‘Seating can be a problem with loud brass or percussion seated immediately behind. You want them to bugger off because they’re deafening you, and it’s not their fault.’ – Violinist

This comment from The Prestige Economy of a London Orchestra, a revealing PhD thesis by Dr Francesca Carpos-Young, highlights a situation which led to Goldscheider v The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation, the subject of tonight’s King’s College London event.

(The star turn for me is British Sign Language interpreter Richard Law. I can’t follow the speed of his gestures so my sketches are nonsense; I hope I haven’t introduced any obscenity.)

Chris Goldscheider, a viola player with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, suffered career-ending hearing damage while seated in front of the brass section during a rehearsal of Wagner's Die Walküre in 2012. Noise levels were roughly equivalent to that from a jet engine. He can no longer take pleasure in listening to music, nor be near a supermarket fridge: it's all painful noise to him. Awarding Mr Goldscheider damages for acoustic shock, the judge ruled that ‘musicians are entitled to the protection of the law, as is any other worker.’ The judgment is here 


Words from the projector land on Theo Huckle QC's head

This landmark case is of huge importance to the music business and the ROH is taking it to the Court of Appeal in 2019.

We are told this evening that orchestral musicians face a 40% chance of significant hearing loss; and it is not always explained to players that, if you don’t wear hearing protection for ten per cent of the time, you lose a substantial part of any protective benefit. (After the incident with the deer rifle at Bisley shooting range, an ENT specialist told me that, rather than relying on earplugs, one should avoid loud noise for ever.)

There are, it seems, no orchestral musicians here tonight. That's a shame, but they don’t want to make waves in an insecure, clannish industry where much work is freelance and the power is in the hands of promoters, conductors and fixers. Comments in the thesis cited above open up this world, even if they generalise:

‘Brass have an anarchistic approach, and are naughty, rowdy boys. Violins are sheep, violas are eccentric, and woodwind border on suicidal. Percussion are unstable, are experts at golf and killing time. They often get away with more misbehavior than others, and tend to stick together.’ – Double bass player

One violinist cites ‘Terrible levels of physical and mental stress. Abuse by managements trying to undercut their financial and working conditions. Woefully inadequate composers in the commercial sector. Ageism.’

‘People get to the top of the orchestral tree with a lot of drinking, a lot of sleeping around, or some ability to be business-like and tactical.' – Horn player

‘How many trumpet players does it take to change a light bulb? Three! One to hold the bulb and two to drink till the room spins’ – Trumpet player

‘As a piccolo player everyone leaves me and my section alone, but the woodwind gives the pond life [string players] a really hard time; taking the piss and calling them gypos and stuff.’

In today's accusatory, fact-free environment, quoting her thesis notes got Dr Carpos-Young hounded out of her professorship at the Royal Academy of Music. Warning students about name-calling in the real mucky professional world, she listed the names (see above). Her words were taken out of context by some. In November 2018 the Employment Tribunal upheld her claims for wrongful dismissal and victimisation. (All cults have their own lingo. The most offensive comment this evening is: ‘My wife calls all non-lawyers “muggles”.’)

Had enough? Here’s some naff clichéd prose from American one-time professional oboist Blair Tindall, author of Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music: ‘Instrumentalists had a sexual style unique to their instrument. Violinists, anonymous in their orchestra section, finished quickly. Trumpet players pumped away like jocks, while pianists’ sensitive fingers worked magic. French horn players, their instruments the testiest of all, could rarely perform, but percussionists could make beautiful music out of anything.’

Acoustic shock: where law meets aesthetics

Chair: Professor Alan Read, King’s College London

Participants: Theo Huckle QC, Chris Fry of Fry Law, Dr Aoife Monks of Queen Mary University of London, Dr Lucy Finchett-Maddock of the University of Sussex, Dr Colm McGrath of King’s College London

(Performance Foundation; Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London; King's College London English Department Creative Seed Fund; Faculty of Arts and Humanities Research Fund)