Listen up: Playing music could cause hearing loss

Every weekend in football season, high school marching bands like Shawnee Mission West erupt with joyful noise.

With 200 young musicians in West’s band, it’s a lot of blowing, pounding and tooting on instruments. Their fortes can rattle the bleachers and rouse the faithful.

But the music is doing more than raising school spirit, it’s damaging ears — sometimes for a lifetime. It’s not just high school band students at risk, it’s anyone who plays an instrument.

Educators striving to reduce risks associated with school activities — like football concussions and chemistry burns — are looking at the band room. Earplugs are joining mouth guards and safety goggles.

Last fall, the National Association of Schools of Music, which accredits more than 640 schools of music, made the topic of health risks associated with playing music a required course for all music schools. Students get information about performance anxiety, drug abuse and depression, and learn the importance of physical fitness. But hearing loss is the greatest health concern of all.

One class has been taught at the University of Kansas School of Music, said the dean of music, Robert Walzel, a clarinetist and saxophonist himself.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all to the answer of preventing hearing loss,” he said. “And we also don’t want parents to be scared of music programs, or keep their sixth-grader out of music. Awareness goes a long way.”

Awareness arrived last fall at Shawnee Mission North when a band mom and speech pathologist, Karin Soper, was sitting several rows back in the bleachers, feeling her ear drums assaulted. Even neighbors many blocks away can hear the band in its morning practices, she knew. If it was loud outside, how bad was it inside the band room?

Then she saw the tiny earplugs her son’s band director was wearing.

“If the band director was wearing earplugs, what about my son?” she wondered.

Soper called the University of Kansas Medical Center to talk with an audiologist. The audiologist asked to bring a dosimeter to the band room to measure decibels. West’s band director, Bill Thomas, welcomed the science.

“She held it while we played one of our pieces. You could see the needle move into the red zone,” Thomas said.

He was surprised. The band kids were surprised. At times the levels were dangerously high, especially if the exposure continued for very long.

At KU, too, some instrumental instructors are wearing dosimeters to measure daily exposure as they teach private lessons in their studios.

“Our trombone teacher was really reaching high levels,” Walzel noted.

Noise levels don’t just spike when a marching band goes by or a rock group plays. Area sports venues are dangerous places for ears as well.

Last fall, Arrowhead Stadium pegged 115 decibels for an average reading. Allen Fieldhouse was at 125 decibels for the duration of the KU-Missouri game. (Takeoff of a jetliner from nearly 100 feet is about 100 decibels.)

To plug or not to plug?

Scientists have known the dangers for years.

A 1997 World Health Organization report found that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers from an eight-hour workday at a factory.”

But music hasn’t been associated as noise. Research shows that classical musicians are more susceptible to hearing loss than rockers because they rehearse, teach and perform more hours per week. While rock concerts are louder, classical musicians are dosed longer.

Listening to a sound that registers 100 decibels (which can be reached by a flute, for instance) only takes 15 minutes before reaching the maximum daily exposure limit, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

Which raises the question for musicians: To plug or not to plug, and with what?

Comparing earplugs to sunscreen, audiologists say that earplug technology can help block immediate hearing damage. Musicians’ earplugs are not supposed to affect the perception of pitch or timbre, but others note that the plugs can affect how a musician plays when wearing them.

Etymotic Research offers specially designed ear plugs, more like a filter, for high school band students and professional musicians. The company also has created an Adopt-a-Band program advertised on its website: “For the price of a slice of pizza and a soda,” the site says, “you can provide your favorite musicians the opportunity to play loudly and proudly by giving them the tools and education they need to hear for a lifetime.”

Shawnee Mission West and Shawnee Mission North have joined the program that offers the plugs at a reduced price of about $6. Another perk of the program: band directors are rewarded with a custom-fitted $175 pair of plugs, molded to their ears.

West’s band director Thomas, who now wears the custom-fitted plugs, is a believer. He keeps spare pairs of plugs in his car and his pocket to hand out when students misplace theirs.

“Spread the gospel,” he said. “Wearing earplugs will save your ears.”

To Shawnee Mission North’s director, Chad Reed, the earplugs aren’t perfect but better than nothing.

“Do you know something is in your ears? Well, yeah,” he said. “But it’s well worth the trade-off, especially when I stand before the drum line. I have to have them in. It physically hurts if I don’t.”