Protecting Your Most Valuable Instrument

March 2, 2010 8:58 pm in Concert, Drumset, Marching, World by Mike Myers

The year was 2000 and PASIC was in full swing in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. As I walked around taking in the sights and sounds, I noticed a sign that advertised “Free Hearing Test” by a vendor who was selling musician ear plugs. I figured “What do I have to lose?” I hadn’t had my hearing tested since I was in first grade, about 37 years ago. As a percussionist for over 30 years, I suspected that I had sustained at least some hearing loss and was curious to find where I stood. I went to a hotel room where the ear plug vendor had setup shop and waited for my turn in the chair beside the test tone machine. The next few minutes spent in that chair was a life-changing experience to say the least! When it was my turn, I put on headphones and was told to raise my hand every time I heard a tone. So, that is what I did, however, I noticed that there were sometimes long pauses where I didn’t hear anything. During one of those long pauses, the man operating the machine asked “So, don’t you hear this?” “No” I said, “nothing.” The man looked bewildered. He removed the headphones and listened for himself to make sure the phones were working properly. Then he held the headphones up and asked the people waiting to be next who were sitting at least 10 feet or so away, “Do you hear this?” The test tone was only coming out of a small headphone speaker. “Yes,” they all nodded. I put the phones back on and still, absolutely nothing was registering in my left ear. The test continued and as I did worse and worse, I began feeling increasingly embarrassed, humiliated and guilty for the many years I had abused and neglected my most prized instrument: my hearing. At the end of the test, the prognosis was (as I expected) that I needed to buy a set of their musician ear plugs. I was rattled beyond description. I hoped that the machine and/or the operator was a fraud in an attempt to sell me ear plugs, however, there was no way to tell. The people selling the ear plugs politely but honestly told me that they had checked the hearing of “hundreds of musicians” attending PASIC and I was “one of the worst cases” they had encountered.

It is no surprise that I wasn’t in the mood to go to anymore (loud) drumset clinics, walk through the (loud) exhibits, or do anything else that day except have my hearing professionally evaluated by an expert. I immediately rushed home and called my family doctor and asked his recommendation for an expert to test my hearing. He put me in touch with Dr. Deborah Price at Hearing Professional Center (hearing-center.com) in Dallas. Dr. Price is a nationally known audiologist with an impressive roster of patients which include some of my musical heroes. I made an appointment that day with Dr. Price and went to see her a few days later.

Ironically, right after making the appointment, I went and led an indoor rehearsal with my high school drumline and, as usual didn’t wear any hearing protection. This was unfortunately a regular habit I had practiced for decades.

My meeting with Dr. Price was a few days later. I explained to her the nonprofessional hearing test I had taken at PASIC with the guys who were selling ear plugs. I also explained to her that since I was 11 years old, my life had existed of practicing drums, playing in school bands, drumlines, percussion ensembles, rock ‘n roll bands, recording studios, countless professional gigs, teaching percussion lessons, and teaching percussion in the public schools for 20 years where I had constantly been exposed to dangerous volume levels all day everyday. Along with that, it was common for me to get in my car after work and crank up the stereo really loud, and then practice drumset in my studio or listen to loud music through my studio monitors for several hours at night. In those days, I regularly blew the high-end speakers of my monitors from extreme volume overload. In short, I had lived in a constant environment of dangerously high sound levels virtually every waking moment for most of my 43 years. I only remember using hearing protection for one semester in college but abandoned it because I didn’t like the way the ear plugs felt. Ironically, through the years, I had actually looked down on people I saw wearing ear plugs. “Sissies” I thought! “Look at me. I can take it!”

Dr. Price took me into a soundproof booth and did a similar test as the PASIC guys, using headphones and test tones where I pushed a button every time I heard a tone. Also similar to last time, there were long pauses where I didn’t hear anything, especially in my left ear. However, this time the person conducting the examination was a nationally known audiologist with a Ph.D.

At the end of the rather extensive test, Dr. Price went over my results on a chart (below). She showed me what ideal hearing looked like in all frequency ranges and how my hearing compared. On the bright side, my hearing in the low range looked pretty good. There was only minimal loss. However, as the frequencies increased, my hearing became worse and worse. There was a substantial downward spiral beginning at 500 Hz that bottomed out (with almost a 60 db loss in the left ear) at 4000 Hz. The right ear was slightly better from 2000 – 8000 Hz.

