Next weekend, when the University of Minnesota Marching Band holds its 57th annual indoor concert at the Northrop, there will be plenty of energetic marching, flying flags and twirling batons.
And earplugs. Lots of earplugs.
In addition to offering ear protection to all of its student band members, the university sets up dispensers of free foam earplugs in the lobby for the audience.
“We honestly decided we needed to provide it,” said assistant Prof. Betsy McCann, the marching band director.
Although the band plays without amplification, “we have 325 musicians on stage. That creates a lot of decibels,” McCann said. “I do not stand in front of the band without earplugs in, even during rehearsals.”
Musicians and audience members — from rock to classical — are beginning to get the message that they need to protect their ears during fortissimo musical performances.
Minneapolis music fan Steven Wood said he carries “high-fidelity” earplugs in a container clipped to his keychain when he goes to concerts at places such as the Armory and Target Center.
“It’s like protecting your eyes from the sun, or protecting your teeth,” he said.
Recent studies have shown that when free earplugs are made available at the entrances of concert venues, more people will use them. And when they do, they’re less likely to suffer from temporary hearing loss.
Four years ago, the city of Minneapolis passed an ordinance requiring about 200 bars, nightclubs and other live or amplified music venues to make available free, single-use foam earplugs to patrons.
Brian Felsen, who owns a hearing protection company, led the initiative with Miracle-Ear, the Miracle-Ear Foundation and 3M Co. to provide the free earplugs to bars.
He said more than 500,000 earplugs have been given away since 2014.
“We go through a lot,” said Nate Kranz, general manager of First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. “We’re constantly requiring more,” he said, adding that the free earplugs have “put the issue in front of customers in a good way.”
But earplugs started showing up at music venues before the Minneapolis ordinance came along.
Concertgoer Cassie Kopietz remembers free earplugs and signs saying, “We won’t let you in unless you wear them,” at a 2013 performance by the notoriously loud My Bloody Valentine at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul.
Jora Bart, a spokeswoman for Xcel Energy Center and Roy Wilkins, said that in recent years there’s been an uptick in audience members asking for hearing protection. The ushers there have long carried free earplugs for patrons. Patrons can also borrow ear protection muffs for use by infants and young children, Bart said.
A classical concern
The musicians themselves are starting to pay attention, as rock stars such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have gone public with their hearing problems. In this year’s movie remake of “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper plays a country music star on a downward spiral partly caused by tinnitus.
It’s not just a problem for musicians who perform in arenas outfitted with towering speakers.
Some studies have shown that about 52 percent of classical musicians have hearing loss compared with only about 37 percent of rock musicians, said Marshall Chasin, a Toronto audiologist with the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. That may be because length of exposure to noise, as well as loudness, is a factor in potential hearing damage.
Although they may not be getting hit by the ultrahigh peak sound levels of an amplified rock concert, Chasin said, professional classical musicians spend many more hours in rehearsal, practice, performance and teaching than a typical rock musician.
He also offered another explanation for the higher risks faced by classical musicians: Maybe they don’t like the music they play as much as their rock counterparts do. Loud music may be more harmful if the listener doesn’t enjoy hearing it because ear-damaging stress hormone levels rise when hearing music that one dislikes, he said.
Rock musicians typically play their own music, which they presumably enjoy. But orchestral musicians have to play music selected by the conductor or artistic director.
At the Minnesota Orchestra, earplugs are available to musicians backstage, and last June, the orchestra brought in an audiologist to conduct tests and fit interested musicians with custom earplugs, said spokeswoman Gwen Pappas.
Most members of the orchestra use some sort of hearing protection at least some of the time, said percussionist Kevin Watkins.
“Everybody gets it,” he said. “These are great players. They can really crank. The dynamic range is really mind-boggling.”
At the University of Minnesota, a three-year study of the marching band showed that some percussion players were being exposed to sound as high as 134 decibels, considered unsafe for unprotected exposure for any length of time.
The study also found that more than half of the musicians reported never wearing the earplugs provided. However, the students in the marching band didn’t seem to have greater hearing problems compared with a control group of other college students.
Since the study was done, McCann said, marching band members have become more diligent about wearing earplugs.
“The culture is getting to where the norm is to wear them,” she said.
McCann, 38, wore earplugs when she played flute and piccolo in college. She still wears them during football games, even when the band isn’t playing. She even brings them to movies.
“I need to use my ears in my career,” she said.
Chasin, the Toronto audiologist, said the development of earplugs designed for musicians (which reduce sound by similar levels at all frequencies) has helped the acceptance of hearing protection.
“We’ve done really well with those,” said Down in the Valley general manager Scott Farrell of the $25 high-fidelity earplugs his music store sells to concertgoers.
Smartphone apps such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter also can give you an idea of when you’re getting exposed to sound levels that need protection. A good rule of thumb is if you have to raise your voice to be heard by a neighbor, it’s probably too loud.
There’s also an app developed by Chasin that can measure if you’ve experienced a temporary hearing loss.
Of course, there’s an obvious way to prevent ear damage: Venues could turn down the sound, said acoustics expert Steve Orfield, president of Minneapolis-based Orfield Laboratories.
He argues that “when it’s run lower, it sounds clearer,” and points out that sound levels at many concerts in the United States are pumped up to levels that would be illegal in Europe.
“It has to do with the fact that most people who run music venues are deaf,” he said.
For his part, Farrell understands that “part of the energy at a live show is the volume. It adds a certain excitement.”
But if your ears are unprotected, that could come at a cost.
“If you love music, the cruelest joke is to have issues with your hearing,” Farrell said.