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Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Performing, Living: Maintaining A "Good Ear": Four Ways To Care For Your Students' Hearing.

Musicians take pride in having a "good ear." Skills are honed through years of training, and often, little attention is paid to the actual anatomical structures of the ear. Musicians are small muscle athletes and, as such, must care for their auditory systems in much the same way professional athletes care for their bodies. Unfortunately, many musicians and music educators are not experts on hearing wellness. They can, however, provide simple wellness information to their students as it directly relates to being a successful musician. Here are four ways to encourage hearing wellness among your students:

1. Raise awareness of the student's most valuable instrument: The auditory system

The ear itself works as an instrument to create sound. A simple statement such as "Did you know that when you play the piano, your ears are recreating the music so your brain can understand it?" can help students become more aware. The auditory system is made up of three parts: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Each part works in conjunction with the others to process sound molecules. A boost in acoustic energy (outer ear) becomes mechanical energy amplification (middle ear) and finally electrical energy (inner ear). This amazing process translates sound into information that our brain can understand, catalog and recall. "Auditory Transduction" by Brandon Pletsch is a YouTube video that teaches ear anatomy and demonstrates the auditory process with musical examples. For music educators and students alike, the video is an excellent introduction to ear anatomy and physiology.

2. Encourage a hearing test

While teaching students to think about their hearing and the role hearing plays in the life of a musician, ask them if they know what an audiologist is, and encourage them to have an annual hearing test conducted. Those with younger students may assume that hearing screenings are being done in school. Though this may be true, a full evaluative hearing test with an audiologist is quite different. You should not inquire about your students' hearing test results or medical information, but simply ask if they have ever had a complete hearing evaluation. If the answer is no, take the opportunity to introduce them to audiology. Audiologists are medical professionals with a four-year doctoral degree who are highly specialized in working with the auditory and vestibular systems. An audiologist is an expert on hearing wellness and an annual visit to the audiologist can be thought of as routine care, just like an annual dental exam. For students, this information should be presented in terms of prevention. It's important that young musicians do not wait until they are experiencing a hearing issue to see an audiologist, as many disorders that musicians face are completely preventable! These avertable Music-Induced Hearing Disorders include ringing in the ears (tinnitus), increased sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis), pitch perception difficulties (diplacusis), difficulty processing details of sound (dysacusis) and distortion of sound. Most audiologists are general practitioners in the field and there are only a handful of music audiology specialists in the country. Any audiologist can complete an annual hearing test but contact a music audiologist for specialized analysis of results and education specific to musicians.

3. Remind your students about hearing protection

Disorders and hearing loss caused by music exposure can result from a combination of two factors: intensity (volume) and length (time). It can be difficult to know the exact volume of an exposure, but length of exposure is much easier to realize. Young students who are practicing, rehearsing, and performing for relatively short lengths of time might not be at risk. However, more advanced students who are practicing several hours a day and playing longer rehearsals and performances are at a higher risk of developing a disorder. In those instances, it is important to take into account where the sound is coming from directionally and how it might affect hearing. For example, a violinist will have more exposure in his or her left ear than the right ear. As such, that violinist might only need to wear an earplug in his or her left ear for long practice sessions. There is a common misconception in the music world that hearing loss and disorders are only experienced by rock bands. In actuality, hearing disorders can occur in the classical, jazz and band environments just as easily. Aside from music, life is full of potentially dangerous sound exposure. If a student is involved in any noisy activities such as hunting, motorsports or chores such as mowing the lawn, encourage use of hearing protection. Recreational exposures such as going to concerts or attending fireworks displays and parades can be injuring as well, so earplugs should be encouraged. Musicians are often given little guidance on which type of earplug to purchase. Foam earplugs that are sold over the counter at drug stores often attenuate too much sound and attenuate more treble than bass, which can result in a muffled sound. When shopping for earplugs, there are two types to consider: universal fit and custom fit. Universal fit earplugs come in all shapes and sizes and most list an NRR rating. This rating should be taken with a grain of salt as it is the potential attenuation (how much the sound will be dampened) that earplug can achieve a controlled, lab environment. The real-world attenuation is often quite different from the NRR. For best sound quality, the earplugs should have a flat frequency response. Most earplug packaging will show frequency and attenuation on a 2-axis graph. The line across the graph should be as flat as possible. As an illustrative example, here is a frequency response graph comparing universal fit earplugs and foam:

Custom, filtered earplugs will often have superior sound quality because they can achieve a flatter frequency response if made properly. These earplugs are manufactured from impressions of the ear canals, completed by an audiologist. Custom earplugs also have the potential to provide more accurate attenuation for the individual wearer. For musicians who are fully grown and ready for a quality product, custom fit is the way to go!

4. Set an example

How you care for your hearing will set an example for your students. Just as you play a passage of music to set an example of technique and style, your students will notice what you do with your ears. There are not many specialized music audiologists in the United States, but there are tens of thousands of general practitioner audiologists. Find a clinic near you and set up an annual check-up. If you are interested in a consultation with a specialist, that can be accomplished via the phone or Internet if not in person. For music educators, a workshop on hearing wellness for musicians can be a great group event for your students. A specialized audiologist can hold such an event and help cover all the questions your students might have.

If you would like more information or have questions, you are welcome to contact me. (www.soundcheck I am also happy to be of assistance in connecting you with the specialized musicians' audiologist nearest you.

By Heather Malyuk

Dr. Heather Malyuk, AuD, owner of Soundcheck Audiology, is a renowned specialist in hearing wellness for the music industry.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Malyuk, Heather
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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