My cautionary tale of a hearing scare, and what you can do to preserve and protect your hearing.
Way back in 2004 I was a young medical student encouraging conductors to protect themselves against hearing loss. I lamented their lukewarm response to my evidence-based research and horror stories of conductors who lost their hearing.
Then I did the exact same thing I warned them against. Nothing.
Fast forward 14 years. After just 2 days of intense back to back rehearsals on a new timetable I developed unrelenting ringing in my right ear (tinnitus). And it wouldn't go away.
I trained and practiced as a medical doctor (MD) before becoming a full time conductor. One of my more fun achievements in medical school was convincing 4 non-musician colleagues to spend an entire year doing a research project on hearing loss in conductors and presenting at a music education conference.
What did I hear from conductors back in 2004?
"Good idea....but I don't have to worry about it right now"
"Good idea...but it's too much work to make changes to my rehearsal set up or planning"
"Good idea...but musicians earplugs are expensive"
These weren't mean comments. They simply reflected the priorities of busy music teachers. And the basic human nature that we're not great at assessing long-term risk and making uncomfortable lifestyle changes to protect our health. When we're tired and overwhelmed, we're at the behest of our emotions. It's harder to make rational decisions about what's best for us. Just imagine being hangry. You know what I'm talking about.
Like those conductors, I knew all the evidence, but couldn't see a reason to change my behaviour. I was fine. I hadn't experienced any symptoms. It seemed like a long term problem. Sure I wanted to be able to hear in my later years, but it was tomorrow's problem.
In the years following I was aware of the value of personal protective equipment (like earplugs) and the availability of decibel meters on smart phones. I also knew when the band or orchestra was playing too loudly that it not only didn't sound great, it was uncomfortable.
During grad school I was a teaching assistant for the 330+ member marching band that rehearsed INSIDE. This experience absolutely terrified me. I bought the strongest industrial foam earplugs available and covered my ears with my hands whenever I wasn't actually conducting. The upside of this, was that the University provided custom fitted musician's earplugs. In the preceding 8 years I'd known these were the best personal protective solution, but I could never bring myself to fork out the $300+ for them.
I used the musician's earplugs in some situations, but never got totally used to wearing them. Eventually I lost one, and the lone survivor collected dust.
In 2018 I took on a new group, a brass ensemble, at very short notice. I had a crazy schedule: teach French horn all day then take a 90 minute junior band rehearsal. Go home, eat dinner, go take a 2.5 hour community band rehearsal. 12 hours later be back on the podium in front of the brass ensemble.
This isn't an atypical kind of schedule for people taking extracurricular groups, working in the community or classrooms.
For me, it only took two repetitions of this 2-day block for me to develop ringing in my right ear that wouldn't go away.
What happened next is important.
I freaked out a lot. I cried myself to sleep for months. And I didn't tell anyone what had happened or how I was feeling.
I was terrified of losing my hearing. My mind raced to a life of silence. No music, no conducting. What would I do if I couldn't conduct? What would I do if I couldn't experience music? Would I have to stop conducting NOW to prevent further damage.
All these fears prevented me from seeking help. I was afraid that if I went to an audiologist, my fears would be confirmed, and then I would actually have to take action. I was deluded into thinking it was better to stay inert in my fear.
Luckily, I had enough presence of mind to immediately contact my school about changing my schedule. I couldn't change the night my band rehearsed, but I could change the day I taught horn. Spreading out my exposure made a big difference. (More on what you can do later).
After more agonizing, catastrophising and being trapped in my fear for weeks, I went to an audiologist to get my hearing tested, and to finally pay for a set of musician's earplugs with my own money. Almost 15 years after I advocated them for my conducting colleagues.
Luckily, my hearing was intact. But my ongoing tinnitus was an early warning sign of potential future hearing loss. (I've had further tests...so far so good).
Now here's the kicker.
After almost a year of no rehearsals my tinnitus has all but disappeared. I no longer hear a whistling noise when I'm trying to sleep, or it's really quiet.
I'm curious (and anxious) to hear what happens when in-person rehearsals resume. Like avoiding getting tested, I'm worried that when it happens I'll actually have to face the consequences. If my tinnitus returns, I'll have to make some choices.
