Show Your Ears Some Love

Say this out loud: "I am a human being."

...and unfortunately, as a human you are not nearly as invincible as you might think you are! I certainly thought my ears were indestructible when I was younger and by the time it dawned on me that they couldn't be repaired like so many other parts of my body I'd done some damage.

Not to be all doom and gloom, but our ears just aren't made for guitar amps, massive subwoofers at concert halls, or trumpets in your ears. Take it from me, and every other musician who has had their ears damaged, and don't take your ears for granted.

I've had a long journey with tinnitus and I want to share some of my methods for protecting your ears, and how to use monitors to help you hear yourself. I also want to pass along some information about how your diet can make you more susceptible to damaging your ears.

To be honest, I love loud music. I absolutely blasted Van Halen and Earth Wind & Fire when I got my first pair of headphones, and playing lead with a big band is like sitting in the middle of a rocket taking off. There's so much power and precision when a big band is roaring away. I played lead trombone with the Birdland Big Band for several years and in 2009 when my ears started ringing after a set I paid little notice, and I said to myself that it was worth it for such a fun gig. Six months later they started ringing through the next day after a gig, and then after one especially loud night with the band the ringing never went away.

Tinnitus is caused when sound enters you ear canal and causes damage to the cilia in your auditory inner ear. Specifically, for whatever reason the amplitude of a certain frequency is just too much for one specific cilia to handle at that moment and it snaps like a tree blown over in a storm. The problem is that once broken they do not heal. Each section of the cochlea receives and transmits information about a certain frequency to your brain, and once it stops doing that your brain freaks out and starts creating an electrical response which you percieve as a ringing in your ear. Trust me, it is insanely annoying.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to prevent that from happening. One, protect your ears with something. Two, consider what you eat in the hours before you'll be exposed to loud noises. I talked with an audiologist who explained that chemical compounds which are harder to break down cause your blood supply to rush to your stomach, leaving your ears less protected. Those foods included sodium, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and even large meals.

Since the worst of my tinnitus 12 years ago I've made a effort to eat a low-sodium diet and wear earplugs whenever I can. I don't know if it's just the passage of time, or either of those efforts but I'm happy to say it's gotten better, and definitely hasn't gotten worse.

Third, put something between yourself and the source of the sound. If you can't move away from a cymbal or tympani, ask someone in charge if there is a baffle or plexiglass shield you can use to protect your ears. If that isn't possible get creative. When I played at South Pacific in 2009 I sat with a crash cymbal less than two feet from my head for eight shows a week. That was the same year I developed tinnitus from big bands and I decided to memorize the entire show so I could move my music stand between me ears and the cymbal. It helped attenuate the volume, and as a bonus I was musically more involved by not having to look at the music.

Last, take a look at this graphic from the CDC. The length of time you can be exposed to loud frequencies gets quickly shorter as the decibels go up. Onstage or in a pit I've regularly watched decibel meters hit 109dB, and as high as 115dB. Your daily limit for levels that high... is THREE MINUTES. Foam earplugs will take you from 109dB to 72dB where you can withstand 8+ hours of exposure without damage.

Ok, on to the good stuff. Toys!

$0.13/pair Foam Earplugs

Can't beat cheap foam earplugs! I know different instruments have different experiences with foam earplugs. Strings players, woodwind players, and percussionists can wear them and feel moderately to quite perfectly comfortable.

The issue for brass players is that it can be hard to hear anything else due to the sound being transmitted through our mouthpiece into our heads. My advice is to practice at home with earplugs. Put some music on the stereo, put in your earplugs and play along with it, getting familiar with what you can hear and what you can't hear.

The plus side of earplugs for brass players is that you can hear yourself quite a bit better. On rock and hip hop gigs when the subs are going these have saved my chops by keeping me from overblowing. The downside is that you can not hear anyone else, so be aware of that when you are getting used to wearing them.

$6/pair Loop Earplugs

Many options exist between foam earplugs and high end custom earplugs, and these earplugs from Loop certainly look like a good option. If a 33dB reduction sounds too isolating for you, these offer a 20dB reduction, which might allow you to listen to your bandmates easier, especially in the moments when the volume dips.

$160 High SPL Lavalier Mic

$40 ROLLS Personal Mixer

The next step up is to build yourself a stealthy monitor setup. I used this for years on loud gigs when I want to hear something more that earplugs allowed, or then the monitor mix didn't have what I needed and I couldn't change it. The lavalier mic needs to have a really high SPL limit, as trumpet can peak at 115dB and trombone even louder. (I have to admit to have a loud note contest with a trumpet player before a Broadway show to see if a mic could handle loud notes. One, I "won." Two, there wasn't anyone else in the pit.

The mic clips to your bell, plugs into the small mixer, and it allows you to send yourself into your headphones. If you have a line from a mixer or monitor you can plug that into the ROLLS and mix your own level with the monitor. It's a great solution.

$59 - $2,500 In-Ear Monitors

A great step to take is find some in-ear headphones that you are comfortable with. Shure makes an entry-level pair that are affordable and are EQd well for music. I have a pair of these that work great in a lot of situations. The next levels up in the Shure line offer more drivers, and a warmer, stronger tone which often allows you to listen at a softer volume, thereby protecting your ears even more. For bass clef instruments I strongly recommend in ears designed to strengthen the bass. The difference is noticeably tighter and punchier, and less washed out by the high frequencies. I've owned a dozen pair of in-ears and my favorite pair are these Sure SE535 Sound Isolating Earphones. I found them for 40% off, so shop around.

$699 Sensaphonic 3DME Music Enhancement

The Cadillac of ear protection is a pair of custom fit in-ears with the ability to toggle between a closed-off setting and an open setting. I had a pair of these Sensaphonics back in 2009 back when they were a little more cutting edge and they are truly the best. When in the 'OFF' position they act like normal in-ears and block 29-30dB, but when you switch to the 'OPEN' setting they come very, very close to sounding like you've got nothing in your ears. It's amazing. They've come a long way from the fragile model I had, and their current offering looks great, assuming money is no object!