Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a big problem for musicians.

A musician’s most important sense is hearing. When musicians experience hearing loss, it can end a career. Hearing loss can occur from exposure to loud noise, aging, or neurological problems. For orchestral musicians, hearing loss can cause difficulty with tuning and blend. Music teachers with hearing loss may have trouble detecting and fixing errors.

Hearing problems are not limited to diminished hearing. Exposure to loud sounds can also cause tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. You may have experienced this after listening to a loud concert. Tinnitus, can be temporary or permanent, but it can have devastating consequences for musicians.

Hearing Loss Affects 40% of Musicians according to a survey conducted by Charity Help Musicians UK.

A German research study from 2014 studied the incidence of hearing problems in musicians versus the general public. The study observed that hearing loss is an occupational hazard for musicians. It concluded

Professional musicians have a high risk of contracting hearing disorders. Use of already available prevention measures should reduce the incidence of HL (hearing loss) in professional musicians.

I have had my hearing testing and I have lost some of the high end of my hearing, probably from playing piccolo. My husband and kids are able to hear higher pitches than I can. Although I now use ear plug when practicing high notes, I wish I had known about using ear protection while in high school.

Let’s talk about safety.

I am concerned that high school students are being exposed to loud noise in marching band. Perhaps the noise level is appropriate on a football field, but when rehearsals are inside, the noise level is extreme. Even on the football field, the instruments are often held close to the head. There were many times I had a trumpet blowing in my ear during close formations. My ears would ring after marching band rehearsals.

Two of my students are playing in a “BLAST” concert next week. At the end of the marching band season, some local high schools bring the competition show inside for a final performance in the school auditorium. There will be over a hundred band students playing music intended for a stadium, but they will be playing in an auditorium. I’ve never been to the “BLAST” concert, but everyone says it is extremely loud. Do the kids play with ear protection? I asked my students and they looked at me like I was from Mars. Do the parents and siblings in the audience wear ear protection? No. This is a horrible idea! Everyone within 2 miles of the high school should be wearing heavy-duty ear protection.

hearing protection

hearing protection- the kind you need for playing piccolo!

Hearing loss is not cool. Tinnitus is not fun. We don’t let the football team go on the field without pads. We shouldn’t let the marching band play the halftime show without earplugs.

A simple solution: wear ear protection.

My favorite ear protection is the ER-20.

save your hearing with these

ER-20 earplugs

The ER-20 earplugs are comfortable to wear, virtually invisible, and protect your hearing. Unlike foam earplugs, these reduce the volume by 12dB across the spectrum, which means things sound the same… just quieter. You can still hear voices well, which is important in a rehearsal. I wear the ER-20 earplugs anytime I play piccolo (practice at home, rehearsals, and concerts). I also use them at rock concerts and at movie theaters. (Am I the only one that thinks the volume is too high at the movies?!) My husband uses them when tuning pianos. Losing his hearing would also be terrible for his career. These earplugs allow my husband to adjust pitch, but the loud test blows will not damage his hearing.

The ER-20 earplugs can be purchased on Amazon here.

The price of the ER-20 earplugs has come down since I purchased a pair. Now you can own a pair for less than $15. I’ve had mine for about 20 years and keep them in my flute case. The best solution for hearing protection for musicians is to purchase custom molded ear protection, but these are expensive. Because foam earplugs are available at every convenience store for cheap, everyone should have some. We buy them by the box for mowing the grass and working with power tools. But even if you forget your ER-20 earplugs and can’t get to a Walgreens for foam plugs, you can wad up a piece of tissue or toilet paper and put it in your ears. Make sure the piece is large enough that it won’t get stuck in you ear canal. You won’t win any awards for fashion, but you may save your hearing!

Rant over.

Recital Update

Recital Update.

The annual studio recital was this past weekend, and I am bursting with pride for all the students.


Recital 2015

I’ve been teaching for 20 years, but this was one of the best recitals ever. Nobody cried… not before, not after, not even me!

The audience was treated to a wide variety of music from the beginner student belting out “Hot Cross Buns” to an advanced adult student whose refined performance of “Syrinx” was terrific. In addition to my flute and recorder students, there were two dads playing piano for two flutist daughters. I had the pleasure of coaching my son and his cellist friend on a big fireworks piece. They were the grand finale of the recital. After the recital, we shared delicious food and beverages.

At lessons this week, I listened with my students to digital recordings of their performances. It was a delight to hear one student say, “I wasn’t happy with my performance on Sunday, but after listening to the recording, I realize I played really well.”

In a previous post about recital preparation, I wrote about the importance of practicing like a performance. The students this year were all very well prepared and all performed better than I had ever heard them in a lesson. It’s great when a little recital magic pops the performance up a notch.

At the recital, I talked a bit about how musicians and magicians have a lot in common. In fact, when my kids were little, they had the two words confused. Both musicians and magicians have to cultivate unique skills, and we practice so the audience is unaware of all the difficult work that goes into the performance. For the musician, the art is almost entirely unseen as it is enjoyed by the ear and not the eyes. For the magician, the what the audience sees is carefully controlled. Both magicians and musicians practice their craft alone, but the thrill comes when performing in front of an audience. We know that the show takes genuine work, but we open our hearts to a bit of magic too. As a special recital gift this year, all of the performers received bags of magic tricks. I hope they read the directions carefully before testing the finger guillotine!

Some of the students have just begun their studies. Others I have known for many years. I am enjoying the time I have left with the graduating senior, and this past weekend I was glad to give her a job recommendation. It’s always sad when a student I have taught for a long time leaves the studio. But I am glad to be able to stay in touch through Facebook.

Of course we enjoyed some great food and conversation at the reception after the recital.

