School-based band programs are a wonderful way for kids to make a rich and meaningful connection with music from an early age. Being involved in a school band can instill a student with a sense of pride, confidence, and school spirit. Perhaps even more importantly, school-based music programs bring music to kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, enrich lives, and can instill in young people a passion for music which can last a lifetime.
However, being in a school band does have a downside: though the musicians may be small, school bands can produce some really BIG sound.
85dB is considered the maximum safe sound level for eight hours of noise exposure; sound at 100dB is only safe to listen to for a total of 15 minutes during a 24-hour period before hearing damage becomes a very real risk.
A brass section can put out up to 100dB of sound during a normal performance, while a drum line can easily produce 115dB. Of course, these averages come from each band member playing at a volume which is intended to help each instrument blend well into the overall sound of the band, which means each instrument is not always played fortissimo.
Played very loudly, one single flute can achieve 100dB of sound output all by itself.
Put the whole band together, and the decibel levels reach an average of 110dB-120dB, depending on the size and composition of the band. That's about as loud as an ambulance siren up close, and constitutes enough sound to vibrate the bleachers at a school football game. And during indoor practice, practice spaces without adequate acoustical damping -- which can be challenging for many schools to provide when music program budgets are already tight -- can seriously amplify that noise as sound reflects off walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture, increasing the volume even further. Between frequent band practice and performances at games and other school events, band students are facing an ironic risk: the school band programs that give kids an opportunity to learn to love playing music may very likely be damaging their ability to hear the music they love. A musical education is a wonderful asset that can last a lifetime; unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss is also permanent, and cumulative as well.
It's no surprise then that hearing protection is becoming a hot topic among school band directors and organizations such as the National Association of Schools of Music. The question of whether playing music in school bands could be causing hearing damage to the musicians is gaining traction in the media, as well, which is helping to raise public understanding about music-related noise-induced hearing loss. The problem is increasingly being recognized across the world, as evidenced by a recent rule change in the European Union where hearing protection is now mandatory for professional musicians, much as it is required for industrial workers in high-noise environments.
Here in the U.S. where hearing protection is not yet required to protect our professional musicians, let alone our young music-makers, the most critical issue is awareness.
Parents need to be aware of the risks involved in their children's school band activities -- not to scare parents away from putting their kids in music programs, but to make parents and students alike more aware of the risks to their hearing, so they may take appropriate preventive action. Modern hearing protection products incorporate acoustic filters to let the user hear sound accurately while still protecting against loud sounds.
These modern hearing protection products present many solutions that can allow young musicians to preserve their hearing while still gaining the rich benefits of a musical education. Ear plugs are a simple solution that could potentially save an entire generation of music students' hearing. But many schools don't provide hearing protection for their band students, even in cases where music educators wear hearing protection themselves. Supplying students with the hearing protection they need to gain the benefits of a musical education without sacrificing their hearing is key.
Foam ear plugs present the least inexpensive option; a box of foam ear plugs that contains enough pairs of plugs to protect an entire school band with 200 members can cost about the same as one meal at a fast-food restaurant. Foam ear plugs are not ideal, however, since they can diminish sound quality and provide distortion. Foam ear plugs aren't the best choice for musicians, but if the question is whether to use foam ear plugs or go without hearing protection, foam ear plugs are the better solution hands down.
A much better option is to use musician's ear plugs, which provide natural sound hearing with little to no sound distortion, and still protect against damaging sound levels. Etymotic's ER-20 is probably the most well-known musician's ear plug available, and it's an incredibly popular hearing protection choice among musicians of all ages and backgrounds, from rock bands to orchestras. ER-20's are more expensive than foam ear plugs. While a single pair of foam plugs, purchased individually, could cost less than $0.50, ER-20's are about $13 a pair. Still, foam ear plugs are designed to be disposable: used once and then thrown away and replaced -- so the reusable ER-20's, which can last for years with proper care, actually become a more economical choice in the long run.
If you're looking to provide band practice hearing protection for your own child, several other models of musician's ear plugs are also available, in addition to the ER-20. The Alpine MusicSafe Pro is a high-quality professional musician's ear plug that comes with three sets of interchangeable acoustic filters, which can allow your child to find the right amount of sound attenuation for his or her particular music lessons and band practice sessions. Killnoise Musician and Concert Ear Plugs come in a small size that's suitable for young teenage musicians, with just enough hearing protection to cut down on the risk of hearing damage while still allowing very clear, natural hearing. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Hearos Rock'n'Roll Musicians Ear Plugs are almost as inexpensive as foam ear plugs, they're reusable, and they provide a much more substantial amount of noise blocking -- and though they will cause more noticeable sound distortion than the more expensive musician's ear plug alternatives, they'll still allow clearer hearing than foam plugs can. As a bonus, these same musician's ear plugs also work wonderfully to protect your child's hearing at concerts -- so your teenage band student could use the same natural sound ear plugs at band practice and out at concerts with friends.
In some areas, communities are pulling together to provide hearing protection for entire local middle school and high school bands. You can get involved by contacting your child's school, getting the PTA/PTO involved, or starting a local booster program to help raise the money to equip your kid's entire band with much-needed hearing protection. Etymotic also offers an Adopt-A-Band program which could help your community to protect the hearing of your school's music students.
Of course, the success or failure of any hearing protection plan for a school band hinges on usage. As more schools are adopting ear plugs as a piece of safety equipment that is just as critical for band students as goggles are for chemistry students, recent research has shown that not all students use hearing protection even when it is provided for them. Talking with your children about the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss -- which is cumulative, permanent, and has an insidious way of sneaking up on you over time -- is critical: make sure they're wearing their ear plugs. Some schools are offering classes or short units on the importance of hearing protection in conjunction with their music programs; consider bringing up this issue with your local school board, and help your entire region's youth enjoy better hearing.
Whether you become active in your community and help to protect your entire local school band, or whether you simply take steps to make sure your own musical child's hearing is safe, you can make a difference, be a part of long-overdue change for the positive, and protect a young person's ability to play, hear, and enjoy music for a lifetime.
One last note: When your child first joins a school band or private music lessons and brings home that shiny new trumpet, clarinet, or violin, consider protecting the rest of the family's hearing as well, ASAP. Natural sound ear plugs work well for parents who need to be able to hear the kids calling, but who also need some relief from the noise. Older siblings may appreciate a pair of high-NRR foam ear plugs or even some extreme isolation headphones, just to get away from the racket (and help preserve the peace in multi-child families!). And for younger siblings, ear muffs for children can bring a lot of relief to those little ears, even allowing the baby to nap while big sister or brother practices that new instrument.
With a musical child living under your roof, hearing protection for the whole family will definitely make for a safer and more harmonious household.