Some of my earliest memories are of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) blasting blues and swing charts in the cavernous Presbytarian church that hosted their weekly concerts. My mom was part of the band on bass trombone, playing even while pregnant with myself and with my little brother. I also remember sitting outside at a local bike park, listening to my dad’s jazz quartet play the likes of Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington. That was pretty loud too, but not nearly as deafening –– literally –– as the KCJO. What other young memories do I have? Well, I remember having to repeat myself multiple times in order for my mom to understand what I said. I remember her asking me to face her when I speak so she could subconsciously read my lips. I remember our annual visits to Yellowstone National Park, and my mom breaking down into tears because she couldn’t hear the wolves howling at night like my little brother, my dad, and I could.
Hearing loss in musicians is a serious issue. It’s slow, gradual, and usually painless, often not noticed until it’s too late, and it affects musicians, especially classical and jazz musicians, far more than the average person. My mom went to an audiologist a couple of years ago, where she learned that her hearing loss is on par with someone in their 80s. She was in her late 50s at the time. This was caused by decades of sitting in front of blaring lead trumpets and practicing a loud instrument in small, echoing practice rooms, all without hearing protection. The worst part: no one ever said anything, in her six years of musical higher education, about hearing loss or protection. My family finally saved up the money to buy hearing aids for her…which insurance refuses to cover, and require the hassle of putting them in every morning, replacing batteries, and making sure they don’t get wet, damaged, or lost –– all of it, preventable, if the proper care and attention was given to the effects of hearing loss by music educators everywhere.
When I started playing an instrument and it became clear that I was serious about it, my parents gifted me with a set of Etymotic musician’s earplugs that I still wear religiously to this day. Whether I’m in the practice room, band, a chamber ensemble, or a big band, they’re in at least one of my ears. A lot of musicians are hesitant to wear earplugs because they don’t want to risk affecting their ability to hear the rest of the band and themselves. Most regular earplugs work by reducing the decibel level of the high and low pitch extremes to a point that you can barely hear them. The mids are also affected, though not as drastically, and everything becomes muffled. Musician’s earplugs work differently. They are called “flat hearing protectors,” meaning they reduce all the noise equally across the frequency spectrum, preserving clarity while simply making everything a bit quieter. Of course they take some time to adjust to, but it’s quite a simple adjustment, all things considered, and is certainly worth it.
I’ve been wearing my earplugs since the seventh grade. I’ve played flute, piccolo, electric bass, and tenor saxophone in chamber, big band, jazz combo, pep band, concert band, and orchestral settings. I went to an audiologist a couple of months ago to get my hearing tested and to have my ears looked at for some other issues. I have genetic tinnitus, but no hearing loss. In fact, my hearing is above average for my age. I fully attribute this to my earplugs.
Hearing protection is one of the most important things a musician can do for themselves and their own personal health. Hearing loss can be more than just an annoyance. It can be devastating to a musician’s career, finances, and most importantly, mental health.