I am grateful for the support of the families whose commitment to music and their loved ones makes all this possible. Bravo!


Recital Preparation

The Studio Recital for my students is this week and we’ve been talking about recital preparation.

Mental preparation in the two weeks leading up to a performance is critical. By this stage, you should have all of the notes, rhythms, and expressive elements under control. Most of the technical difficulties should be mastered. In the final stretch before a big performance, attention will shift from hewing out the difficulties of the piece to polishing for the audience. I touched on these ideas a bit in the blog post “Mental Practice” but here’s another look with a keen focus on recital preparation. Since I am a woman who plays flute, many of the suggestions below are based on my experiences. In the comments, please let me know if there are other things you consider before a big performance.

The flute and recorder students of Marlene Hartzler, 2013

Studio recital 2013

Recital preparation has mental and physical aspects.

You must practice like you are performing.

  1. Play through your piece often without stopping. Push yourself for high accuracy in notes and rhythms while maintaining musicianship. Make sure that transitions of dynamics and tempos are smooth. You should still leave time in your practice for woodshedding, but play through your piece in its entirety once a day,
  2. Try messing up on purpose and improvising your way through the mistake. Keep your fingers moving until you get back “on the rails.”
  3. Find opportunities for playing your piece for other people. This can be as simple as asking a friend or family member to listen to you play the piece all the way through, or as formal as organizing a pre-performance concert (at a nursing home, your church, etc.) Young children may enjoy performing a concert for their stuffed animals. Set the critters up in front of the music stand and have fun entertaining the furry guests. Don’t forget to bow at the end!
  4. Record yourself performing. Listening to an audio recording will help you refine your musical ideas. If you are able to videotape yourself, watch for excessive body movement. Pay attention to your face when you make a mistake. Do you grimace when something goes wrong or do you have a “poker face?”

Mental preparation goes a long way toward a positive experience.

  1. Visualize the room in which you will be playing. Imagine people sitting facing you. If this is a space you are familiar with, make the mental picture as vivid as possible by adding details about the size of the room, the color of the walls and flooring, the temperature of the building, the lighting sources and quality, the smells, the height of the stage, and so forth.
  2. Create a mantra that you will use during your final preparation and on the day of the recital. You might say to yourself “I am prepared. I am strong. I love this music.” or something similarly affirming. Practice this positive self-talk while you are practicing and whenever you feel nervous about the upcoming performance.
  3. Consider this question: what is the worst thing that can happen if I mess up? Perhaps you will have a bruised ego for a little while, but you will not be irreparably harmed. In the worst case scenario, you will have a juicy story to share with friends and laugh about in the future. In a recent post on this blog, I shared a link to a story about a woman whose skirt fell off during a performance. She didn’t die of embarrassment. In fact, she continues to teach and perform with a good sense of humor.
  4. Practice concentration exercises. Find ways to redirect a wandering mind.
  5. Notice when you are engaging in negative self-talk. Counter it with positive affirmations. Visualize yourself feeling radiant after a perfect performance.

Consider the physical and logistical aspects of a performance.

  1. Knowledge is power. Ask your teacher about any details that confuse you or create anxiety. Perhaps you want to know where you should warm up or if you need to bring a music stand. Although it’s not possible to know every detail of the day, see if you can get more information about the things that worry you.
  2. Know where you are going and how long it will take you to get there. Plan your route the night before and leave lots of extra time for travel. It is far better to be early than late to a performance! If you arrive early, you will have time to practice your concentration exercises, get a full warm-up, and have a few moments of quiet. Running late can be very stressful and will deprive you of the time you need to prepare fully.
  3. Practice in the shoes and clothes you will be wearing. Make sure your shirt allows for easy breathing. Are your shoes comfortable? Ladies: Is your neckline OK for bowing? Take a look at the hem of your skirt. It should be at least knee-length for standing, floor-length if you are sitting on a stage. Can you safely balance in heels?
  4. If you have hair that can reach your mouth, consider how you will wear it away from your face. Headbands, hair ties, bobby pins, and/or barrettes are good items to keep in your instrument case.
  5. Lay out your clothes the day before. Are you missing anything? You don’t want to have to make an emergency run to the drugstore for tights/hose/dark socks on the way to the recital.
  6. Watch what you eat on the day of the performance. Be especially mindful of caffeine and sugar, which can make you feel jittery and leave you feeling low later. Wind players need to be aware that salty foods can make the mouth dry and spicy foods can make the lips and tongue swell. Dairy products can increase the amount of mucus in your throat. Try to avoid eating a meal one hour before the performance. Normal nervousness can be upsetting to the stomach. Eating too close to the performance can also make your mouth water.  Bring a water bottle, but be sure to not drink too much! It’s disgusting, I know, but these things can make a difference!
  7. Get a full night of sleep. Just as cramming the night before a test is unproductive, staying up all night practicing will not make your performance better. Research has shown that sleep is essential for brain function. (How We Learn is a great book detailing this research.)
  8. Eat a banana to help quiet the nerves. (This is the one exception to the “don’t eat before a performance” rule.) Maybe you think I’m crazy, but check out these articles on the effect of bananas on anxiety: “Banana Natural Beta Blockers For Anxiety” and “Best Foods For Calming Your Nervous System” and “Got Nerves? Eat A Banana.

It’s totally normal to be nervous about a performance. Nervousness is your body’s way of being excited.

Performance anxiety is a whole other topic, on which many good books have been written. My favorite is A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad. I’ll post more on this subject in the future.

However, I believe that proper recital preparation can alleviate some nervousness. Being super-prepared with the music, practicing like you are performing, using visualizations and affirmations, working out the logistics, and preparing your body all contribute to a successful performance experience.

Break a leg!