I suffer from tinnitus. This is not uncommon for musicians, since we are exposed to loud noises (well, music) so frequently, and in our younger days who thought of wearing earplugs!? I also had a bad bout (who knew migraines could cause hearing issues?) that brought this on which I won’t bore anyone with yet again (I blogged about it a number of years ago and it’s not necessary to go on about it).
This morning, though, the ear is screaming louder than it’s ever been. My left ear is so loud that I couldn’t go back to sleep once I woke up at 5:30. I finally pulled out the iPhone and found an app for white noise. It helped, though the ear also pulses (like blood when you hear it pounding, rushing … if you know what I mean) so the white noise pulses which is annoying. I’ve since looked at a few options for the sound and the higher the frequency the happier my ear is. If it nearly matches the pitches I hear it nearly cancels it out. So I’m sitting at the big computer now, which is connected to the stereo, and I’m playing this sound that nearly makes me sane.
Oh c’mon … stop your laughing! What I meant was “as sane as I am capable of being.” You knew that, right?
Please, younger musicians (older too, of course!) wear your earplugs! You can’t get rid of hearing loss and tinnitus doesn’t magically disappear completely. Your ears will thank you for it. Or at least they’ll remain silent on the matter. I will never “hear” silence again, and that makes me very sad.
(I confess I still struggle with earplugs. I hate the clacking sound I hear from my tongue hitting the reed. Of course I should use them as much as possible. Sigh.)
Imagine an artist who puts on clouded glasses in order to paint. Or a ballerina who adds weights to her feet. Now consider a musician who puts in earplugs: not a rock star, who’s protecting his ears from deafening noises, but a classical soloist who by comparison works in near silence, and who believes that filtering out sound leads to a more nuanced performance.
Meet pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Alban Gerhardt. They’re both world-class soloists who will be featured at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, which starts Wednesday in Millennium Park. And they both consider earplugs as essential to their music-making as the instruments they play.
About 15 years ago, Osborne started to hear a quiet high-pitched noise in his left ear. It came and went; he didn’t think much of it. After a while, it seemed to move from his left to his right ear. And then, alarmingly, one day it stayed. A doctor determined that Osborne had developed tinnitus from practicing too loudly in a small room.
There’s no way to cure tinnitus, but earplugs can keep it from getting worse. Osborne was custom-fitted with a special “musician” pair of earplugs, which filter out a calibrated amount of noise while allowing other sounds to enter.
Osborne discovered that it was helpful to practice with the devices, and shared this with his friend and collaborator Alban Gerhardt, who doesn’t have tinnitus. Curiosity piqued, Gerhardt tried and liked them. He said they forced him to listen more carefully, and he found it easier to hear the “core” of his cello sound, to get to its essence.
They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering.
Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.
Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.
So instead of having its world premiere April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”
The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers’ exposure to potentially damaging noise and which took effect for the entertainment industry this month.
But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through anti-noise screens. Companies are altering their repertories. And conductors are reconsidering the definition of “fortissimo.”
Alan Garner, an oboist and English horn player who is the chairman of the players’ committee at the Royal Opera House in London, said that he and his colleagues had been told that they would have to wear earplugs during entire three-hour rehearsals and performances.
I understand why musicians don’t want to be forced to wear earplugs. I don’t wear them unless I have to. But if things are too loud it’s simply unwise not to wear them. You can’t undo the damage to ears, and time won’t change things in most instances. It’s not like a bad haircut.
FYI: if I have a solo you can bet those earplugs are on the stand. I don the earplugs when things are so loud you don’t hear the oboe or English horn on their own.
Protecting the hearing of orchestra musicians just became a little more complicated in the US with the release of a new policy from OSHA, the federal agency responsible for workplace health and safety. The new policy declares that the simple provision of earplugs is insufficient, unless all other administrative or venue-renovation options have been exhausted first.
Pin Drop Acoustics has an interesting blog post about OSHA, the new policy, and what this might mean for orchestras. I’ll be curious to see where this takes us.
I wear earplugs some of the time. I hate them, but I wear them. After my whole what-I-thought-was-a-virus story (you can read a bit about it by going here, I had to purchase some. I should have purchased them many years ago. There is no way I can wear them if I have a solo, but if I have a solo the orchestra is playing softer anyway. If the orchestra is blasting the earplugs go in. I have to rely on my years of playing to count on playing with a good sound, as I can’t hear what I’m doing very well. I have to deal with the sound of my tongue clacking (not sure what else to call it!) on the reed. I have to deal with being a wee bit unsure about intonation. But no one can hear me, so there’s that.
But what is the solution to noise exposure? PinDrop (as I’ve now nicknamed him/her) mentions some. What I don’t want is for us to never play above a mezzo forte (fat chance!). Certainly placing louder instruments in spots that aren’t directly behind musicians helps. Sometimes we can play a bit less fortissimo, too.
I do think every musician should go in for an annual hearing test. And every musician should own a pair of musician’s ear plugs. I have these, although I only have flesh colored ones. Gee … I think colors would have been fun! But I’m not about to spend another $215 (or more; I’m guessing prices have risen since I purchased mine).
Well, okay, maybe not all that understandable for this old brain … but closer than I’ve gotten before. And since I’m interested in how our ears work these days (or in how my left ear doesn’t quite work right any longer) it was a good find.
