As professional musicians, by the time we reach late middle age, we are likely to be experiencing the aches and pains of repetitive physical stress, changes in our vision and other age-related ailments. We devote more time to visiting doctors and dentists to keep us rolling along comfortably and able to continue making music and enjoy life. We don’t seem to have any hesitation about sharing these experiences in our circles – and there is some comfort in knowing that we can commiserate about the changes we’re going through. When I hang out with those of my musician friends in this age group, the subjects of conversation have sure changed!
I recently sat down for a meeting with indie musicians and Local 802 staff that took place in a noisy restaurant, one that featured a loud jukebox and the clamor of the wait staff and patrons. One of the musicians, a peer of my own age, was clearly struggling to hear what was being said and remarked that he needed to do something about this “hearing thing.” I surprised myself by jumping in to announce that I had done just that, and described my new invisible hearing devices to combat the problem we were facing at the restaurant and in similar situations. The organizing we were discussing was put on hold for a moment while we talked about it. I realized that this issue of hearing loss was one critical to our music community and needed to come out of the shadows for everyone’s good.
One thing we musicians don’t seem to talk about much is what’s happened to our hearing. Our ears are our most valuable sensory tool, and probably the one that we are most self-conscious about if we are noting any changes in our hearing. It doesn’t matter what type of music you play. The accumulation of hearing damage can be significant, whether your career has been spent working in pop or jazz venues, in club date bands, on rock concert tours, onstage in a symphony orchestra, in Broadway, opera or ballet pits, or in recording studios. The assault on our ears is ever present and by the time we have done this work for decades, the damage is done.
Modern hearing protection, as afforded by custom-molded earplugs that offer a clear, full-frequency response, can save the hearing of the younger generation of musicians if used religiously. I hope they will be wise and have those plugs made. For those of us who did not have that to rely on, it’s a different story.
In my own case, after 40 years of exposure at work, preceded by a decade of amateur garage bands and attending concerts at the Fillmore East, it was time to take stock of what had occurred. Maybe you have shared my experience of trying to decipher what is being said in a noisy environment such as a restaurant or straining to hear spoken words at a lecture or meeting. Maybe your significant other has complained that you are not responding, or asked you to lower the volume of the stereo or television. Perhaps you have noticed that the most commonly used word in your vocabulary has become “What?” – and you are often asking people to repeat themselves. Has lip reading become an integral part of your verbal communication pattern? Are you mistaking one word for another, leading to misunderstandings? Owning up to this physical change in our bodies should not feel like a defeat or that we are lessened because of it. Doing something about it can be truly life changing and reveal just how much we are missing.
I decided to find out more about the problem, have my own hearing checked, and see what state of the art is in newer devices to restore any loss. I will admit that 15 years ago I had a hearing exam courtesy of the Local 802 health plan and was informed that I did, in fact, have some loss in certain higher frequencies. At that time I opted to have custom earplugs made but took a pass on the advice of the audiologist to try a hearing device. It just didn’t seem like it was time to deal with the problem, but maybe ego was a more honest reason. In recent years, the degraded hearing became more noticeable and it was finally time to act. I gave in to my more rational self, put aside my fears and made an appointment to see an audiologist. (I chose Dr. Ellen Finkelstein of East Side Audiology.)
Dr. Finkelstein talked to me very knowledgeably about the loss that musicians suffer and assured me that she had a number of musicians as clients. I told her about my work and what I was experiencing in daily life. We agreed that most musicians do not require hearing devices for rehearsals or performances due to the level of sound already present, but that it was everyday conversations that were the most affected by any loss.
The testing was very detailed and I have asked Dr. Finkelstein to explain the process – see her accompanying article here.
The results were clear. While my hearing was in the normal range up to about 1,000 cycles, from that point upward there was a big drop off in clarity of what I heard at very soft or conversational sound levels. The tests measure the ability to hear frequencies of up to 6,500 cycles and that is the top range of the better hearing devices. The audible range of sound extends from 20 cycles at the low end to 20,000 cycles at the top. The frequencies above 10,000 cycles are referred to by audio engineers and musicians as “presence,” and as we age, we naturally lose some of the ability to hear that in that range. We also know that the high frequencies most boosted in amplified music and occurring naturally in the upper harmonics of electric guitars, cymbals and high brass are in the 2,000 to 4,000 cycle range, otherwise known as the peak of the Fletcher-Munson Curve. This information may seem a little geeky, but not when you know that this range of sound frequencies is where intelligibility in conversation also resides. The result is that our exposure to high frequencies at loud levels hurts our hearing at exactly the range that’s needed to understand what people are saying to us. Modern hearing devices can effectively boost just those frequencies we are missing, making conversations clear and opening our ears up to a range of sounds missing sometimes for many years.
O.K., so that’s the science. What has the experience been like?
Dr. Finkelstein proposed three different types of devices: one a more traditional and plainly visible type; another by Widex that uses a sleek device behind the ear with a slender clear tube to send the amplified sound into your ear (and that many consider the best purely for quality of sound); and the devices I ultimately opted for, a high-end pair made by Starkey that sit completely inside the ear canal and are nearly invisible. A mold of the ear canal is made to ensure proper fit of the devices and is sent to a lab for manufacture. I had the opportunity to try both the current model of those devices and then later test a version with a new state-of-the-art chip inside. An adjustment to the geometry of the device casing needed to be made to more accurately match my ear, and that is part of the service provided by an audiologist. After two months of wearing my new devices, I can say without reservation that I am thrilled with the quality of sound. It can be startling at first, but then very cool to hear the full range of sounds again. Speech at all volume levels is now fully comprehendible and the strain in listening has lifted. I take the devices out to make music and when I’m finished I pop them back in to resume daily living. It’s easy to manage, and the upkeep is limited to changing the tiny batteries and a gentle cleaning of the device cases.
These devices vary in cost and some insurance plans do not cover the expense. As a rule, the more invisible and miniature the device, the more costly. Regardless of what you can afford, there is something out there that will do the job. Perhaps the biggest part of the process is getting over our concerns about any stigma attached to openly acknowledging our changing hearing. Coming out about these changes can be liberating, as I have discovered when I show my friends what steps I have taken to address the loss. Their reaction has been totally positive and I am glad that we can add this important topic to our talks about getting on in life. Let’s open the conversation among musicians everywhere.
Andy Schwartz, a guitarist and a member of Local 802 since 1972, is an elected member of the union’s Executive Board and the fundraising coordinator of the Emergency Relief Fund. You can reach him at Aschwartz@Local802afm.org.