Many things started making sense. I first started having trouble understanding what people were saying when I was in high school. I could hear speech but had trouble understanding words. For instance, my mother would ask me “What do you want to eat?” but what I heard was “Why don’t you wash your feet?” There was much humor, frustration, impatience and anger depending on who I encountered as my hearing began to decline. As I grew older, my ability to understand speech became worse. Especially hard to understand were young children and females. I remember several years ago, sitting in a noisy restaurant at a table with two women and a man. I had no idea what the women were saying but could understand the man perfectly. I have always had trouble understanding what my wife is saying, especially when she is more than a few feet away or when we are in a noisy environment. Seeing my hearing chart put all of this into perspective. It is no surprise that the frequency range I have the most trouble understanding is the range in which I have the most damage.

So, I asked Dr. Price optimistically, “What can be done to repair this hearing loss?” Her devastating response to me was “Hearing can’t be repaired once it is gone. You can only preserve what is left and prevent more loss by making lifestyle changes.”

On a positive note, all my life I have been able to teach, perform and listen to music in a very enjoyable manner. At the time, I really didn’t realize how badly off I was, compared to people who had undamaged hearing. I also didn’t realize that there was substantially more damage to my left ear, even though I remember thinking that there was something wrong with the left channel of my home studio monitors. I was constantly turning up the left channel for the volume level to seem balanced to my ears. Dr. Price explained that my damage had occurred so gradually that I hadn’t noticed and my ears had learned to compensate, especially the left. Little did I know, I was about to go through a radical lifestyle change.

Dr. Price suggested I buy a Decibel Sound Level Meter (Radio Shack Catalog #: 33-2055, retail: $49.99). During the next several months I lived with this device and took decibel measurements everywhere I went.

I also studied the OSHA guidelines for exposure to noise levels. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) devised the following chart which lists the safe duration per day for exposure to sound levels (measured in decibels).

These guidelines were mainly established for the safety of persons who work in noisy environments such as factories, construction and those who operate heavy machinery but they also apply to musicians. Not surprising, the amount of time for safe exposure decreases as the noise level increases. Notice that a person can be in a 90 db acoustical environment (i.e. a noisy restaurant) for eight hours a day with no harm. Compare that to being in a 115 db environment (i.e. a heavy metal rock concert) for only 15 minutes without experiencing harm.

Soon after buying my meter, I measured the decibel level, standing in front of a 160-member high school marching band playing in the stands at a football game. It registered 120+ decibels. According to OSHA, it is (marginally) safe to endure this amount of sound level for only about 15 minutes without harm. That means, after enduring 15 minutes of 120 db, you cannot be around noise above approximately 60 db for the rest of the day. Furthermore, you cannot stand in front of a marching band for 15 minutes then go home and practice drumset, mow the yard and watch a movie turned up loud. Unfortunately for me, I had been guilty of all of the above and more for as long as I could remember.

Armed with my trusty decibel meter, I was shocked to learn how loud my world was! In essence, my job and lifestyle were killing me! Here are a few examples:

  • Percussion ensemble rehearsal (indoors): 90-100 decibels
  • Indoor drumline rehearsal: 120+ decibels
  • Playing drumset, at full volume in my home studio: 120 decibels
  • 160 piece high school marching band in the stands at a football game: 120+ decibels
  • Rock concerts: 120+ decibels
  • Listening to loud music with headphones or ear buds: 90-110+ decibels
  • Car and road noise when driving on the freeway: 80 decibels
  • Turning up the car stereo loud enough to hear music above car and road noise: 100+ decibels

As I traveled around, I found that much of my world consisted of unhealthy volume levels. It was time to make some serious changes!

Dr. Price recommended some custom-made musician ear plugs for me. This involved making molds of my ears. We had the molds made and sent off. About a week later my custom musician ear plugs arrived.

