[Dixielandjazz] Unwanted Sounds - Hearing Aid Feedback

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 2 09:50:36 PST 2003

Those of us who gig for senior citizens in retirement Complexes, etc.,
will get a kick out of thie below article. Not OKOM, but it certainly
applies to many OKOM situations.

December 2, 2003 - NEW YORK TIMES

Pardon Me, Sir, but Your Auricular Instrument Is Flat


      Every concert hall and opera house has found a way to remind
audience members to please turn off all cellphones, pagers and beepers
before a performance. At Avery Fisher Hall a message is projected on the
back wall of the stage. At the Metropolitan Opera it is posted on each
seat's Met Titles screen, the first thing to greet people as they settle
into their seats. Broadway theaters use amusing recorded announcements
that list an assortment of mood disturbers, including crackling candy
wrappers and crinkling plastic shopping bags.

Yet one disruptive sound remains unmentionable: the hearing aid. Some
performance halls make euphemistic mention of "other electronic devices"
in their requests. Mostly, though, everyone has been too discreet to
single out the hearing aid.

That is until recently at Carnegie Hall when Simon Rattle bravely
mentioned the unmentionable. He was conducting the third of three
triumphant performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, and had just
completed an Apollonian account of the stirring first movement of
Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C. Throughout at least the second half of
that movement, many listeners must have heard the high-pitched whistle
of feedback from a hearing aid. As Sir Simon took a short pause to ready
the orchestra for the slow second movement, the high ringing sound
became pervasive.

Intent on remedying the problem, Sir Simon turned to the audience and
explained that the sound seemed to be coming from a hearing aid. Then,
with characteristic British courtesy, he asked, if I remember correctly,
"Could someone please help that person with this problem?" Or some
similarly tactful words.

Hearing aids have intruded on many rewarding performances. That telltale
sound ruined an impassioned performance by the soprano Karita Mattila of
Leonore's great Act I aria from Beethoven's "Fidelio" at the Met a few
seasons ago. A similar sustained high pitch pervaded Alicia de
Larrocha's genial account of Mozart's Piano Concerto in A (K. 488) this
summer, her farewell performance with the Mostly Mozart Festival. Only
once before, though, have I seen an artist stop a performance to request
that the disturbance be attended to. In April 2001, as the soprano Dawn
Upshaw began the first work on a Carnegie Hall recital, she gestured for
her accompanist to stop playing just moments into the performance and,
turning to the audience, graciously explained that she heard a
"whistling sound." As she waited anxiously, the sound was turned off.
Before she started the song again, Ms. Upshaw said, "That's for all of

Though what had caused that sound was obvious, Ms. Upshaw refrained from
identifying it. This is a delicate matter. Users of hearing aids at
performances have an unfortunate impairment and are still, to their
credit, trying to enjoy live music. Moreover, a person wearing a hearing
aid often cannot hear the
whistling that his device sometimes produces. It is a pesky sound to
track down for others in the hall. Those high-pitched sustained tones
throw you off. You could be sitting just seats away from a
malfunctioning hearing aid and think that the whistling is coming from
somewhere up in the balcony.

The sustained high pitch comes from feedback caused by an improperly
fitted hearing aid or a buildup of wax or fluid in the ear. Sometimes
turning the volume too high can also cause the problem. This summer at
the Mostly Mozart Festival a scintillating account of a Haydn piano
concerto by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra was
nearly ruined by the buzzlike whistling of a hearing aid that occurred
during only the louder passages.

It is easy to get angry at obtuse concertgoers who hack away, not even
trying to muffle their coughs, or at those who fiddle with plastic bags
on their laps. But it would be mean-spirited to get upset at
hard-of-hearing music lovers. Classical music tends to attract a
disproportionate number of older listeners, who would be more likely to
have this problem.

Still, malfunctioning hearing aids are more intrusive than cellphones,
which, however mood-destroying, are at least temporary. A hearing aid
can whistle through an entire act of an opera. And think of the
performers who are trying to produce notes on pitch while the
high-pitched feedback distracts them from concentrating.

Classical music has had to contend with the hurtful perception of the
concert hall or the opera house as sacred temple for which one must get
dressed up, sit rigidly still and not make a sound. A performance of a
Wagner opera at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany can have the air of a
religious ritual during which
no one would dare to cough or stir.

Yet in a noisy, hooked-up, fast-paced and overamplified world, the
concert hall and the opera house are about the only places left to
experience natural acoustics, unamplified voices, the radiant sound of a
traditional orchestra. This precious environment is worth protecting.

What to do? Audiences must try not to disturb the rapt atmosphere that
ideally should accompany classical music performances. Patrons with
hearing aids must be especially sensitive to the problems these
essential devices can cause. More artists and institutions should follow
Sir Simon's example and deal with the problem straight on.

Those sitting near people with malfunctioning hearing aids should
politely point out the problem. Some, with low tolerance for intrusive
sounds, are already practiced at this protocol. If you are sitting near
Row L at the Met and before the performance a middle-aged guy with
thinning brown hair asks you to please
place your shopping bag under your seat, it will probably be yours

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