April 7, 2013 at 8:01 PM"I'm going to be deaf after this gig!"
I've heard fellow orchestral musicians say it, when they have to sit in front of the drums, or with a trumpet bell in their ear, or right next to the piccolo, or in front of an amplification system for a pops gig.
I thought I'd make this the weekend vote, so here is the vote, and I'll discuss the topic at length below.
I no longer laugh over the idea that "this gig is making me deaf." Over a lifetime, musicians actually do experience hearing loss because of exposure to loud noise, and protecting one's hearing becomes very important.
For me, pops concerts have been the biggest culprit. They are often outdoors, or in large arenas, and they are often amplified. Many, many times, I've emerged from performances of pops concerts feeling almost nauseated by the pain in my ears. It's not just the ringing -- though it is that -- but it can also cause physical pain. Using conventional earplugs can mitigate the damage, for sure. The problem is that you can't hear yourself with any clarity, as they simply block out noise, and what does come through is full of fuzz. One feels like an artist who is painting while blindfolded! Thus, sometimes I would plug just one ear, or I'd give up and take them out, just so I could hear myself play. The result was still the ringing headache.
About five years ago I spoke about my concerns to a doctor, and I decided to invest in some physician-made earplugs. There are a number of kinds of earplugs for musicians; the kind that I have are by a company called Etymotic and can be found here. They were developed specifically for musicians in the Chicago Symphony, by a doctor named Mead Killion, who also just so happens to be an amateur violinist! So they serve the orchestral musician quite well. What they do is attenuate the sound, so you hear all the same things, just a lot softer. They must be fitted to your ear specifically, as they fit in there like a hearing aide, but happily enough, the Etymotic site has a dealer locator service to help people find a physician in their area.
My earplugs were put to the test last night, when I played in a very fun, but loud and highly amplified pops concert. Lately I'd already been feeling sensitivity in my ears because of mild allergies (it's high-pollen spring here in Southern California, even if it's still frigid in so many places!). So I felt it was especially important to protect my ears. I wore the earplugs for both the rehearsal and the concert, and I found that I was able to hear myself clearly, if very softly. After the concert, I did not feel the effects of having played in an amplified pops concert -- no headache, very little ringing. The only thing I felt was the slight discomfort of having a foreign object in my ear, but that goes away right after taking them out.
So that's my earplug story. What are your experiences with loud concerts and protecting your ears? Does anyone have other experiences, strategies or products to recommend? It is important that we all protect our hearing!
More interestingly (or not), I've also started wearing an earplug in my left ear for some part of my practice time most days, especially when I'm working on intonation. I don't put it in very far and I can still hear pitches, but what it does for me is cuts out overtones and metallic whining from the Eing. It helps me hear pitch better. I thought I might just be being superstitious, but I demonstrated playing a scale with and without the earplug to my teacher and she was impressed at how much better my intonation was with the earplug. So I've got another use for earplugs!
I was inspired to try earplugs by an 85-yo lady in my orchestra. She's been playing the violin for over 75 years, was semi-pro when she was younger. She's almost entirely deaf in her left ear, although her right ear's hearing is still quite good and that's how she can still play. She attributes the hearing loss to the 75 years of violin playing and having it right there under her left ear.
I have always told myself (as an excuse to play with no ear protection) that it couldn't be that bad since the great soloists who always play with blasting Brahms or Shostakovich concertos and whole orchestra in their ears do not all seem deaf. But how could I know? I do not know any of them personally to ask.
But really, I can't imagine violin makes nothing to our poor ears. Frightening!
It was an eye opener.
I, like Karen A., wear a light plug in my left ear when practicing, because the way I hold my instrument puts my left ear very close to the f-hole. I hear fine through bone conduction, and my instrument is loud to begin with.
In orchestras I now wear one in my right ear when I play viola (most of the section is in front of brass, the way our group is set up). When I play violin, I wear it left, against the percussion.
I wish more people had talked to me about hearing loss when I was in college. At this point, the tinnitus is more bothersome than actual hearing loss, but I'm sure that is coming, too.
I use earplugs regularly for practicing and playing. I didn't feel the need of them when growing up; but I can think of three factors that later induced me to add them -- besides commonsensical prevention: 1) center-mounted chin rest; 2) wood-based shoulder rest; 3) composite-core strings on one of my fiddles -- especially the powerful solo A and E.
Loud noises get on my nerves well before they reach the danger zone; so when I encounter them, I take immediate steps to stop or reduce them. I'm amazed at how many people can walk down a city street and seemingly not be bothered by the piercing whine of an ambulance siren or police siren passing right next to them. I cover my ears -- or at least plug the one nearest to the noise source.
Having spent too much of my life around noisy machinery and whatnot, I've got some noise-induced hearing loss, plus some tinnitus, both mostly left ear and surely exacerbated by the fiddle playing. I tried the production "music ear plugs" a while back, but just couldn't stand not hearing enough (this basically alone, no orchestra or ensemble). What I finally did is what has already been described - I use one earplug, in the left ear, and insert it only enough to take the edge off the sound and sort of balance the volume in the two ears, so that I don't feel as though the left ear is being plugged up.
Etymotic sells some nice soft earplugs that work well this way. It's easy to do, and worth a try if you're worried about noise damage, since you have an easy fine adjustment to control the effect of the earplug.
And if you're working with seriously noisy machines, even vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and the like, don't mess around; get the best earmuff-style protectors you can and train yourself to use them automatically. Besides the noise protection, you'll find the task more pleasant and your concentration on it improved.
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