players can be heard by the audience. In addition, the tone and penetration of the string sound is obviously important.   The best players make their parts speak regardless of the other players, whereas some violinists (particularly) and cellists have a light sound which soon becomes inaudible against a prominent piano part.

Obviously these gross generalizations don’t apply to many of the superb chamber music pianists who do ‘have the lid up’, and yet maintain excellent balance with their fellow musicians. As with all chamber-music, the secret is listening – listening – listening, and adapting one’s volume and textures accordingly. When listening to a concert as an audience member, I find it useful and instructive to close one’s eyes and pretend that you are at home listening to a CD, and then ask whether the balance is satisfactory. Can you hear all the parts ? Or are they swamped by the piano sound ? If you can’t hear the string parts in their entirety, the pianist is too loud – end of story ! Yet these problems are not restricted to our concerts. ‘Live’ broadcasts in Radio 3 from the Wigmore Hall and other venues, where separate ‘mikes’ are not usually used, often suffer from the same problem. Some modern recordings also seem ‘piano heavy’. I was brought up with chamber music recordings by musicians such as Heifetz and Oistrakh, where the mikes would be almost on the fingerboard, and the piano was in an adjacent room !   But that seemed to get to the heart of the music unerringly – at least one could hear all three performers.   There is a simple rule for pianists – err on being too soft, rather than run any risk of being too loud !

Hugh Mather

Issues in planning concert programmes

This first post on my blog relates to issues in programming concerts, and is based on my experience in promoting over 1000 concerts in Ealing in the past decade ( ).   There are often tensions in planning concerts, between the repertoire that the musicians would like to play and that which the audience might enjoy.    My role is often to try to find an accommodation between the two. The Ealing concerts attract a general audience, largely comprising late middle-age and elderly people, who perhaps listen to Classic FM but don’t attend concerts in Central London, and generally have conservative musical tastes. We have to appeal to our clientele, and this may require a different approach to that of more prestigious venues in Central London, who can appeal to their own ‘niche’ audiences. We have undertaken questionnaire surveys which clearly show that attendance at concerts is dependent on two variables which I can’t alter (viz. clashes with other events, and the state of the weather) and the third crucial variable, namely whether the programme is deemed to be attractive or not. As a rule of thumb, anything from Haydn and Mozart through to Brahms and Dvorak will attract an audience and anything before or after this period will put them off ! The inclusion of works by Bartok or Prokofiev, for example, has an obvious negative impact on audience numbers, and performing to a half-full church is rather dispiriting for the musicians as well as for myself, and results in less money to distribute to the musicians from our retiring collection.

The problem for all classical music promoters is that of audience retention – persuading them to come again to another concert. In practice, this means that each concert has to be perceived as sufficiently enjoyable to encourage the potential audience member to come along, even if this means coping with heavy traffic on a cold, dark, wet night in the winter, rather than staying at home by the fire, watching the television. It is a tough challenge !  Viewed from this perspective, I certainly don’t see it as my role to ‘educate’ the audience or help them develop a sudden fondness for composers whom they have not understood or have actively disliked for 50 years or so.   Many potential audience members find much 20th century music difficult to understand and enjoy.   If they are bored for two concerts in succession, they are unlikely to return. In fact, I share many of their problems, finding at least some of the music of, say, Bartok, Medtner, Scriabin or Prokofiev to be difficult to comprehend and not particularly enjoyable to listen to. If I have problems, after a lifetime’s participation in music, I am sure that they are also shared by most of the audience.

Yet we have an important secondary role to fulfil, in providing performing experience to exceptional musicians, and to help develop their career. We don’t operate solely to give pleasure to the audience. Our musicians may need to try out more ‘difficult’ repertoire before a high-profile concert or competition, even though more popular repertoire would ensure a larger audience. So a compromise needs to be reached, often involving some delicate negotiation.   Pianists, particularly the many superb pianists based in London who hail from the former Soviet Union, often wish to play works by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Medtner etc, and violinists are especially fond of the Ysaye solo sonatas, which are not particularly grateful listening. Unless the musicians can ‘sugar the pill’ by including popular works by earlier composers, they risk playing to an empty church. One important aid to help the audience in ‘difficult repertoire’, borrowed from the BBC Proms programmes, is to indicate in the programme how long each work lasts.   Then if someone becomes bored in an unfamiliar work, he or she can ascertain whether the piece lasts 8 minutes or 38 minutes !   A good introduction by the musicians, particularly of 20th century music can be immensely helpful in guiding the audience through an unfamiliar work, and we are increasingly encouraging our performers to provide this.

So I lean heavily and unashamedly towards popular and established repertoire, with carefully rationed performance of unfamiliar music, in the hope that the total enjoyment of the entire concert experience (including the social content before and after the concert) will be sufficient to attract our supporters back again and again, and thus we will have a full and enthusiastic audience for our musicians. This means that some standard chamber works are performed on average almost on a yearly basis, as detailed in the tables of works at St Mary’s Perivale performed over the past decade ( , in over 500 concerts. Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, for example, has been played 10 times in the past decade at St Mary’s Perivale. Some have called this ‘over-familiarization’, but I maintain that hearing this sublime masterpiece on average once a year, played ‘live’ by different ensembles, is hardly excessive.   Some of my audience do think that I should be ‘more adventurous’ with repertoire choices, which sounds admirable in theory, but after 1000 concerts I know that these same people will stay away if unfamiliar repertoire is on the menu !   It is a difficult compromise to achieve. I think it is approximately right at the moment, but you may think otherwise. Have a look through our archives pages for St Mary’s Perivale over the past year or two ( , and see if you agree !

Hugh Mather