Title: Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, 2009 Revised Edition
Author: Janet Horvath
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
ISBN-10/-13: 0971373558 / 978-0971373556
Spiral-bound, 253 pages, $29.95
We have retained the original numbering in this abridged excerpt from Chapter 15, titled “Hearing Is Our Business.” It is a tiny sample of what can be found in Janet Horvath’s book, Playing (less) Hurt. It is full of up-to-date information about how to protect yourself from potential dangers that could affect your ability to continue playing, as well as information about what to do if you fear you may have sustained an injury. Janet Horvath has been the associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1980.
There are many things we can do to protect our ears. For the sake of clarity, although all of the information is important, additional suggestions for young people, musicians who perform in a band, who perform “pops” concerts regularly, and who teach band in classrooms are in italics.
1. Practice more softly. It is important to practice and rehearse at softer dynamics. Save volume for the concert and, if possible, avoid practicing in small rooms with hard surfaces. The smaller the room you practice in, the greater the risk of hurting your ears when playing louder dynamics. We all sound fabulous in a tiled bathroom, but such spaces can be harmful to our hearing. Practice with earplugs. Violinists especially should use an earplug in their left ear. Use practice mutes or practice pads during home practice. Keep the piano lid down during practice and rehearsals. Take a ten-minute break every hour for both your body and your ears.
Teachers/conductors, encourage students to keep it down, and avoid constant group or “tutti” rehearsal techniques. If you play in a band, keep your amp and your students’ amps set at a low volume, especially if you teach in a small room. If you are a classroom teacher and the room has highly reflective surfaces, experiment with carpeting, drapes, and absorbent materials on the walls to absorb some of the sound. Be wary of a blackboard behind the teacher/conductor. These are highly reflective surfaces, which will reflect high-frequency sounds and increase the sound intensity in the room. Cover them with drapes, blankets, or carpet, which can be removed when the blackboard is needed. Make sure to carpet the area where the teacher/conductor stands, as this will also absorb reflections of sound. Likewise, for hard surfaces on the walls, cover them with tapestries, 3-D art, or absorbent materials to reduce decibel level.
2. Distance yourself and stay out of the line of fire. Whenever possible, increase the space between yourself and the noise. Onstage, this means away from the percussion, brass, piccolo, and any loudspeakers or monitors. Do not allow soprano, trumpet, or piccolo soloists to face the orchestra. When distancing is impossible, use hearing protection and/or barriers or shields.
If you are in a band, make sure that the setup is back from the edge of the stage. The higher-pitched sounds of the band reflect off the lip of the stage, magnifying the higher pitches. If you are a bass guitar player chances are you stand near the drummer and must play louder than you’d like to hear yourself play. Try using “shaker” loudspeakers. These are small devices that enhance the low-pitched bass notes and are plugged into the main amplifiers. As a result, the overall sound level is reduced because the bass player can play less loudly. On-stage monitors add troublesome decibels to the overall sound levels. In-ear monitors are small devices that look like hearing aids, but are connected to cables and are able to be plugged into the amplification system, thereby reducing the overall decibel levels. They also allow the bass players and drummers to hear their music better, while giving some hearing protection.
3. Use plexiglass shields. Many orchestras have some hearing protection language in their contracts, and many provide plexiglass acoustic shields. To achieve any benefit, the screen must be placed a few inches from one’s head. If screens are placed too close to the brass or percussion, their own sounds tend to be reflected back to them, making it difficult for them to judge their volume and projection. Experiment in order to accommodate everyone. Shields are effective in reducing the impact or attack of loud sounds, but they are of limited value regarding the protection of your hearing, because they cannot reduce the sheer volume. Use hearing protection as well. There are many types of shields available today.
During Pops programs or for jazz and rock bands, surround the drummer in a plexiglass box open towards the front. This will serve to lessen the impact of the high-hat cymbals and rim shots and will help to protect the other members of the group. The highest frequencies, those that are the most damaging, are reduced. Note that the low sounds like those from a bass drum would be virtually unaffected. It is important to make sure that the shield does not extend above the drummer’s ears, as then his own sound is reflected back to him.
4. Wear hearing protection. Always carry the small foam plugs or ER 20 over-the-counter reusable plugs in your case, pocket, purse, and locker. These are inexpensive and effective. They can cut down 20 dB when fully inserted. The downside is that the occlusion effect is pronounced with these plugs (whereby you hear your own swallowing, your tonguing and your voice too much), and this can interfere with performing.
Be cautious about putting earplugs in and out frequently. You may cause ear infections by pushing bacteria into your ear. Although it may appear that the eardrum is red to your doctor, usually the infection is of the ear canal or it may seem to be “swimmer’s ear.” If your doctor asks, “Have you been swimming a lot lately?” your response should be, “No, but I do use earplugs frequently.” Make sure to keep the plugs and your hands clean. Clean plugs after use (or discard). Check for any wax debris that may be lodged inside the plug.
Use earplugs with extreme caution if you have a cold or sinus infection. Germs may be spread by the internal pressure of loud, sustained playing in wind and brass players and can result in infection.
Etymotic Research ER-15 and ER-25 Musicians EarplugsTM are designed specifically for musicians to reduce noise levels by 15 or 25 dB, and since they are a deep-fitted earplug, there is less occlusion. These must be custom fitted by an audiologist.
In Minnesota we were able to negotiate a precedent-setting arrangement whereby the management has agreed to pay for a portion of the cost of the earplugs up to $120. One can comfortably perform with these earplugs. Research indicates that the brain adjusts to hearing with earplugs. The more you wear them, the better you will hear with them, and the more you will save your hearing. Remember that cotton and Kleenex do nothing to protect your hearing.
