(or, How Musicians Should Get Regular Hearing Tests)
Well, I haven’t always loved my ears. In fact, it has been pointed out to me many, many times that they are actually quite small. Embarrassingly small.
When I was about 8 years old, I took swimming lessons at the local YMCA. One day as I climbed out of the pool, wet hair glued to my cranium, a little boy asked me, “Heeeeeeeyyy–didn’t your ears ever grow?” I had never thought about it…(panic)…maybe they hadn’t…
When I was in my teens, my mom offered to take me to get my ears pierced. But, by that point, the “tiny ears” comments had already soured me on the idea. No piercings for me. They might dwarf my ears even further!
In high school and college, I stopped hiding my ears and became quite satisfied to be the odd one without pierced ears. And, until recently, that was the last time I thought about my ears.
Which is strange.
After all, I am a musician. I go to the optometrist every year to check my eyesight, but the last time I had a hearing test was when it was offered as a free public service in elementary school. I used to love those tests! BEEP! [Raise right hand]. Beep! [Raise right hand]. beep! [Raise left hand and wonder whether the sound was actually there, or whether my brain is now manufacturing sounds out of a sense of anticipation].
The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. How could I have gotten through 6 years of music school (I was completing my master’s degree in jazz performance at the time), and never learned about proper ear protection for musicians, especially those that work in amplified environments?
The next semester, I enrolled in a voice pedagogy class. During the second class, we had a visit from an employee at the campus Speech and Hearing Center that was very informative. I vowed to get my hearing tested as soon as possible. But as the semester unfolded, I became ensnared in various assignments and performance commitments, and the urgency evaporated.
My interest never disappeared however, and I would silently curse myself for forgetting my vow every time I found myself in a loud bar or concert. Besides noticing my discomfort, I also began to notice how people talk and think about sight versus hearing.
The prevailing attitude in regards to sight is to be to fix it if you can. In school, I was never one to sit in the back of the room. Though my reluctance to speak in classes kept me out of the front row, I always sat safely (and silently) in the second row. Unfortunately, had I chosen earlier than sophomore year biology class to sit in the back row—I’m looking at you, Jeff Scherwinski! You bad influence, you—I could have avoided a series of ill-fated attempts at hand-eye-coordinated sports.
My point is that the moment I sensed that something didn’t look right—namely, the plethora of biological terms I squinted at from a faraway lab table, or an incoming tennis ball—everyone around me suggested that I get my eyes checked. (You redeem yourself there, Jeff Scherwinski).
Now, how many times have you heard someone recommend that you get your hearing tested? Or even better, have you ever heard the phrase, “Yeah, I just got back from my annual hearing assessment.” The latter simply doesn’t exist!
Clearly, people do get their hearing tested. But, I suspect that only the very young and the very old get any serious medical opinions about their hearing. The fact is that after elementary school, we (speaking as a North American from the midwestern United States) simply hope our hearing will not change. And when it does, like so many ailments and even illnesses, we delay assessment and ignore symptoms for as long as possible. Why?
First, put simply, it’s a cultural thing. People seem to have very little tolerance for hearing loss. If asked to repeat oneself, not once but several times, normally-calm people reach a state of intolerable annoyance. I’ve witnessed it many times–a friend, husband or sister says, “What?” And everyone repeats, “WHAT?!?” in a snide or obnoxious tone. Rather than being a part of the conversation, they never get to find out what juicy tidbit was missed, and try to avoid being in that position ever again. The process of hiding hearing loss has already started.
Second, hearing tests have never become a part of routine health care. Or if they have, hearing exams are certainly not the subject of intense advertising campaigns or public service messages. Unlike eyesight, hearing is simply taken for granted.
At least one otolaryngologist recommends adult screenings once per decade until ago 50 and every three years thereafter. The same report, however, states that 14% of those between 18 and 44 have hearing loss. In the age of the iPod, perhaps once per decade is not enough.
I finally got my hearing tested. It is just as fun as I remember—lots of handraising and the wonder of silence in between beeps. I came away with earplugs designed especially for musicians. Though they have come in quite handy on flights, so far I have yet to use them in a practical situation. They are just not a part of my routine. But they live inside my purse now, waiting for the right moment to protect me from the beautiful (but loud) sounds of the world.
beep. Beep! BEEP!!!