This manufacturer makes “Musician Ear Plugs” that are rated 9, 15 and 25. The numbers correspond to the amount of decibel reduction achieved when worn properly. It was a no brainier that the best model for me was the 25. In an ideal scenario, when I wear these ear plugs, the overall decibel level reduces by about 25 db. This was great news for my ears but was still some reason for concern in very loud environments. For instance, in those 120+ decibel marching band rehearsals, the ear plugs only bring the sound level down to about 95 decibels, which for long periods is still not healthy. However, this was at least a step in the right direction.

So, I was fitted with a pair of musician ear plugs and I began to use them. However, I was not completely happy with them. Although I did notice quite a bit of volume reduction, it was difficult getting used to the hard plugs in my ears. They felt irritating and very uncomfortable. So, I started shopping around for an alternative.

At my neighborhood drugstore I found some foam ear plugs made by Flents. The plugs I tried were Flents Real Quiet Foam Ear plugs (#F408-180).

Flents Real Quiet Ear plugs have a noise reduction rating of 33 decibels (8 more db than the musician plugs). The way they work is, the foam rubber ends are compressed before inserting them into the ear. Once in the ear, the foam expands, forming a seal. I found the softness of the foam to be more comfortable than the rubber and plastic of the musician plugs. With a noise reduction of 33 db, the Flents plugs also seemed to filter out more overall sound than the musician plugs. Another advantage is, the Flents plugs are attached to a rubber cord which goes around the neck.

As part of my job, I constantly take the plugs in and out all day. With the cord, I am able to wear the plugs in my ears or around my neck all the time. I buy several pairs of these plugs (at about $3 a pair) and change to a new pair every Monday. Flents also makes the same ear plugs, not attached to a cord, which are just as effective. However, I personally find the unattached plugs to be more of a hassle. I tend to lose or drop them onto the dirty ground as I put them in and take them out all day.

At school, especially during marching season, these ear plugs become a constant wardrobe accessory. I NEVER rehearse a drumline, inside or outside without these plugs in. I also make sure that they are in whenever the marching band plays. They are a Godsend at pep rallies where the noise level is painful.

Another lifestyle change I made was to listen to music at a lower volume level in my car and at home. I learned that I was able to hear music just as well at a softer level than the days when I turned it up to 11! After living with the Radio Shack decibel meter for a while, I got to where I could tell even without it when a listening level was safe and when it was too loud. During this period, I had to break many habits which had persisted over several decades, such as instinctively turning up the volume level in the car when a favorite song came on. I found that my right hand reached for the volume knob without even thinking about it. I learned to reach back over and turn the volume down to a safe level. I had to teach myself many new behaviors like this to prevent further damage to my hearing.

Other lifestyle changes I made were things such as attending fewer rock concerts. Now when I go to a concert I either sit further back and/or take my ear plugs. I also get further back at marching band contests, drumline contests or any other activity where harmful sound levels are present. Also, I find that when rehearsing drumlines and marching bands, there are times especially outside where I can stand at the side of the group for part of the time to reduce the exposure to harmful sound levels.

When playing acoustic drumset in my studio, I always wear headphones except when playing brushes. Vic Firth makes some great Stereo Isolation Headphones (SIH1) and Drummer’s Headphones (DB22) which are essentially the same thing without the internal speakers and external cord.

I’m currently on my third pair of the Stereo Isolation Headphones. The Vic Firth phones are “closed phones” which provide a secure seal around the ear and have a noise reduction rating of approximately 25 db. However, when using headphones, it is important to monitor the internal volume. Some people falsely think they are helping their ears by wearing phones but actually counteract the effect by turning up the volume inside the phones as loud or louder than it would be without them.

A very large majority of my drumset practicing these days is on my Roland V-Drums. The V-Drums sound great, feel great and I can play as hard or soft as I want while keeping the volume at a safe level without the use of ear plugs or headphones. I highly recommend the use of electronic drums for practice.

Once I had my rude awakening in that chair at PASIC and then with Dr. Price, I not only made many lifestyle changes, I have also made it my mission to educate students and colleagues about the harmful sound levels to which we are all constantly exposed. Unfortunately, I find that most of my students are very much like me in my younger days. I only notice a few of them breaking out the ear plugs at rehearsals and they aren’t consistent in use. For the most part (just like in my younger days) my students don’t see a problem and don’t think THEIR hearing will ever be affected. However, possibly to their benefit, they only go through four years of high school drumline, and a majority of them do not continue in percussion after that. They (hopefully) get out with minimal or no damage. On the other hand, “I never graduate!” I am back doing the same thing, year after year, as I have been for decades. The older I get, all the years of teaching and abuse to my ears have added up and I’ve paid the consequences.

