The Kansas City Star

Updated: 2012-09-17T05:03:41Z

Audiologists say high school marching bands such as this one can blast music at dangerous levels.
Audiologists say high school marching bands such as this one can blast music at dangerous levels.

Assaulting your ears

Decibel levels and comparable noise sources:

85 Noisy restaurant, chamber music

95 Motorcycle/subway, orchestra pit

100 Snowmobile, symphony orchestra

105 Loud sporting event, concert band

110 Chain saw, blues bar/rock concert

120 Ambulance siren, marching band

Source: Etymotic Research Inc.

Every weekend in football season, high school marching bands such as Shawnee Mission West erupt with joyful noise.

With 200 young musicians in West’s band, it’s a lot of blowing, pounding and tooting on instruments. Their fortes can rattle the bleachers and rouse the faithful.

But the music is doing more than raising school spirit, it’s damaging ears — sometimes for a lifetime. It’s not just high school band students at risk, it’s anyone who plays an instrument.

Educators striving to reduce risks associated with school activities — such as football concussions and chemistry burns — now are looking at the band room.

Earplugs are joining mouth guards and safety goggles.

Last fall, the National Association of Schools of Music, which accredits more than 640 schools of music, made the topic of health risks associated with playing music a required course for all music schools. Among topics such as overuse and performance anxiety, hearing loss is the biggest concern of all.

One class has been taught at the University of Kansas School of Music, said the dean of music, Robert Walzel, a clarinetist and saxophonist.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all to the answer of preventing hearing loss,” he said. “And we also don’t want parents to be scared of music programs, or keep their sixth-grader out of music. Awareness goes a long way.”

Awareness arrived last fall at Shawnee Mission North when a band mom and speech pathologist, Karin Soper, was sitting several rows back in the bleachers, feeling her ear drums assaulted. Even neighbors blocks away can hear the band in its morning practices. If it was loud outside, how bad was it inside the band room?

Then she saw the tiny earplugs her son’s band director was wearing.

“If the band director was wearing earplugs, what about my son?” she wondered.

Soper called the University of Kansas Medical Center to talk with an audiologist. The audiologist the band room with a dosimeter to measure decibels. West’s band director, Bill Thomas, welcomed the science.

“She held it while we played one of our pieces. You could see the needle move into the red zone,” Thomas said. He was surprised. The band kids were surprised. At times the levels were dangerously high.

At KU, too, some instrumental instructors are wearing dosimeters to measure daily exposure as they teach private lessons in their studios. “Our trombone teacher was really reaching high levels,” Walzel noted.

Thomas bought his own meter and installed an app on his smart phone. He tests levels now during practices and performances and inside different venues, just out of curiosity.

“The basketball buzzer that sounds off during pep band … it’s nearly off the chart,” he said. He’s checked movie theaters. Restaurants.

Noise levels don’t just harm when a marching band goes by or a rock group plays. Area sports venues are dangerous places for ears as well. Last fall, Arrowhead Stadium pegged 115 decibels for an  average reading. Allen Fieldhouse was at 125 decibels for the duration of the KU-Mizzou game. (Takeoff of a jetliner from nearly 100 feet is about 100 decibels.)

Scientists have known the dangers for years. A 1997 World Health Organization report found that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers from an eight-hour workday at a factory.”

But music hasn’t been associated as noise. Research shows that classical musicians are more susceptible to hearing loss than rockers because they rehearse, teach and perform more hours per week. While rock concerts are louder, classical musicians are dosed longer.

Listening to a sound that registers 100 decibels (which can be reached by a flute, for instance) only takes 15 minutes before reaching the maximum daily exposure limit, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

Which raises the question for musicians: To plug or not to plug, and with what?

Comparing earplugs to sunscreen, audiologists say that earplug technology can help block immediate hearing damage. Musicians’ earplugs are not supposed to affect the perception of pitch or timbre

Etymotic Research offers these earplugs. The company also has created an Adopt-a-Band program advertised on its website: “For the price of a slice of pizza and a soda,” the site says, “you can provide your favorite musicians the opportunity to play loudly and proudly by giving them the tools and education they need to hear for a lifetime.”

Two high schools in the area, Shawnee Mission West and Shawnee Mission North, have joined the program that offers the plugs at a reduced price of about $6. Another perk of the program:  Band directors are rewarded with a free custom-fitted $175 pair of plugs, molded to their ears.

West’s band director Thomas, who now wears the custom-fitted plugs, is a believer. He keeps also spare pairs of ER-20s in his car and his pocket to hand out when students misplace theirs.

“Spread the gospel,” he said. “Wearing earplugs will save your ears.”

To Shawnee Mission North’s director, Chad Reed, the earplugs aren’t perfect but are better than nothing. “Do you know something is in your ears? Well, yeah. But it’s well worth the trade-off, especially when I stand before the drum line. I have to have them in. It physically hurts if I don’t.”

Many high school musicians, however, are leaving the technology in the cases, said Corbin Warner Jr., a 16-year-old drummer from West. Although he wears them, “most everybody here has stopped wearing them.”

Kris Chesky, associate professor at the University of North Texas College of Music, and director of the Texas Center of Music & Medicine, believes that Etymotic’s ER-20s are a waste of money. “Those specialty musician ear plugs protect no better than the 50-cent foam plugs,” he said.

Chesky and his research teams tested the ER-20s and dispute the company’s claims.

They distort, he says.

“Research shows that when musicians use ER earplugs, the intensity and timbre of the music they produce is altered. … Musicians can’t wear them and still play well.”

Chesky, who plays professional trumpet gigs in the Dallas area, owns three sets of custom earplugs. But when his trumpet comes out, his earplugs stay in the case.

His team collected a year’s data using North Texas’ nine lab bands, recording sound levels and averages, testing ER-20 earplugs with musicians and nonmusicians. The team has presented its research at conventions across the country and in Europe.

Etymotic has threatened Chesky with legal action. A few months ago, the company sent Chesky a 20-page cease and desist order. But Chesky isn’t backing down. Etymotic did not respond to requests for comment.

Angie Reeder, an audiologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center who works with Etymotic, has heard the hearing/comfort/distortion issues before.

“This is the chasm between audiologists and musicians. We think we’ve found the answer and the technology, and the musicians are telling us, no, not yet. This outlines the importance of collaboration between audiologists, hearing health care providers and musicians to find what works.”

Chesky said he will continue sounding the alarm that the joyful noise should be more subdued. He worries that the public will assume plugs are the easy fix.

“The field of music and music education must recognize the limitations of existing products. More than one musician friend has bought expensive ear plugs only to stop using them.

“That breaks my heart.”

Chesky advocates one big change that musicians at all levels, from high school to college to professional, need to hear.

Play proudly, just not loudly, he said. “Play musically.”

Or pay with hearing loss.

Read more here: