Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow – The Importance of Hearing Protection (II)

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Sound-induced hearing loss is something to take seriously – from Part I.

I have a vivid memory of a sitzprobe rehearsal where a Wagnerian duo was standing about 10 feet behind the horn section. Foolish me, at first I felt badly that I was blowing in their faces… that is until they reached an astounding fortissimo at the climactic moment.

It was so loud that my unprotected ears literally shut down. Everything became instantly muffled and blurry. It was as if someone had put cotton in my ears. This condition continued for several days – fortunately my hearing returned to its normal state.


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Since that eventful moment, I have used earplugs in almost every orchestral setting. As noted in yesterday’s post, hearing loss is permanent and once those tiny hairs (cilia) break there is no regrowth.

Beyond this there is also a certain level of emotional stress involved when working in a loud environment. Sitting in front of a loud instrument has psychological effects beyond physical hearing loss. It can generate stress, hostile feelings and resentments.

The problem is worse in pit gigs; the enclosed space traps the sound. Not only that but many times I am seated in close proximity to other brass instruments, or worse, percussion instruments. For me, cymbals and bells (especially with brass mallets) are the most challenging to deal with.

I started out using the standard foam plugs that can be bought over-the-counter at most drug stores. They are cheap and disposable, and most symphony orchestras supply these in accordance with their contract agreements.

For many years I used these, but foam earplugs present several problems:

  • They tend to attenuate the spectrum of sound very unevenly. While mid-tones are OK, the highs and lows are extraordinarily muted.
  • Because I am a brass player, I can hear the sound of my own lips buzzing in my head, sometimes louder than the sound that emits from the bell of the instrument. It also does not seem to match the intonation of what is really coming out of the bell – it is sharper, so matching others can be difficult.
  • The loud colors of most plugs can be seen from the audience.

I actually had a personnel manager ask me to use flesh-colored earplugs or remove my brightly-colored plugs. While I understood his point – it does look at little odd from an audience perspective – I did not have any flesh-colored plugs handy and told him to go jump in a lake and leave me alone. Musicians have very clear rights (both federal OSHA standards and local contract provisos) when it comes to hearing protection and unless I was offered alternative plugs to wear, he had no right to ask me to remove mine.

Custom Hearing Protection

Once I could afford them, I invested in custom hearing protection. These are purchased through a hearing specialist. Mine cost around $200 and have been worth every penny.

The benefits over the cheap foam plugs are many:

  • The attenuation is even, meaning that all spectrums of the sound are decreased evenly, without any muffled sound.
  • I cannot hear my lips buzzing in my head.
  • They are adaptable. I own both 9dB and 15dB filters. On an open stage, I use the 9’s and in the pit I sometimes use the 15’s.
  • They are a custom fit to my ear canal, assuring the best fit and the best protection.
  • While a bit expensive, the investment is a Schedule C tax write-off.

If you treasure your hearing and mental well-being, I would highly recommend these custom devices. The price you pay upfront is more than worth the repercussions of not having them.

All it takes is one “Mahler Sixth hammer blow” to cause serious damage. With my custom earplugs however, the mighty hammer of Thor itself could strike with no effect.

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