Musicians, Audiologists, and the Media

One of the biggest lessons I had to learn when working with musicians is that it really is all about the musician- the audiologist is just along for the ride.

This may seem obvious, but it’s not.

I have been working with people in the performing arts since about the mid-1980s, and while you can get a feeling of being special, that should be where it stops.  It’s easy to feel “special” when you get to go where the public can only dream of- the “green room” where the musicians hang out before a concert, or when you are given the special code name (and room number) of a famous musician who is hiding out at a local hotel under a pseudonym.   It’s easy to be caught up in the glamour.

And when the media come knocking on your office door wanting a story about hearing loss and musicians, again, it’s not about our work- it’s about the musician.  And that’s the way it should be.  Audiologists who work with performing artists are there to keep them healthy.  To do what is necessary to ensure that they can still hear and play their music in 30 years.

When dealing with the media I have found that it’s best to have a go-to-musician:  A musician who is accessible and who doesn’t mind talking about their “problems”.  Virtually all professional musicians have tinnitus and virtually all of them have some hearing loss in the 3000-6000 Hz region.   This should be neither a badge of honor for the musician nor something to be ashamed of.  It is, however, something that should be shared with the world.

I can recall countless media interviews where I played the “professional audiologist” and warned against the evils of loud music.  They were all nice stories, but not they generated not one bit of interest.  I can also recall when I started to let down my hair (when I had more hair).  Statements such as “It’s OK to listen to your favorite song on your MP3 player so turn up the volume and enjoy it- just turn it down to a more reasonable level after” were always received with a much more positive response.

Understanding your audience is paramount when talking about those in the performing arts.  Statements that are unsustainable given the life and behaviors of many professional musicians such as “don’t do this”, or “don’t do that” will simply be ignored.  You need to start the education of the potential for hearing loss with a soft sell, and then work up to the reality of the fragility of the hearing mechanism.

Ask a musician to give his or her perspective and comments along with yours.  Sharing the “limelight” may not be easy, and frequently the audiologist will take a second seat, but the message will come out louder and clearer.  I can talk about tinnitus all day long and the message may not get through. But if Pete Townsend of the Who (pronounced “Whom” in Canada) talks about his tinnitus, the media and world will be spell bound.

I recently gave a talk at the National Youth Orchestra of Canada summer camp where many of our future professional classical musicians receive training.  After spouting off about hearing loss prevention and talking about stress–a negative orientation to the music means that it is more damaging–one of the music instructors piped up and said that he personally had to quit his orchestra because of the stress and hazing he had been subject to in his musical career. This 20-second impromptu talk by a musician was infinitely more important than what I had to say or what I could have said in 20 minutes.  It’s not always what you say, but how you say it and who says it.

When it comes to in-ear monitors and hearing aids, we may be the professionals, but it is the musician who will be wearing them… or not.  Listen to what the musician is telling us.  In my case, it took me years to learn how to listen.  It’s a good skill to have and is transferable to domestic relationships, I have been told.

Here are a few “media hooks” that have worked over the years: “There is nothing wrong with loud music… just in moderation”; “Turn up the volume and enjoy it… just turn it down after your favorite song is over”; “Musicians are great at discerning differences in frequency, but are lousy at loudness- a telephone dial tone is 85 decibels (so is a toilet flushing with your head in the bowl) and this damaging level sure doesn’t sound loud to me.”

It’s OK to play second fiddle in some situations.  We all have enough ego to spare, but it shouldn’t be spent on musicians.  We’re there to help them, not the other way around.

Enough of this tirade …. before I start to lose the interest of my colleagues!

Oh,… One more thing.  As you read this, there is a wonderful conference going on in Snowmass, Colorado called the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA).  I have been a member for years, and through their PAMA-Forte endeavor this group is pushing the fact that we are there to help musicians and not the other way around.  Having said this, it is also incumbent on musicians to get involved in their own well-being, and this should be encouraged as much as we encourage musicians to wear hearing protection.

The PAMA website is www.artsmed.org and the guy on the front page is Dr. John Chong, who is the medical director of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada (www.musiciansclinics.com) as well as the current president of PAMA.  The artsmed.org website is full of valuable information and has some really neat podcasts.

PAMA is a wonderful organization to join and the PAMA-Forte movement that John talks about in his home page podcast says it all.  It is the coordinated effort of health care professionals and musicians that will allow musicians to remain healthy.

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.