I constantly remember Dr. Price’s words about not being able to repair hearing loss. Luckily, before I went totally deaf, I took those words to heart, made many changes, and faithfully kept going back to Hearing Professional Center each year for annual checkups to see how I am doing. I go in for my annual hearing test each year during the week of Thanksgiving, which is usually at or near the end of marching season. Marching season is the time of year I am most concerned with since I feel it has been the cause of the worst damage. I am very happy to report that there has only been very minimal change in my hearing since 2000 and the change that has occurred can be attributed more to age than abuse.

During the past few years, advances in hearing aid technology have rivaled advances in the drum manufacturing industry. What you think of when you remember your grandparent’s hearing aids is very outdated in today’s world. Until recent times, hearing aids were big, bulky globs of plastic that were seen in old people’s ears. Most of these hearing aids merely amplified volume. Nowadays, hearing aids have gone digital and are very small and lightweight.

The Widex in-ear hearing aids I wear consist of a small gray plastic piece which contains a microphone that is hidden behind the back of the ear. A thin, clear cable feeds a speaker enclosed in a small rubber casing into the ear canal. In essence, this is the world’s smallest P.A. system! The speaker does not close nor clog the ear canal. The digital hearing aid in each ear is programmed by a computer at Hearing Professional Center to compensate for the specific frequency damage in that ear. The computer focuses on lost or weak frequencies from my hearing chart and boosts them to a (near) normal level. In my case, there was little or no boost in the lower frequencies but a moderate boost in higher frequencies. The boost in my left ear is more substantial than the right. The custom programmed digital hearing aids I wear aren’t intended for anyone else on the planet.

The very first time Dr. Price put in my digital hearing aids, I immediately noticed a dramatic difference. Although I hadn’t noticed that my left ear didn’t hear the same volume as my right, I definitely noticed that the hearing in both ears was now equal. In the first few months I had my hearing aids, it was amazing to discover new sounds in my world which had always been there that I didn’t know existed. Many of these sounds were high frequencies that I couldn’t hear, such as the ticking of the clock in my kitchen. I also noticed that my iPod makes a clicking sound when I spin the dial. In the musical world, I started noticing the high overtone frequencies in instruments such as cymbals, triangles, crotales, etc. It was amazing to rediscover all the new sounds in my world.

As far as the stigma of people seeing me wear a hearing aid… That has not been a problem. I wear my hair at least partially over my ears which completely hides the piece behind the ear. The clear cable that runs into the ear canal is small and invisible to most people unless they come right up to me and specifically look for it. People are surprised to know that I wear hearing aids if they ever see me take them out.

Here is a copy of my November 2009 hearing chart. There has been very little change in my hearing over the past nine years since I made lifestyle changes and, as the chart says, “No changes in hearing from 2008.”

I feel lucky to have had that wake-up call at PASIC 2000 and then to have met up with Dr. Price. The dramatic lifestyle changes I made regarding my hearing along with yearly checkups and the advances in hearing aid technology have enabled me to live a very satisfying life as a percussionist. I am still able to practice, perform, teach, go to concerts and do everything I want; I just look at the realities of harmful noise exposure differently now.

I can’t help but worry about the youth of today and the hearing problems they will experience later in life. It is likely that many of them will be worse off by the time they reach my age. The world today is so much louder than the one in which I grew up. There is constant noise 24/7, from traffic, people, machines, background music, etc. I see young people who constantly have ear buds in their ears, listening to MP3 players at dangerous volume levels. Also, with drumline popularity being at an all time high, there are people who now do drumline in one form or another all year round, using no hearing protection! My hearing is in relatively good shape compared to many of these young people when they reach my age.

If this discussion causes at least one person to wake up and make changes it will have been a success. As musicians, our most valuable asset is our ears. It is sad that so many people (myself included) abuse that asset. All it takes to make change is the realization along with a one-day at a time commitment. It is time to make that change if you want to save your most valuable instrument.

Mike Myers

mikemyersmusic.com

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOrBKLML_ZE