Sweet, but deafening, sound of music

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2012 - 1:26 PM

Music may soothe the soul, but those trumpets and drums can play havoc with musicians' ears.

For thousands of students, parents and lovers of marching bands, the music at Saturday's Youth in Music state championship at the Metrodome will be more than just soul-stirring.

For those in just the wrong spot, it literally could be deafening -- up to 140 decibels at times, the equivalent of sitting 100 feet from a jet engine, where ear damage begins in less than a second.

From students to conductors to rock bands to symphony orchestras, many musicians have become painfully aware of the risk, and they're doing something about it.

"Earplugs. When I'm in practice or during a concert, I always wear earplugs -- always," said saxophonist Brittany Majeski, 17, at a rehearsal of the Rosemount High School marching band, which is going for its seventh straight state championship title this weekend (10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome, $10 to $25 at Gate H).

"It's not so bad when we're marching outside," Majeski said. "But inside, it can be actually painful without earplugs, because I sit about 6 feet in front of the trumpets."

Starting last year, all 180 members in Rosemount High's marching band have been issued earplugs designed for musicians, although band director Steve Olsen acknowledges that not all use them.

But drum majors Emily Luckhardt and Devon Lawrence swear by them.

"When you've got the whole band at your back, you can use earplugs or lose your hearing," said Luckhardt, 17, who also plays oboe. "Easy choice."

Who's at risk?

Parents typically don't need to worry about their own hearing when listening to their kids perform, especially outdoors, said Peggy Nelson, who heads the University of Minnesota Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and studies hearing loss among student musicians.

"Band directors definitely should wear protection -- same with rock musicians, all of them all of the time," she said. "But every musician should consider earplugs, especially percussionists and those close to very loud instruments like trumpets."

Inexpensive sponge earplugs slightly reduce high-frequency sounds but muffle the result. Far better are the special earplugs for musicians, $6 to $350 for a pair, because they cut all sound frequencies by 10 to 50 decibels.

"I wear them almost all the time, and I can actually differentiate instruments better when I have them in," said Jerry Luckhardt, Emily's dad and the U's associate director of bands; his individually fitted plugs go for about $145. "They're really good, but I take them out sometimes to hear the overtones, the emotional quality of the music."

Where the pain starts

Risks to hearing rise when the volume goes up and exposure time increases.

For instance, federal OSHA workplace rules say maximum daily exposure to 90 decibels -- say a power mower or a clarinet -- should be eight hours.

But for each additional 5 decibels, the length of exposure should be cut in half, OSHA says.

So it's four hours for a circular saw or French horn, two hours for a motorcycle or a flute, and about seven minutes for an ambulance or a typical marching band.

"When you're right there in front of the trumpet players or the drummers, like I was in college, it can be overwhelming. You can experience temporary hearing loss in just a couple of minutes," said sax player and band director Jordan Swiontek at Maple Lake High School. "I lost hearing in one ear for a month."

For 10 years the U of M has been teaching its music students about health risks, including hearing loss, repetitive motion injuries and other dangers -- which is required of music schools starting this year by a national accrediting group. But like many directors, Swiontek learned a lot more on the job.

"With high school bands, it's OK. The real danger is fifth-graders," he said. "They're just starting out and they've got one volume -- loud. Loud and off-key."

The joy of loud music

"This is a really big deal, and most students don't take the risk seriously enough," said Sara Neumann, 31, once a color guard member in a drum and bugle corps and now studying hearing risk among musicians for her doctorate in audiology at Illinois State University in Normal.

"Kids love to have their face blown off by music -- that's part of the joy and excitement both of youth and of music," she said. "Slowly, they're learning about the dangers, but we've got a long way to go."

An adopt-a-band program by musician earplug maker Etymotic, an Illinois firm that dominates the field, is helping, she and Minnesota experts say. Under the program, bands can buy $13 student earplugs for $6. Rosemount is among the schools in the program.

For most school bands, the biggest danger comes when practices are held in smaller rooms or cafeterias, as well as during indoor concerts, said the U's Nelson. "You can ease the danger by taking frequent breaks from playing, but there is always some risk, even when the music isn't so loud."

She noted a recent study that found that violinists in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had some hearing loss in their left ears, the side toward their instruments.

"I always carry earplugs," she said, "because I often put them in during a concert or a movie or a Lynx game."

On Saturday, Rosemount band director Olsen will be armed with his earplugs -- in his pocket.

"I know I've lost some hearing. It's cumulative, and you don't get it back," he said.

"I don't think I'll need the earplugs Saturday," he said, "but you never know for sure."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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  • Brittany Majeski on alto sax, with Blake Kaner on baritone, practiced with the Rosemount High School marching band.

  • IF YOU ATTEND


    The Metrodome will host, from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, the Minnesota State Marching Band Championship, as well as the Upper Midwest Class Championships and Youth in Music Grand Championships. Events will include 20 high school bands and three college bands in competitions and demonstrations. Tickets are $10 to $25 at Gate H.
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