Eagan band members are getting custom ear plugs to battle possible hearing loss.
Concerns about teenagers listening to loud music have been around since Elvis the Pelvis was gyrating on stages and television in the early days of rock and roll in the 1950s.
But the booming growth of personal listening devices, which can funnel noise as loud as 100 decibels into an ear, is leading to a growing problem of teenagers with diminished hearing, according to educators and ear care professionals.
Seeking to address the issue, Eagan High School this month fitted more than 150 band students with customized hearing protection. The ear plugs will arrive in the next week or so.
"This generation is exposed to higher noise," said Brett Benson, a band director at Eagan High. "They're getting exposed to it more frequently than any generation prior."
Benson and other band directors at the school said the problem is especially pronounced among the thousands of band members in Minnesota because of the loud noise they are consistently exposed to by playing musical instruments.
Eagan High has about 320 kids in its various bands, ranging from pep and marching band to more specialized jazz and chamber music groupings.
Benson worked out an arrangement with Sonus Hearing Care Professionals, an Edina company with a number of branches in the Twin Cities metro area.
The company is selling the custom ear plugs to the students at a discounted price of $26. Normally they'd be three times that price, said Marshall Rosner, the company's owner.
The American Academy of Audiology estimates that more than 5 million kids in the United States have diminished hearing due to noise, and the number is growing.
Rosner said that about 20 years ago only 1 in 100 teens around the country had hearing diminished by loud music or noise. Now, he said, the number is about 1 in 5.
"Years ago you didn't see this incidence," Rosner said. "What we're trying to do is make kids aware that noise is bad for you in high doses. It is a cumulative effect. When we explain it, they understand it."
Benson and other band directors, who already use custom ear protection, said they are seeing a growing number of students using ear plugs, but generally they are the soft disposable variety and not customized to their ears.
That was one of the reasons Benson contacted Sonus earlier this year: to increase the use of better ear protection. Ear plugs are not mandated by the school or state.
The custom ear plugs, if not lost, can be worn for years by the students, teachers said.
"My dad was like, 'You better sign up for that,' "said Liz Mushel, 17, a clarinet player who was among the students to buy custom plugs. "I think it's really cool. It's good to have protection, otherwise your hearing is going down the drain. I want to save my hearing."
Eli Broman, 16, also got fitted for the ear plugs earlier this month. He said it is almost universal that teenagers these days have headphones or ear buds playing loud music when not in class.
"I see students walking down the hall with ear buds and I can hear the music from five feet away," said Broman, a clarinet player in the band.
Conrad Miska, another Eagan High band director, said in the 20 years he has been at the school he has watched as more and more students spend more and more time using listening devices such as Mp3 players and smartphones.
He said he has been pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction from students about using ear protection while playing or rehearsing.
"We're getting people buying into it," said Miska, who notes that the Rosemount school district, of which Eagan is part, has the highest number of band students in the state.
The band directors think that getting students to buy into wearing ear protection also might make it easier one day to mandate ear plugs, much in the way athletes are required to wear mouthguards or helmets.
"If it was mandatory I think students would wear them," Broman said, noting that at Eagan High some band directors make students do pushups if they forget to bring their ear protection to practice.
Benson said he hopes to make the ear plug fitting an annual event to get band kids coming into the school used to wearing protection.
The sooner students do this, he said, the faster they can adjust to playing with ear plugs.
"You have to relearn how to listen," Benson said. "You do have to adjust, but there's always a manageable way to protect your hearing."