Occupational Darwinism

The musician is an acoustic athlete.  The only nonathletic  thing about musicians is that they are not represented at the Olympics.  Musicians suffer pulled muscles, strained backs, fatigue, depression, repetitive strain injuries, and in short, every type of injury athletes can suffer from. And on top of all that, musicians suffer from hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, as well.

A linebacker in football is typically unwilling to report a strain or an injury- there are 10 linebackers that can be called up to fill his position.  A violinist in an orchestra is also unwilling to report a strain or an injury- there are also 10 violinists waiting to take the vacated seat.

The great sounding phrase “Occupational Darwinism” says it all- survival of the fittest.  This is something that one would expect to see at the dawn of the world and not in the 21st century.  There is no reason anymore why only the fittest should survive.  We live in an “enlightened world” with occupational and labor laws to mitigate this.  We have disability acts that ensure equity, when equality doesn’t seem to be the case.  In short, this simply should not happen. But it does.

I have had many clients over the years who have hidden their hearing loss.  And for good reason!  The concern is that some people may suspect that if a conductor at a major symphony is wearing hearing aids, then they are not able to conduct (or play music).  This is bunk, but the perception still exists.  The result is that musicians (and other professional athletes) hide their injuries.  I know of several cases where such a person has either been fired or relegated to a “less visible” location in an orchestra.

I have been an accomplice to this “hiding of a problem”.  There is a version of the ER-15 musicians’ earplug that is really just an empty shell.  On more than one occasion I have placed this empty shell as a cap on top of a canal style hearing aid that deludes the observing public into thinking that the musician is wearing hearing protection.  In reality, it is hiding their hearing aids.

The situation is changing, but it is changing too slowly for many.

The laws are in place to prevent discrimination based on disability.  It is simply illegal to fire a violinist who reports a hearing loss but it does happen.  Other “reasons” are sometimes given and it may be quite a long drawn out battle to have to reverse the decision of a conductor or the company executive artistic director.  In some cases, musicians have won.  In other cases, they simply have given up.

The solution is as multi-factorial as is the problem.  Education that starts early in the musicians’ career is extremely important.   Understanding one’s rights and responsibilities is as important as understanding why a composer chose to write a piece in D minor rather than C major.  This can begin in high school and should continue through college and university.  Larger groups such as symphonies and big bands, typically have a health and safety officer associated with them- typically one of the musicians- who can advocate on the musicians’ behalf.

I have several friends from around the world who were world class musicians (and owned violins that were more expensive than my house) but have switched careers as they passed the age of 50.  Many have gone into the health and safety field and are quite happy with their career decisions.  Who better to communicate with musicians than other musicians?

As audiologists we should be working closely with these people- and like many of my audiology colleagues, these health and safety officers have dedicated their lives to their work.  Whether it’s an issue of hearing loss, hearing loss prevention, ergonomic, physical, or emotional concern, the health and safety officers are our best first line of contact with large groups of musicians.

Other professionals that we can liaise with are physicians, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, chiropractors, and even dentists.  Each one of these professions has something to add to the health and well-being of musicians.  A joint effort of everyone can ensure that the phrase “Occupational Darwinism” is a thing of the past.

I have mentioned this in the past several blogs but if this interests you, an organization does exist that has each of the above professionals as members, and that is the Performing Artists Medical Association or PAMA.  They can be reached at www.artsmed.org and it’s well worth an annual membership.

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.