Thursday, February 6, 2014

Can hearing protection actually improve your playing?

You launch into you first number. It’s a killer piece -- total excitement -- and your drums sound great. You can hear the crack of the snare, the thump of the bass drum, the sizzle of the cymbals. All is well. Second set … the crowd is a bit louder; can’t hear the monitor quite as well. For some reason the cymbals don’t seem as bright, but that’s OK. Still sounds great. As the night wears on, the drums -- the whole band -- takes on a more mellow tone, despite the fact that you know you’re now playing louder and harder. The performance over, you step out into the night air. Your ears are ringing slightly, but you’re used to it. It’s all part of the job, right?

It should at this point be very apparent that something is going on with your hearing. If at the end of a gig your ears are ringing, you feel a tightness in your neck, a fullness in your ears, and an altered sense of hearing, then you should be concerned. But at a more 'artistic' level, what are these changes doing to your playing?

Our ears were never meant to live in a world that’s as noisy as this one. Ears are a remarkable gift from nature. They are always on, listening for threats even while we’re asleep. And while doing that, they’re proactively ignoring sounds that don’t matter. The ears also regulate volume, both mechanically and intelligently. In loud situations, they do a pretty good job of shutting out the noise, but that was in the good old days, when a noise that was loud enough to cause hearing damage was also close enough to kill.

As the musical night goes on, you are in fact hearing less and less, so you play louder to compensate. And that affects the quality of your playing. Your dynamics go out of whack, you don't hear the full range of your instrument, and you're not hearing the other instruments properly. (You also put greater strain on your muscles and tendons.)

Wait … there’s more.

Too much volume, too often, can make you go deaf, or at least partly deaf, and that will affect your playing … if you're still able to play at all. All of the available ear ailments -- some of them at least as bad as deafness -- can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being as well as your musical future.

Tinnitus, the dreaded ringing, can affect your sense of pitch as well as drive you to hysterics. Hyperacusis, phonophobia and misophonia (see previous posts) all affect your comfort level with sound. Imagine having to give up playing because you just can't tolerate the sound levels that were comfortable not that long ago. The worst of the lot is recruitment, a debilitating type of noise sensitivity. That can end your career real quick.

One you might never have expected is equilibrium problems. Noise damage to certain parts of the inner ear can affect your balance mechanism, causing you to become dizzy and even nauseous when sound exceeds a certain level. Ugh.

And just how do you avoid all this? Let's put that aside for a moment and keep our focus on quality of playing.

Because your ears are 'self-adjusting' they can adjust to improved conditions as readily as they adapt to noisy ones. Properly designed hearing protection reduces sound energy across the board. So the sounds reaching your ears will be essentially the same when wearing hearing protection. If you were to use, for example, <ER-15 > ear protectors, you'd hear the same music, just 15 dB less of it. Your ears would quickly recognize this and increase their sensitivity to accommodate. In this situation, the ear isn't being pushed so hard that it needs to protect itself, and your hearing will stay truer through the course of the night. Your perception of tone, timbre and dynamics would also be truer. And because the ear is giving you a better sense of what's going on, you'll be less likely to alter your playing style as the job progresses, so you‘ll also be saving your muscles and tendons.

The usual argument against wearing hearing protectors is that you can't hear as well. But the actual case is quite the opposite. You’ll hear very nearly as well, and that will continue throughout the night, the week, and your career. Plus you have the added advantage of not being quite so deaf in old age.

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