Some years ago I learned of a harmonica festival in New Jersey. This was to be a major event and I was very excited. The schedule was noon to midnight - a full twelve hours of the top players in the country with legends like Jason Ricci and Howard Levy. Upon arriving however, my companion and I were greeted with recorded music that was LOUD. So loud that we feared that we would actually have to leave before any performances even began. Desperate, I suggested that we ball up pieces of paper napkins and put them in our ears. It was so uncool, but we survived.
Following the festival, I discussed my experience with a working musician who said that excessive sound levels were common and often the fault of the sound crew, even against the wishes of the performers. Regardless of where the fault lies, LOUD and very loud seems to be part of the milieu of amplified music in performance. The most disturbing thing however, was that in speaking to rock musicians, all admitted to noise induced hearing loss.
I am happy to report, however, that in my experience, I see a change in climate and the stereotypical self destructive lifestyle of the musician is not necessarily a badge of honor. Awareness is growing of the irreparable damage done to hearing by excessive noise.
Recently, I visited Shrine NYC, a music club located in Harlem. During the performance of the Body Electric Afrofunk Band, I moved up to the group's staging area. I noticed that nearly all the musicians had hearing protectors. I had a good line of sight to the trumpet player, Will Healy, whose ear can be seen in today's photo.
Last night I called Will to discuss this. The conversation was short - Will was celebrating his 21st birthday. He did tell me that he had already suffered some hearing loss and was working with Dunshaw, an audiology center in New York City. Dunshaw Audiology and Hearing customizes musician earplugs - an actual impression of the ear is taken and custom molds made.
This morning, I spoke to Dr. Rhee Rosenman AuD, an audiologist at Dunshaw. I learned many things in our conversation, including the fact that the use of portable music devices like the iPod, at full volume, can deliver 100 db of noise - equivalent to an industrial environment or loud live music. Playing portable devices at full volume is common in New York in order to effectively mitigate ambient noise. This practice will result in hearing loss. Dunshaw works with many musicians and their specialized musician earplugs can attenuate sound by 25 db, but still allow music to be heard clearly with no muffling.
Early in the performance of the Body Electric, I also noticed Will's t-shirt with its very clever and ironic tagline: Beethoven - the original deaf jam*. Many things can be learned from Beethoven and one is that there is no romance in loss of hearing - it is one of the great tragedies that befell this man, one of the greatest composers of all time. By the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he was completely deaf. During the end of his performance, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience - hearing nothing, he cried. Sadly, it was the Original Deaf Jam :(
* Deaf used here is a play the older slang term, def, to describe a person or thing that is cool.