Lessons about performing, lesson 25: Protect your hearing!

It’s hard to believe that this series started with such small aspirations. I expected it to have maybe five entries, but the reality is that there’s a lot more to learn and share.

I’d like to thank you for reading and for the continued encouragement. Remember, if these lessons help then let me know. I’m also very happy to take your suggestions and turn them into articles. I’m not yet out of things to say, but my stockpile of immediately available pithy suggestions isn’t without its limits! So, feel free to suggest things that I’ve overlooked – and help your fellow musicians out.

If you’re not aware of what I’m doing, then you’re pretty far behind. Basically, I’m telling you all those things that nobody else tells you about performing. Anyone can get gigs and play for a few bucks, but I’m telling you the things you need to know to make it a career.

If you’d like to read the complete list, then click here. That’ll whisk you away to a list of all the rules I’ve come up with so far. They’re not in any particular order and many of them have clauses and need to be approached with reason and with regards to your particular situation. Still, nobody wrote a damned book and that means you’re stuck with me.

Meh… Maybe I’ll turn this into a book someday?

Rule #25: Protect your hearing!

It goes without saying that we musicians rely on our hearing quite a bit more than the average populace. It also goes without saying that we subject our ears to more potentially damaging sources than the average person does.

Pretty much like every damned rule on this list, this one comes with a whole lot of room for interpretation. So, I suggest you be reasonable and informed.

Also, I should probably have checked with a lawyer before deciding to give out medical advice! I didn’t. However, this morning I wrote an article about how to not die from electricity’s apathy about your opinions, so let’s just see if I end up in civil court for handing out medical advice!

There’s a little something called NIHL (Noise Induced Hearing Loss) and we put ourselves in harm’s way when we practice and perform. If we deconstruct that phrase, it basically says noisy shit is harmful to our hearing. It also means that noisy shit is harmful to our ears over a period of exposure.

Volume is measured in decibels and the lower the number the safer you are. Some volume levels are safe for any period of time and other volume levels can be the cause of instant, irreparable, hearing loss. Not all hearing loss is equal, some is total and some is very little. No matter how minor, it’s all bad for musicians.

You can get an app for your cell phone or you can buy a device that’ll measure the decibels. I’m absolutely not going to assume the liability of recommending a specific brand nor a specific app. Do note that phone apps aren’t going to be completely accurate but they’ll probably be accurate enough for your needs.

Now, you need to know how loud it’s going to be and how long you’re going to be subjected to volume levels that high. Then, with those estimates in hand, you can deduce that you need hearing protection. No, you need hearing protection. No, you’re not playing quietly enough to not need hearing protection.

Still, it’s a good idea to know how much hearing protection you’re going to need. Because I’m absolutely not going to put myself into a position where I accept liability, I’m going to defer to someone who is willing to state some actual numbers.

First, I want you to read this link and learn about NIHL. Seriously, if you’re not going to read that link, please don’t bother reading the rest of this. I don’t put these links here for no reason. They’re important.

Second, I want you to read this link. This one will tell you what safe levels are, what hazardous levels are, and how long you can safely be exposed to certain levels. Again, I absolutely assert that you must open, read, and understand that link. It’s very, very important.

The fact of the matter is, you’re exposing yourself to volume levels, for the given duration, that are harmful to your hearing. If I have to fucking explain why your hearing is important, you should be working in fast food and not as a musician.

No, you don’t have super-human abilities. You’re just going deaf and don’t know it. Gradual deafness is actually hard to determine on your own and is sometimes only able to be picked up by getting regular hearing tests. I highly recommend you get them on a regular basis!

Even with hearing protection, you’re still going to be subjected to volume levels that cause damage. You can possibly eliminate it – but you’d have to wear those giant muff-style ear protectors. That’s possible, but you’ll look stupid. You’re literally going to choose to do permanent harm in order to perform.

So, you need to reduce the harm. The goal is harm reduction.

My recommendation is that you get custom ear plugs. They’re not expensive. You may have a local shop that can turn them out quickly. If not, there’s a variety of sources online and I’m absolutely not going to recommend a brand. I will say that you should do some research and buy based on reputation and not price. You can ask around and find someone who’s willing to tell you what worked for them, but I’m not that person.

I’m also reducing the harm by reducing the risk of lawsuits! No, I will not be held accountable for recommending hearing protection that failed to suit your needs. No, I will not recommend a specific brand.

You can also get just a big ol’ box of OSHA (or your particular jurisdiction) rated earplugs. Those will muddy the sound quite a bit and you may also be wearing an earpiece that only reduces the sound part of the way. Those will have varied qualities and you probably have a fairly-local audiologist who will be able to recommend specifics.

Because you don’t want to muddy the sound and eliminate part of the audio spectrum, I recommend that you consider custom hearing protection that is designed for purpose. They make these. They sell these. They sell them at reasonable prices and with a variety of protection levels and features. You can afford them. You have to afford them. They are essential work equipment.

They also don’t last forever. You’ll need to replace them regularly and per the manufacturer’s specifications. They’ll tell you how often you need to replace them. They may even offer some sort of subscription-like service where they send you need pairs regularly. They may even give you a discount once you’ve sent them molds and they can reuse the molds you sent them. They may ask that you submit new molds and, if you’re young, they may ask that you send them new molds more frequently than if you’re old.

Your hearing is important. Eardrums are issued two each and you don’t get any more than that – assuming you’re healthy and not a mutant. You only get one set and only start with so much hearing.

Additionally, if you’re having any hearing or ear issues, it’s imperative that you see a qualified medical professional. An ear infection can cause hearing loss. A variety of other medical issues can cause hearing loss. Put simply, losing your hearing both sucks and is bad for you because being able to actually hear the music your producing is important!

The number of performing musicians that I see without hearing protection is way too high. They should ALL be protecting their hearing. You should even be protecting your hearing when you’re practicing. Check the volume levels and see how much risk you’re in. Chances are very, very good that you’re at risk.

Seriously, take care of yourself. Your livelihood depends on it. You might even want to measure the dB level in the center of where the audience will be and give the audience a warning. If you’re really kind, you can give out free earplugs at the door. If you’re super kind, you can figure out a way to warn the parents of kids – as they’re more susceptible to noise induced hearing loss.

If you’re putting on a show, you’re probably somewhere in the 105 to 115 dB rating – but do check. That has a safe limit measured in minutes or even less than a minute. When I say, “We’re going to cause permanent hearing loss.” I mean it. I say it with a completely straight face and absolute certainty.

Chances are very, very good that I’ll even remember to tell the audience that. They, of course, usually cheer and are very happy to have us cause lifetime-lasting injuries. If you’re curious, we keep a few boxes of earplugs at the soundboard and you can just ask and we’ll give you a pair.

If we see small kids in the audience, we’ll probably offer. There’s even a few sets of muffs behind the table where we do the sound. We’d like ’em back, but we’ll let your kid wear them. If we see a bunch of kids in the audience, we’ll actually turn the sound down a bit to try to reduce the harm.

Again, I do thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read these. Some are more important than others and they’re not in any particular order, but I think all of them are important rules to know. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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