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Piccolo Playing and Noise Induced Hearing Loss

As piccolo players, we know that the piccolo produces some very high, very loud sounds. Most of us know that noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is something that affects all musicians, not just those who play in heavy metal rock bands. We would never dream of shoving our beloved piccolo into our giant, over stuffed backpack without protecting it by putting it safely into its case. But do we consider the daily protection and care of our hearing as we go about our flute and piccolo playing?

Research

~ A 2017 study (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaotolaryngology/article-abstract/2643552)done by the University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, San Francisco, found that 13-18% of US Children and teens (ages 12-19) had signs of noise induced hearing loss.

~ Another study from 2017, done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 4 of adults aged 20-69 had noise induced hearing loss in at least one ear. (These are numbers for the general population, which includes musicians and a whole lot of other people).

~ A 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140430192647.htm)found that professional musicians are almost four times as likely to develop noise induced hearing loss as the general public. And they are 57% more likely to develop tinnitus — incessant ringing in the ears — as a result of their job.

Hearing Loss Facts

Noise is second only to aging as a leading cause of hearing loss. Hearing damage is irreversible. Once the damage is done, it’s done. Sounds that are very loud and of short duration, such as an explosion, and sounds that are loud and long-lasting both cause damage. Fortunately, noise-induced hearing loss is preventable.

How much is too much? The Noisy Planet website (National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders) https://www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/ states that any sound over 85 decibels can damage hearing. Frequently, iTunes cranking through ear buds at max volume is around 105 dB. This website (https://www.gcaudio.com/tips-tricks/decibel-loudness-comparison-chart/) shows that the NIOSH Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure is 8 hours at 85 dB, 2 hours at 100 dB and .25 hours or less at 100 dB. The same chart lists sound levels of music with different instruments: Flute 92-103 dB, Piccolo 90-106 dB, symphonic music peak 120-1437 dB and Rock music peak 150 dB. If you look at different charts, you’ll see slightly different dB ratings. Decibels measure volume, while frequency is what determines the pitch of a sound. Also interesting to note is that the highest frequencies, between 2,000 and 4,000 Hz, are the most damaging—and high register piccolo notes are 2,048- 4,096 Hz. Here is another chart for comparison of different instrument and ensemble ratings.

https://www.etymotic.com/downloads/dl/file/id/632/product/307/noise_induced_hearing_loss_know_the_risk.pdf

So, what we do? Easy answer – get some ear plugs. Even if you don’t wear them all the time, any time wearing them will reduce your overall exposure.

Ear plug choices

As musicians, we still need to be able to hear to do our jobs, so the types of ear plugs that block all the sound are not the best choice. If you can’t hear what you need to hear, then you’re not going to wear them. Fortunately, there are choices available that are designed specifically for musicians.

Custom Ear Plugs

The gold standard is professionally made, custom fit ear plugs that are made specifically for musicians, such as these https://www.westone.com/store/music/tru-customs

These are molded to the exact shape of the wearer’s ear canal which produces a seal. This is to prevent the occlusion effect, which is the hollowed, muffled sound that comes along with wearing foam ear plugs. They also come with more than one filter – so you can choose how much sound reduction you need. The ER-15 is a common type that provides a uniform flat 15 dB of sound reduction from 125 Hz through 8 kHz. I bought a pair of these in 2015 and wear them when I’m practicing piccolo or high register flute stuff. My flute duo partner wears them as well. The down side is that they are expensive and require an office visit with an ENT doctor to do the custom fitting.

https://www.westone.com/store/downloads/hhc/marketing_materials/Etymotic_Musicians_Earplugs.pdf

Flange style

I have several pairs of Etymotic Research – ETY plugs (https://www.amazon.com/Etymotic-Fidelity-Earplugs-ETY-Plugs-Standard/dp/B0044DEESS/ref=asc_df_B0044DEESS/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=198076816763&hvpos=1o1&hvnetw=g&hvrand=4471380511448695978&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9015378&hvtargid=pla-380460557236&th=1), which is what I used before spending the money for the custom fit professional ones. I now use these for lawn mowing and rock concerts, where it’s simply too loud. I keep them stashed in the car and in my purse. These are significantly better than nothing for hours of piccolo practice in a tiny practice room, and they are relatively cheap. There’s no reason why every piccolo player who is practicing in a tiny practice room for hours at a time shouldn’t have at least this level of protection. They cost less than a large pizza from Pizza Hut.

Foam ear plugs

During my 10 years as an assistant high school marching band director, I frequently wore foam earplugs (https://www.amazon.com/Howard-Leight-Visibility-Disposable-LL-30/dp/B0017JIT4C/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=foam+ear+plugs+string&qid=1557762559&s=hpc&sr=1-4) for inside rehearsals. 200+ high school kids, plus full line up marching percussion in a band room is very, very loud. My husband’s job requires that he is often working inside steel plants where the foam ear plugs are required, so we always have tons of these lying around the house. Interestingly enough, I didn’t wear them for picc practice, only during marching band season. Shame on me, but I didn’t know at the time.

Here are some other websites that review other brands of earplugs. I do not have personal experience with any of these that are not listed above. I have several professional theater friends who swear by the Eargasm ear plugs. Funny story – we were at a training course in Chicago and the fire alarm kept going off in the hotel. We were the only two able to keep working in the conference room since we hauled our backup ear plugs out of our purses. Problem solved!

Our responsibility as flute teachers

We need to be the ones teaching our students that they must take care of their ears. The current research available shows us that the damage is real and that using ear plugs helps reduce it. We need to model appropriate behavior and we need to insist that students buy and use ear plugs. We don’t let them get away with sloppy hand position or chewing gum during a lesson, and we shouldn’t let them refuse to take care of their ears. Many years ago while at a summer class covering percussion techniques for band directors, I learned that Dr. Larry Snider (Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Akron) requires that all his incoming percussion students get fitted with custom ear plugs on campus at the audiology lab and use them for practice/performance. He regularly checks on them to make sure they are in compliance. We, as flute and piccolo teachers, need to hold our students (and ourselves) accountable.

PS: Ear buds

Some people think they are evil and are destroying the ears of our youth. However, the problem is in the use of the device. “There’s nothing wrong with earbuds that are producing sound at a low, nontoxic level. But earbuds are bad when you turn them up too loud,” said Dr. Battey. “My rule of thumb is, if an individual is standing at arm’s length from you and they can hear your earbuds … that noise is probably over 85 decibels and if delivered for a long enough time will cause noise-induced hearing loss.” (https://www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/have-you-heard/nidcd-director-talks-earbuds-hearing-loss)

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