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The Weekend Vote

V.com weekend vote: Have you ever felt the need to use earplugs to protect your hearing during a performance?

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.

Earplugs
My fancy schmancy earplugs :)

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!


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:20 AM
I've worn regular earplugs during a performance of the 1812 overture. It was indoors and didn't have real cannons, so I think it could have been worse.
They seem to keep enough of the sound out for me not to get a headache or ringing in my ears.

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.

From Kevin Keating
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:49 AM
Yes, I have felt the need to use earplugs, but I have never actually used them. I can't stand the uncomfortable feeling. I also don't like the tone I hear with them. Just like I don't like the tone of my violin with any kind of a mute on it. I have a high pitch ringing in my ears constantly, however, so maybe I should give them a more serious thought.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 3:07 AM
Thanks for that interesting blog... I'm very scared of this myself.

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!
Anne-Marie

From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 3:37 AM
Noises above 85 dB over a long period of time can cause hearing loss. There is an app called Decibel 10 that can record real-time the dB you are exposed to. I was playing around with the app while practicing a few weeks ago and discovered that I averaged between 80-95 dB (70 dB was pianissimo) with my phone placed about 3 feet away from me.

It was an eye opener.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 4:46 AM
Two times I can remember using them both in rehearsals and performances was for John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" when I was closer to the percussion than was ideal, and for the Janacek Sinfonietta when the extra brass was too close for comfort. I believe musicians in a few orchestras have called OSHA in about enforcing noise regulations.
From Ray Randall
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 5:03 AM
I flew jets for 35 years and prop plans for 15 years before that. Huh, I can't hear you. My ears are shot. I have special hearing aids for music. When the volume get too loud I simply turn the volume down. Hate to have to use hearing aids, but they work.
The noise wasn't from the jet engines, but from the very loud air noise coming over the cockpit, kind of like someone screaming "SHHHHHHHHH" in your ears. My copilot and I, in the B727, had to yell at each other to be heard. The 757/767's were so quiet you could whisper in the ockpit, but by then it was too late for my hearing.
From Carlo Ballara
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 8:29 AM
You are more likely to become deaf if you play viola or second violin. Practice hard and you won't sit near the brass or the piccolo.

Cheers Carlo

From John Cadd
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 10:18 AM
The effect of the ear damage is not just a lack of sensitive hearing it comes with a much nastier effect of Tinnitus.That can leave you with permanent noises running inside your head day and night non stop.
From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 12:03 PM
I play 2nd violin in my Community Orchestra, which seats me directly in front of the thunder and to the right of the woodwinds. In only 18 months, I was experiencing significant ear pain as well as a constant ringing in my ears. I didn't make the association until I was playing roughly 2 1/2 years with the Orchestra, and by the time I saw an audiologist, I passed the hearing test by the skin of my teeth. I wear musicians earplugs now.

---Ann Marie

From marjory lange
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:05 PM
I have tinnitus from years of orchestra playing. On a good day, it's like I have cicadas in my ears. On a bad day...let's not go there. Although in my late 20s my hearing was off-the-charts acute, I'm on the verge of 'poor' in my left ear and a bit better in the right. Part of that may be hereditary, but I don't think most of it is.

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.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:46 PM
I voted YES. One factor that made me decide to abandon orchestra was the decibel levels in modern symphonic playing -- see this from 2 years ago.

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.

From David Sanderson
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 2:34 PM
First, get your ears tested and make them give you a copy of the results. If you compare the spectrum from your tests with a normal spectrum, you'll see where you've got problems. Theoretically (I've never tried it) if you play back music through a good equalizer, and adjust the frequency levels to compensate for your hearing loss, you will end up hearing what you should be hearing if your were hearing it, which is interesting but doesn't solve the problem.

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.

From Dessie Arnold
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 3:47 PM
I automatically use foam over the counter earplugs for any pops concert where amplification is used. I don't understand why pops concerts have to be so exaggeratedly amplified. I've had friends in the audience say that the amplification is so much that the sound is distorted (and this is after steps were supposedly taken to fix the problem). For classical concerts, if I notice anything verging on pain, I pop in an earplug, and then later ask for a sound shield, or I try to angle my chair so that my ear isn't directly in line with the offensive sound (not always possible). A number of years ago, someone on our orchestra committee did some research and the results came back that violinists and violists were more likely to suffer hearing damage from their own instruments. I suspect that that is heavily dependent on how one holds the instrument. If you point your chin toward the scroll when you play, you are much less likely to be injured by your own sound than if you have your left ear pointing toward your scroll.
From Josh Cohen
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 7:22 PM
Many, many, many years ago I played in my college orchestra in the back of the second violins, and in front of the flutes and oboes. It got me to practice so that I would not have to sit near woodwinds or brass in an orchestra! Over time, I became concertmaster of that same orchestra (it actually took a little more than a 4 year bachelors... ;-). Ever since, I always carry and use earplugs when playing in anything that might be even a little uncomfortable or in an amplified environment. I also use them for concerts (OK I'm a fan of rock too..) and other very noisy environments.
From Dave McCaber
Posted on April 12, 2013 at 4:03 AM
Interesting that you mentioned Mead Killion, of Etymotic Research. I interviewed Dr. Killion at CES two or so years ago. He is absolutely brilliant. We talked about his then new ear plugs that allow normal hearing, but very quickly close (attenuate) high impulse sounds. They are fairly expensive, but to anyone whose hearing is saved, well worth it. I think I tried some plugs similar to what you showed. I liked my EB15's better. They were designed for military use - our armed forces would not wear their normal hearing protectors because they needed to hear squad commands, and the whisper of a broken twig or shuffled sand from as far away as they could. But then they'd go deaf temporarily when there would be a loud explosion or rifle fire near by (which would make subsequent detection or following commands impossible). There are now many more Etymotic Research products - some of Killion's research is available at http://www.etymotic.com/publications/. What is so great about these electronic plugs is that you have very close to normal levels of hearing when external sound is low, then attenuation during loud external noises. For regular practicing, I prefer foam or a mute. As an aside, there's also that Chicago connection - all 3 of us had/have ties to NU. Can't find a prune tie in, though. ;-)

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