If you are able, purchase both 15 and 25 filters, as these are interchangeable. Having both filters gives you the option of more protection when you need it.
Another excellent product is the Hocks Noise Braker®. It is an axiom of physics that we cannot create or destroy energy. We can only change it. Unbeknownst to the wearer, the Braker converts sonic energy into thermal energy. All you notice is that a dangerous sound cannot get through the filter. Developed in 2006, these tiny inserts, the size of a grain of rice, allow up to 80 dB of sound to enter your ear. They “kick in” when the sound is elevated, thus they are ideal for pieces of music with fluctuating sound levels. There are two versions available. The standard Braker is the less expensive option. They are mass produced ear tips with the Noise Braker filter inserted, but they may not totally fit your ear. The more expensive Custom Noise Brakers, which require a licensed audiologist to make an impression of your ear, are more successful in completely sealing off the ear, thereby not allowing any sound to enter the ear, except through the filter. These offer better protection. Like the ER earplug, they reduce the volume coming in while allowing you still to hear.
Pop, rock band performers, and classroom teachers who play at volumes that may reach 120 dB must wear plugs that can attenuate to levels under 100 dB. Some audiologists will design individualized hearing conservation programs for musicians. Remember that the main source of damage is from the high-hat cymbal, and other high-frequency treble notes. The trumpets’ sounds, for example, come out of the bell like laser beams. Move away from these as much as possible.
5. Minimize your exposure. Our hearing is our life. Be aware that voluntarily or not, it is subject to constant abuse. Life in our society has become chronically noisy, and we all live with it. The ear is an entry to our nervous system. In adults, noise exposure can contribute to our feeling either elated or frustrated after a particularly loud program, affecting blood pressure and sleep patterns, and causing headaches, gastric complaints and irritability.
Theaters, rock concerts, ice shows, circus shows, bowling alleys and even clothing stores bombard us with loud music. Furthermore, chronic noise is stressful. According to Gary Evans, Ph.D., professor of human development and environmental analysis at Cornell University, studies show that noise levels affect concentration and motivation, and can contribute to increased anxiety and learning delays in children.
Be vigilant about your exposure, both on and off the job. Be vocal about your discomfort and insist on amplifiers being turned down or redirected, and insist on a shield and/or plugs. Away from the job, avoid loud music and be aware of your exposure to environmental noise. Wear ear protection when you operate your snow-blower, leaf-blower, lawn mower, chain saw or drill. Think moderation. If you go to, or perform in, a loud concert on Friday, don’t mow your lawn until Sunday. Give yourself auditory rest periods of 16–18 hours whenever possible. Carry plugs in your car, travel bag, instrument case, locker, and taped onto your lawn mower.
Take breaks every hour. Go to a silent room. Be sensible about your exposure and minimize the volumes—at least when you practice.
Guitar teachers and performers should alternate acoustic and electric guitar, and amplify less while rehearsing.
8. Experiment with risers. Put the brass players in your ensemble on risers so that their sounds go over the heads of the orchestra.
Similarly, for bands, if the treble instruments are on risers, the damaging higher frequency sounds will go over the heads of the other performers.
10. Hum! Humming or grunting just prior to a loud sound such as a cymbal crash or rim shot—and sustaining the hum through the loud sound—will give significant protection. This is due to a small muscle in the middle ear called the stapedial muscle, which, when contracted, partially blocks loud sounds from getting through to cause damage.
11. Turn down volumes on everything and avoid unnecessary exposure to loud noise.
14. Create concert programs carefully. Advocate for considering the noise, volumes, and numbers of performers as criteria to be considered when developing concert programs and rehearsal schedules.
16. Experiment with stage setup. Putting noisy instrumental sections at the sides or at the front of the ensemble, or spreading noisy sections out, will place fewer numbers of musicians in the “line of fire.” If need be, consider stage extensions. Share noise doses by moving people around so that one player or one stand does not always get the brunt of the noise. Put the brass in a single row. Research indicates that the front row of two rows of brass players suffer the worst exposures.
Some of the above information was gathered from Hear the Music by Marshall Chasin and A Sound Ear II by Alison Wright Reid. Reid’s entire study is available at asoundear.playinglesshurt.com.
10 SUGGESTIONS FOR AMPLIFIED “POPS” CONCERTS
from Playing (less) Hurt, Chapter 15
- Stand or sit beside speakers, not behind or in front of them. High frequency sounds embark in a direct line outward from the speakers.
- Tilt or elevate loudspeakers to ear level if possible. Depending on the type of speaker, this can result in a “flatter” response, allowing the overall sound level onstage to be reduced.
- Lobby for in-ear monitors. These devices allow the rock musicians to hear themselves better, while offering some hearing protection, and the overall sound levels can be lowered.
- It is important to set up monitors and loudspeakers back from the edge of the stage so there is minimal reflection from the lip of the stage.
- Use shaker loudspeakers. These small devices enhance the lower pitched bass notes. They are plugged directly into the main amps allowing the bass player to hear himself better over the sound of the drums and therefore play with less volume.
- Use acoustic plexiglass shields. Enclose the drum set player in a Plexiglas box. This offers some protection from the high-hat cymbals and rim shots. Place a shield between the high- hat cymbals and the other players, ensuring that the baffle does not extend higher than the drummers’ ears, otherwise the drummers may be subject to their own high frequency sounds.
- Place the treble instrument players on risers.
- Avoid rehearsing in small rooms with reflective surfaces and turning up the volume on speakers.
- Have access to a sound level meter and monitor the decibel levels. Have some written contractual language limiting exposure to inordinately intense levels of sound.
- Wear hearing protection!