Now if only someone could find a way to cure this tinnitus and hearing loss my left ear has suffered. (Whine, whine, whine!)
In case you are wondering if the video is perfect, it has one error from what I read at the actually YouTube page. So I’ll share that with little conversation with you (
Comment: Awesome video, very well explained! But there is an error. The video showed nerve impulses firing? from the 3 rows of outer hair cells in the organ of corti. Action potentials are only transmitted to the second order neurons synapsing with the INNER hair cells. Still a great video though
Reply from the maker of the video: You are absolutely right – a very good observation. Of the literally hunderds of viewers’ feedback I’ve gotten, you are only the? second person to notice.
I think it’s mostly that we, like most people, don’t like being told that we have to do something. But I could be wrong, of course. I do wonder how many of the members were already using earplugs.
I still struggle using mine. When they are in I hear my tongue clacking away, and I lose all sense of involvement in the orchestra, as I feel very removed from everything. I guess the only solution that would make us all more happy would be to stop blasting away quite so much.
Except maybe then the brass and percussion wouldn’t be happy? Dunno!
… only because I experienced it again today, albeit quite mildly.
As most readers know, I have tinnitus due to the whole episode (if you want to read about it start with the blog entries here) that I had over a year ago now (although of course I might have had tinnitus anyway, considering my career!). Vertigo has come and gone as well, but has mostly been quite mild. And I have a bit of hearing loss in my left ear. I realized, after arriving home from our trip, that I didn’t notice the tinnitus at all while in New York City. I guess the noise of the city just blocks it out. Maybe a prescription from my doctor should include an annual trip to New York, you know?
Today, though, turned into a DizzyDay™. The first thing I noticed after a drive over the hill (to Santa Cruz) and back was that my ear was really noisy. Much more so than usual. And then I realized I was feeling a bit ill. After teaching my one and only student of the day I realized I was also pretty darn dizzy. So I think I’m piecing some things together, finally; I think that when I have “screaming ear” I should expect and be ready for dizziness. The very first time I had this (the worst episode ever) the doctor prescribed some pills she said were to help with dizziness and nausea. I still had one of those pills so I decided to take it tonight. Before doing so, though, I wanted to identify it so I could ask her for more in preparation for the next episode. Turns out the darn stuff is merely diphenhydramine. Heh. Yep. Over the counter stuff. Go figure. I can pick that up and just keep it on hand. (I buy generic, but if you buy Benadryl it’s the same stuff.)
I think I’m also starting to understand what triggers can set this off. One is fluorescent lighting. Another is getting car sick. (I was sitting in the back seat and I suspect that’s not a great location for me.) I like knowing all of this. I don’t like having this, but at least the more I know the more I can deal with it.
Meanwhile … back in the real world … the GIANTS are ahead, 16-5. That’s more important than anything I’ve written above this, eh?
Yesterday was one bad day. It was so bad, in fact, that I thought about canning this blog.
I know, I know, it’s doubtful that I could really do it. It would be kind of like me suggesting I stop eating chocolate, you know? But I was feeling rotten. My vision was bad. My ear was a mess. The vertigo was hounding me. My back hurt so horribly I couldn’t stand up after going out to shop for a very short time. And I thought, “Why am I blogging? It’s too all about me. It’s so self-absorbed. It’s narcissistic. I have nothing more to say anyway.”
Yeah. I was that bummed.
I’m wondering if my “post concert hangover” will be this way from here on out. Because maybe that’s what I had. Today I’m much much better.
With all the craziness of my vertigo and my ear, I am still thankful.
I am thankful that the place I am most comfortable is sitting in the middle of an orchestra. (Honestly … my ear doesn’t bother me. I’m not dizzy at all. I feel normal!) I’m thankful that I can still play, and that I can still take great joy in it. I am thankful that having ear issues hasn’t taken my career away. (I’m quite hesitantly thankful that I think I’m playing just fine; I will always wonder about that, of course!) I am thankful that I continue to teach wonderful students and enjoy watching them grow in their musical abilities, both at home and at UCSC.
I’m not sure I would have said any of this yesterday though. And I’m sorry for that. So I’m writing it here now, and the next time I’m feeling low I’ll have to re-read this. It’s a good reminder. I have so much to be thankful for, and a little “ear-itis” isn’t gonna take me down. So there.
So I’ll continue to be my self-absorbed, narcissistic, goofy old self.
You knew that already though, didn’t you? Some things never change.
Musicians have hearing problems caused by prolonged exposure to sound. This also applies to performers of classical music, who are exposed to high sound levels. Hearing problems also affect the musicians’ experience of their working environment. Stress and experiencing the working environment as noisy are associated with hearing problems. Although musicians are worried about their hearing, the use of hearing protectors is rare.
I have special musician’s earplugs. I hate them, but I have them. And I try to wear them when possible. But I’ll never ever like them. Really.
(I got mine from this company, and while I say I hate them, I just mean that it bugs me to have to wear them because I hear my tongue clacking against the reed. I DO appreciate them, and I should have gotten them years ago.)
I am especially concerned with middle and high school students’ ears. I wonder if any band directors out there have seen what a decibel meter reports to them when the band is playing full blast in the bandroom. I own a decibel meter, and I’d happily loan it out to parents, students and directors if they want to borrow it to see what they are subjecting their ears to. I think all middle and high school students should have a musicians’ earplugs.