Mine is a cautionary tale. So far, I'm mostly OK. But at age 35, I've got a lot of years of life left, and I'd love to spend them making and enjoying beautiful music. It may yet come down to making a decision between short term pleasure (keep conducting) and long term enjoyment (having healthy hearing in later life). If it does, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Because wherever you're at in your conducting or musical life I want you to enjoy the best hearing you can for as long as possible. Furthermore, as conductors we're the custodians of many, many pairs of young (and older!) ears. What we say and do on the podium, the volume of noise we accept, and the standards of conduct we uphold all have an influence on the future hearing of those in our ensembles.
A recent study of university music students found that "77% of participants never received any training about hearing health".
That's on us, who teach in schools.
We can reduce that number by simply educating our students about hearing health, and having clear expectations.
I make it a point of never yelling at students, unless something dangerous is happening. Like a student playing loudly in another student's ear. Or the volume of the ensemble getting uncomfortably loud. Or one drummer making bad choices about volume. It's up to me to model and show my students what's acceptable and what's not. And I'm very explicit about teaching them how hearing works, and that once it's gone, it's gone.
I don't want anyone to needlessly lose or damage their hearing because of something that happened in a music rehearsal. And I don't want anyone to put off taking action for themselves or others because they're scared like I was.
I bet you don't either.
Here's what the US-based National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) had to say on the topic in 2006:
"Hearing protection is an issue that must be addressed at all levels of music instruction. As musicians and music teachers, our livelihood can depend on our ability to hear. An even more critical issue is that our quality of life will be reduced if the protection of hearing is not addressed in an effective manner. Whether the argument is focused on timbre perception or monetary cost of hearing protection, the answers are that there is no acceptable amount of hearing loss for musicians, nor can one buy back their ability to hear and enjoy the music they so love to create."
There are plenty of strategies to prevent hearing loss in our ensembles, studio lessons and everyday life.
The NASM report advises:
"Two practical strategies for individuals to reduce sound exposure are maintaining the greatest distance possible from sound sources while still being an effective musician and teacher and, when appropriate, allow for rest periods from intense sounds.
Another practical strategy includes using wall treatments such as sound panels or heavy curtains in the studios, practice rooms and rehearsal spaces. Consider using sound-absorbing panels made of thick fabric and batting, heavy velvet drapes, or even tapestries to absorb excess sound. Remember that these panels and drapery must remain unadorned with photographs, papers, framed diplomas and the like in order to be effective.
Lastly, musicians and music teachers should consider the use of earplugs. Although the use of earplugs is not particularly appealing to musicians and music teachers, it remains the most efficient and customizable form of hearing protection available.
Of all earplugs, the most accurate and true timbre perception is experienced with custom musician’s earplugs. Because these earplugs are made for each individual, an ear mold made at the office of a hearing professional is required. The cost of these earplugs (including the ear mold) is approximately $120. Compared to the cost of a music instrument, private instruction, and college tuition, this option remains relatively inexpensive"
A 2015 paper in the Australian Journal of Music Education also noted the importance of taking into account ALL our noise exposure, not just music.
"Importantly, teachers with substantial teaching hours also need to think carefully about other noise exposures they may receive from non-teaching activities. For example, a teacher who also plays in an amateur ensemble, dances at nightclubs, listens to music through earphones at high volumes, rides motorbikes or motor scooters, should look at ways of avoiding and/or minimising their noise exposure from all of these sources, including the use of hearing protectors, such as earplugs, in high-noise situations."
But we need to be reminded of this every day, and so do our students. The image below is one of four PDF posters for you and your students that you can print and put in your studio, ensemble room, and practice rooms.
Download PDF Hearing Health posters for your teaching rooms and your students.
In the meantime, there's lots I'm doing to protect my hearing (like the tips above), and you should too.
As a start, I always recommend these $25AUD earplugs (Etymotic Research ETY Plugs - ER20, available at many music stores and online) to all my students as an easy way to take responsibility for their own protection. (Note, this isn't a get out of jail free card for me to run stupidly loud rehearsals either!).
These are also great if you're not yet able to afford custom plugs as they have the same filters which provide even sound dampening (attenuation) across all frequencies. This means it just sounds like the volume is turned down, unlike foam plugs which dampen high frequencies more, giving a stuffy sound.
Whether you're a young grasshopper, or a veteran conductor, your ears are in perfect health, or you already know there's been deterioration - these strategies will help protect what you have for years to come.
Read the Research:
A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.