In this two-part series, we look at hearing and hearing loss prevention and listening and listening enhancement.
Whether we are music-lovers who simply listen to music, amateur musicians who also make music, or professional musicians who earn our living by performing music, we are all utterly reliant on our ears to enter this domain. Except for the professionals, few of us give a lot of thought to protecting our hearing, or even pause to appreciate our capacity to hear, until it is threatened. But we should be more conscious of maintaining our hearing as long as possible and beyond that, we ought to truly understand what a remarkable and complex endowment hearing and listening are.
For one thing, hearing and listening are not the same processes; in the same way that seeing and looking are not the same. Listening is the application of our hearing apparatus. It can be cultivated to a greater or lesser degree, and improving listening (as well as hearing ) can help to cure many severe problems including learning disabilities and autism. In this two-part series, I’ll look at hearing and hearing loss prevention and listening and listening enhancement.
At the Performance Awareness Course of the Glenn Gould School, an initiative of Doctor John Chong, Medical Director of the Musicians Clinics of Canada, every aspect of musician’s health that emerging musicians need to know about is covered, from repetitive strain injury to performance psychology to hearing. Recently, I sat in with the class to learn what Audiologist Marshall Chasin had to say whose about what these young adults need to know to protect their hearing over the course of their careers.
Chasin, who has worked with musicians since the mid-80s, has a genial manner, and rather soft-spoken delivery, possibly cultivated for working with people who are subjected to a lot of sounds. He managed to strike a balance between serious concern for hearing protection and relaxed confidence that with proper measures, these musicians’ ears will withstand the intensive exposure to sound that is part of their vocation. For the most part he avoided jargon and highly technical terminology even though the science of hearing meets the Big Bang threshold. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the decibel, for example, which is an artificial device to describe intensities of volume that humans can tolerate. Then there is the Hertz (abbreviated as Hz) which is a term for sound frequency. (One Hertz is a frequency lasting a second). Safe ranges of sound intensity are described with such terms, but for lay purposes, the technicalities are not necessary.
What threatens hearing is the combination of extreme, excessive volume with prolonged exposure. Our ears can withstand occasional blasts of sound, Chasin explained, but ongoing exposure to high decibels results in hearing loss which is not detectable in the early stages. Musicians may be gradually losing their hearing without knowing it for some time, so relying on the everyday experience of hearing is not really sufficient for them to know the state of their hearing.
Protecting hearing should be a regular part of everyone’s personal care, as much as maintaining all the other elements of wellness. This requires a heightened awareness of hearing, which happens so automatically we don’t tend to think of it as a capacity that needs conscious attention. For one thing, most of us don’t really pause to consider how much more sound we are exposing ourselves to than we did in the past. In the era of iPods and ear phones, excessive sound exposure is a pervasive risk, especially for people who wear headphones on the street, and turn up the volume to cover background noise. (A practice that is often combined with studying a phone-screen while walking into the path of others.) Chasin’s rule of thumb (or ear) for listening to music through ear phones, is to limit listening at 80 per cent of volume to 90 minutes a day.
For fitness buffs who pump themselves with motivational exercise music, this means thoughtful allocation of listening time instead of mindless music-consumption. For professional musicians and advanced music students, such as those at Glenn Gould School, budgeting their sound exposure while practising intensively and listening to repertoire, is a far trickier and much more critical. Based on calculations of what is a safe amount of sound exposure per week, most students of the Glenn Gould School calibre are probably practising twice as much as is optimal. They have to take precautions, not only to maintain hearing acuity, but to prevent ringing in the ears and damage to pitch perception, which results in music sounding flat, so the musician incorrectly sharpens their tuning.
“Mozart is just as noisy as a factory site,” Chasin warned, “and classical music, especially symphonic performance, is more damaging than rock in roll in terms of professional hazard.”
One solution is to practice at a lower volume. According to Chasin, humans do not detect the reduction of sound intensity acutely, so it is possible to drop the decibels during orchestral practice, for example, without interfering with the efficacy of the exercise. This is also true for individual practice, which can be done more at pianissimo than fortissimo with equally effective results. After lengthy intensive practice, students should compensate by not listening to music or doing noisy tasks during their free time. Also, there are specialised ear plugs designed specifically for different instruments that allow enough sound to be heard during practice while providing sound protection. These are custom fit to the performers ear.
Several other hearing-smart practices seem to have nothing to do with ears but are standard aspects of physical and mental wellness. One is to stay fit. “Cardio exercise pumps blood to the ears,” Chasin explained, “which is good for hearing.” In other words, couch potatoes are at risk for hearing loss. Another is to reduce stress, which has a physiological impact on hearing by releasing the stress hormones cortisol and glutamate. The paradox is that making music can relieve stress but performance can also cause stress, even for amateurs.
My favourite healthy-hearing practice is the easiest: eat blueberries, which reduce toxic oxidative stress. Some enterprising entrepreneur should set up blueberry snack bars at concert venues.
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