For musicians, there isn’t anything as important as one’s hearing. It lies at the heart of everything we do. Without it, a choir concert just becomes so many mouths opening and closing. . .amusing, but far from inspirational. So why is it that musicians are so very bad about protecting their hearing? And I’m not just talking about rock musicians either. Orchestras, wind ensembles, and even choirs regularly generate sounds as loud as a rock concert, but musicians have only recently been paying attention to that fact. As part of our Health and Wellness initiative at the Conservatory, our goal is to raise awareness of the problem and get our students and faculty to do something about it. This is the one area where we tell our students NOT to be like Beethoven!
Part of the problem is that beautiful music can fool our brains into thinking that something isn’t as loud as it really is. If we hear a chain saw at 100 decibels (db), we register that as noise and are likely to stick our fingers in our ears. If we hear the final glorious chords of a symphony at 100 db, we probably will be sitting in the audience with a grin on our faces wanting to hear more! The problem is that any sound above 85 db, whether it is noise or music, can cause hearing damage over time. So what can we do?
First, we need to be aware of how loud we are. In the Conservatory, we are posting a large spreadsheet in our lobby. Students will be able to check out decibel meters from the office and see how loud their instruments are in the practice rooms and in ensembles. Then they can fill in the data on the spreadsheet. In a week or so, we should have a good idea of where each instrument and ensemble rates in average and peak loudness. For the instruments we have tested so far, including, piano, clarinet, trombone and cello, all of them have had readings between 85-100 in the practice rooms. We were a bit surprised at how high these numbers were, but they were clearly a wake-up call. For our ensembles, peak readings above 100 db were common. The Sambistas, our Brazilian percussion ensemble, play at a constant 120db! This, needless to say, is very loud. To the great credit of Professor Dane Richeson and his percussion studio, all the members of the Sambistas wear ear plugs to help protect their hearing, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Why is this?
There is a certain myth among musicians that only people who play loud instruments like percussion, trumpets, tubas, or bazookaphones need to worry about ear protection. This is so very very false. All of our instruments at the Conservatory, including voice and strings are loud enough to cause hearing damage. So unless your instrument is the acoustic rubber band, or the foam rubber marimba, you need to take hearing loss prevention seriously.
Last week, Dr. Erin Kreuger, Audiologist, came to the Conservatory to give a talk on hear loss prevention. The key take-away points from her talk were:
1. Once you sustain hearing damage, you will never get it back–so protect yourself now!
2. The damage that is caused when you are young might not reveal itself until you are older.
3. Hearing damage can cause tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears (NOT a good thing for a musician or anyone else).
4. Music played too loudly through MP3 players and ear buds will cause more early hearing damage in this country than ever before. So turn down those MP3 players!
5. Even the most expensive hearing aids don’t come close to replicating what the undamaged ear can hear–so take steps now to prevent the need for them.
6. Musicians should get a baseline hearing test.
7. There are great ways to protect your ears.
Dr. Kueger’s talk was clearly a call to action. So we are attacking this problem on three fronts. First, continuing education and understanding. We will be finding out how loud we are (see above) and spreading the word about the importance of hearing loss prevention through a poster campaign and one-on-one evangelism from our studio teachers. Second, thanks to the incredible generosity of Dr. Krueger, she has committed to providing baseline hearing tests free of charge, to our Conservatory students. She will set up shop in the Con so students won’t have to find their way to an audiologists office. This is a fantastic opportunity to get a better understanding of our individual hearing protection needs. Third, we are expanding the variety of earplugs available through the Con. We have already been providing the rolled foam earplugs free of charge though our office. These plugs can reduce decibel strengths by up to 30 db. They are great for loud music like the Sambistas play, but they definitely muffle all high frequencies. Because of this, most musicians don’t want to use them in practice rooms because it makes their instruments sound funny (I was told that earplugs actually improved the sound of my didjeridu playing. . . but that is a different story). In order to help remedy this problem, we are placing a bulk order for musicians’ ear plugs. These reduce loudness by around 15 decibels, but they don’t cut out the high harmonics, so the music sounds the same, just softer. A 15 db reduction will bring any music up to 100 db down to a safe level. Students can get these for about $8.00 at our office. There are also custom made earplugs that are fit to your individual ear canal. They have interchangeable filters that can reduce sound by 9, 15, or 25 db. These cost around $200.00. That might seem expensive, but considering the price of most of our instruments, the high cost of hearing aids, and the pricelessness of our hearing, it seems like a very reasonable investment!
We want everyone in the Conservatory to have a lifetime of perfect hearing, so the beutiful music we play definitely won’t fall on deaf ears!
Remember, Zeek the Conservatory Dog says: “Only YOU can prevent hearing loss!”
Submitted 1st March 2009
By Brian Pertl, Dean, Lawrence Conservatory of Music