To wear earplugs or not wear earplugs… that is a question I have been hearing a lot recently. There was an interesting thread of comments in the Orchestral Percussion Talk Facebook Forum last week about whether percussionists should wear earplugs when they are performing. The thread of comments were all over the map and ranged in their opinions. I chimed in briefly in support of wearing earplugs but thought I would dive deeper into the subject on the blog.
I feel very passionate about hearing protection. It is near impossible to perform and interact with other musicians with hearing loss. Yes earplugs alter the sound you are hearing but luckily for us (percussionists) they don’t actually alter our sound. Some brass and woodwind players have trouble playing with earplugs because their head will literally vibrate and the earplugs can be incredibly uncomfortable. As percussionists we are luckily because a cymbals crash or a bass drum hit will sound exactly the same in the audience whether we are wearing earplugs or not. The only difference to us is how WE hear it.
Ironically I had scheduled a hearing test last Monday (the same week the question was asked) and I found all of this discussion incredibly relevant. Thankfully my hearing test came back very positive and I have lost virtually no hearing since my last test in 2009. I have tried to get my hearing tested about every 5 years to make sure I have a good baseline in case I notice some loss. That way is I do notice some loss I can be even more aggressive with protecting my hearing.
The chart below is my hearing in 2009. Circles are right hear; X’s are left ear. Normal hearing is being able to hear all frequencies between a 0 and 20 dB level. You will see I have lost a small amount of hearing in the 6,000 Hz range in my left ear. This means I can still hear a 6,000 hz sound at a 30 dB level. 6,000 is the high end of normal, everyday sounds.
The next chart is my hearing last week (2015). You can see my hearing is remarkably consistent since 6 years ago. Which I am taking as a good thing!!!! Any noticeable loss would mean I would need to be more aggressive about protecting myself.
One of the interesting things they tested for this time (which I had never been tested before) is my acoustic reflex. This is my ear’s ability to shrink the ear canal and thus protect my hearing. I was pretty fascinated. I had always thought that if I was causing a loud sound (and thus knowing exactly when it would happen) it did not feel as painful as when someone else was causing a loud sound. Sure some of that is the emotional surprise but turns out your ear is actually helping protect your hearing by contracting. Thankfully my reflexes were in the 90th percentile…
I only share my results because I think it is incredibly important for all musicians to have regular hearing tests to know where they stand. Small changes over a long period of time won’t be noticed unless you have regular tests.
Yes there are times when the orchestra must play extremely loud, but that doesn’t mean I have to do that at the expense of my long term hearing. This brings up a very important point and that is your perception of sound and volume. The argument that you want to hear how you sound as natural as possible is bogus. If you wanted to hear how you sounded with the orchestra you would have to somehow sit in the audience and play within the orchestra at the same time. You are adjusting your perception based on experience and knowing that the volume level where you are will be different out in the audience.
Our audio engineer mixed a performance of a concert for a trumpet player from the point of view of where he was sitting. Guess what was loudest in the mix??? Trumpet… A lot of trombone and some horn as well. Guess what the total mix of the orchestra sounded like??? Bad… But yet, that trumpet player plays in this position every day and has no problem blending with the orchestra, because he is instinctively adjusting his sound and volume with how he knows it will ultimately sound in the audience. Everyone in the orchestra does this from their own perspective every single day.
As percussionists we do the same thing. A cymbal crash will sound much louder where we are than out in the house. But yet through experience we have a pretty good idea of how loud to play. To my point earlier, we are lucky in that the earplugs don’t actually change our sound. The xylophone is going to ultimately sound exactly the same whether we are wearing earplugs or not. Knowing your instrument and trusting the sounds you have made over and over will allow you to trust the sounds you are making with earplugs in.
All of this goes to the overall point that it is not as difficult to adjust to playing with earplugs than some people make it out to be. Your hearing is WAY more important than any temporary frustration in having to adjust.
I also can’t emphasize enough that this is a safety matter as well. There are multiple free apps you can download that will monitor the dB level wherever you are. Because the microphone on an iPhone isn’t the most sophisticated in the world it usually tops out at 100 dB. You are going to be SHOCKED at how many situations you find yourself in where the volume level is constantly at 100. Try it out the next time you go to a crowded bar. Keep in mind anything over 85 dB for an extended period of time can cause minor loss. An orchestra tuning and warming up can be that loud!
Foam earplugs are incredibly cheap and most orchestras actually provide them. They will do a good job of protecting your hearing but they are difficult to get in and out and the sound quality is fairly poor. There are custom musician earplugs that you can order through most audiologists. They make a mold of your ear and make a pair of plastic plugs custom fit to your ear. They also have removable filters at various dB levels so you can control how much sound is reduced. I typically use 15 dB rated filters with the orchestra and 25 dB rated filters for amplified shows. So a 110 dB orchestra is reduced to 95 dB. A big difference! The nice thing about custom plugs is you can take them in and out relatively easily for soft passages. For those who attend our concerts regularly, you will see me take mine in and out multiple times a night based on the volume level. They are also incredibly comfortable compared to the foam plugs. These custom plugs are expensive, but are a one time expense. The molds and a set of filters should cost around $200. A second set of filters will cost you another $100 or so.
I don’t mean to rant in this post and scare anyone. I also don’t claim to be an expert or a professional audiologist. I am just trying to educate and help! As musicians our hearing is vitally important to our future in being able to perform for years to come.
Sorry I have been negligent in updates recently. Lots going on here in St Louis! Updates will be more regular from here on out. Probably every other week. Thanks to the loyal readers for staying patient!!