A letter about your hearing from Monique Buzzarte, Trombonist and Educator

Hello my musician friends,

Did you know that over half of classical musicians suffer hearing loss? Conductors, band leaders, and music educators are affected at even higher rates. Surprisingly enough, both groups are more at risk than rock musicians, due to generally longer exposures periods each day and also longer careers.

I know a lot more about this now that I did before audiological testing revealed a mild hearing loss in both ears. I want to make sure that all the musicians I know are more aware of their risks than I was, and have information about how to protect themselves.

People vary, and your own personal genetics/medical history can play a large role in how particular exposure translates into hearing loss. What might be safe for your friends may not be safe for you. The trouble with hearing loss is that by the time you notice anything yourself, it's too late - the damage has already been done. The only way to protect yourself is to avoid risky situations, wear ear protection when risky situations are unavoidable, and have periodic audiological screenings to keep tabs on your hearing/have early warning of any changes.

But what's a risky situation? In terms of weekly exposure: 2 seconds of a marching band (132dB). 18 seconds of a chain saw (125dB). 2 minutes of an orchestral forte (115dB). 18 minutes in a loud bar with a live band (108dB). 1 hour at a major sporting event (100dB). 3 hours on the subway (90dB). If you want to be shocked, buy a cheap Radio Shack sound level meter and use it for a couple of days. How loud is your practicing? How loud are your students? How loud are your rehearsals and performances?

While OSHA's “safe” exposure levels are higher than the one listed above, they also find a 25dB hearing loss “acceptable.” Decibel levels are measured on a logarithmic scale, with each 3dB increase representing a doubling of volume. 25dB reflects the volume doubling eight times.

When it's not possible to avoid risky situations, please help save your hearing by wearing ear protection - ie use earplugs. These range from those cheap foam (a few bucks) to "one-size-fits-all" ($10-12) or the fitted-by-an-audiologist musician's earplugs ($125-$175). Many people find the musician's earplugs the best long-term solution, since they do a much better job of reducing decibel levels without distorting the sound. For more information on these see http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/erme.asp or call toll free 1-888-Etymotic (1-888-389-6684) Here in NYC AFM Local 802 provides free monthly audiological screening.

If you're on Plan A the cost of fitted musicians earplugs is covered and the union will give you a voucher for free fitting and purchase. If you're not on Plan A, Ellen Kelly (the audiologist who comes to the union to do the screenings) can fit you then - purchased from her I think they're about $125. To schedule an appointment with Ellen call Tara at (212) 245-4802 x101.

Please take care of your hearing! And spread the word …