Being a practicing musician has helped my clinical practice by providing me with industry knowledge of the situations, expectations and risks that are relevant to performing and rehearsing. I’m also able to be empathetic to the musicians that I see as I know what their day to day looks like so can understand how they use their hearing for their work. Knowing about what musicians’ ears go through from first-hand experience has allowed me the space to design tools and research in a more targeted and active way than someone learning about music-making as an extension of their audiological practice. For me, it’s the foundation.
When I was younger, I began my experience of making music by playing classical piano as many kids do and of course then the impact on your hearing is relatively minimal because your practice sessions are short and not particularly loud. Now I play in an amplified setting (as Magnets) there is more to look out for. Sometimes just fifteen minutes of playing is enough for you to have hit your daily noise threshold. And it’s not just contemporary musicians working with amplification that are susceptible: classical violinists can experience left sided hearing loss due to the closeness of their instrument, and brass players and percussionists are vulnerable as well simply because of how loud their instruments can get. There’s no point fear mongering – not all musicians face the same selection of hearing issues – but if music is part of your life it’s important to be aware of how you’re using your ears.
I think it’s important to have self-awareness when you’re practicing and performing on stage, whether that be in a concert hall or a pub. Try and remember when you last got your hearing checked, if ever! We often speak about the importance of going to get our teeth checked regularly at a dentist, but not so with our ears. That doesn’t actually make much sense, particularly when your hearing is part of your day job. I think it can be easy to lose perspective on volume when you’re not checking in and consequently, we often play much louder than necessary. Our ears get tired throughout a gig, and we can find ourselves turning up the volume to compensate. If you’re in a band or just rehearsing solo, there are some really practical things you can do to, like starting off your practice sessions a little softer and remembering to tilt your guitar amp towards yourself so you can hear the high frequencies. And you can go to an audiologist to get your hearing checked out! People often put it off because they think they’re going to get a worst-case scenario result, but more often than not, things are tracking okay. During that initial consultation, I usually work with the musician to make a management plan where we discuss how they interact with sound and volume, and usually they don’t have to come back for another check-up for a year or so.
One of the most common problems that face musicians and their hearing is tinnitus, which often stems from over exposure or injury. If you go into a sound proof booth the chances are you’ll hear some kind of noise and tinnitus is where your brain makes a mistake and locks into that sound so you hear it consistently. For some it can be quite emotional experience, turning on our fight/flight response which can make it more noticeable. If you are struggling to deal with any kind of noise like this, I think it is crucial to seek support and have a session with an audiologist where you can get some more information and work on a management plan. I have gone through the experience myself and now I lecture about it and see patients struggling with it: I know that everyone’s experience is different but a good first step is to sit down and acknowledge the issue, then find a way to manage it.
Tinnitus doesn’t affect my music making but it does affect the way I experience music. If I go to a really loud gig and don’t wear earplugs I know that I’ll have restless sleep for a few nights because of the constant noise I’m hearing. So now, if it’s going to be loud, I just wear the earplugs. There is some stigma around tinnitus in the music industry and I think we all need to make a concerted effort to move past that – refusing to wear earplugs is not a badge of honour! I think it’s really important to be proactive in our own hearing choices and support others to do the same.
Hearing loss and tinnitus do not have to be a barrier to enjoying and participating in music either. I’ve seen musicians lose their hearing and continue to make incredible things and I’ve watched people born with hearing loss become amazing artists. I think as parents and as spectators the most effective thing we can do is not to project the stigma that it’s not possible and look at how young people interact with music so we can help them continue to do that in a meaningful way. I also would never tell young people to just turn their music down: it’s more important to get smart about your hearing. If you want to listen to music all day every day that’s great, but invest in good headphones that block out the background noise, because you won’t want to listen louder if you can hear clearly. I always say that it’s important to think smarter, not harder about your hearing.