The musician as an athlete

Athletes and the arts  is a collaborative initiative of American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Center for Music Arts Entrepreneurship, Loyola University (New Orleans), Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) and supporting organizations (as of May 15, 2011) —National Hearing Conservation Association, Musicians’ Clinics of Canada, New Orleans Performing Artists Clinic,  American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine (AOASM), Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) and NARAS – Music Cares.

The mission is “Integrating the science of sport and the performing arts for the mutual benefit of both.”  From their website:

“ATHLETES AND THE ARTS” is an initiative focused on linking the sport athlete and musician/performing artist communities through collaborative exchange and application of wellness, training and performance research and initiatives.  This program is committed to the belief that athletes exist throughout the performing arts community and that established training, wellness, and prevention research for sport athletes can benefit artists’ general health and performance.  Similarly, the athletic and general population can gain from principles primarily applied within the performing arts arena.   The initial focus of this initiative will be on the musician community; the long-term goal is to serve all of the performing arts.

A key component of this initiative is incentivizing performing artists to invest some time in personal wellness to supplement the commitment to their performance skill. This investment will enhance and prolong careers and stimulate creativity in the application of musical techniques for the athletic and general populations.

Well, this is where Jon Batiste and his Stay Human Group  comes in.  Last week I had the honor of hosting Jon and his band members at my Musicians’ Clinic (followed up by a great performance that evening that led off the Canadian tour).  Jon and the Stay Human group have volunteered to be ambassadors to spread the word of health and to help bridge the gap between the health care professional and the musician.

Here is a summary of my interaction with the group, which can serve as a “curriculum” for others who find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.  The musical community is reaching out to us to keep them healthy, and this is what we can offer to ensure that their hearing stays as healthy as possible for years to come.

The Musicians’ Clinics of Canada briefly became the Musicians’ Clinics of North America today as Jon Batiste and his group Stay Human descended on my office prior to a performance in Toronto.  Our mission statement is “What can we do today to ensure that you can still hear, play, and enjoy your music in 30 years?” After a brief educational session (where the group members stayed awake), Jon and his friends had their hearing tested and were given a few “tricks of the trade” to maintain good hearing.

It is really not so much about hearing loss prevention as it is about dealing with those undesirable things that go hand in hand with hearing loss- tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and pitch perception problems where some musical notes may sound flat.

Tricks such as hearing protection, and humming to elicit the stapedial reflex- a nerve/muscle system in the ear that reduces the sound coming in whenever the person sings or, in the case of drummers, grunts.  They were told to grunt whenever they wanted as this will serve to protect their hearing.  Hearing protection now comes in many forms- some of which treat all music identically such that bass and treble notes are all lessened in intensity equally- the trumpet will still sound like a trumpet; just slightly quieter.  The correct type of hearing protection will allow the musician to hear and play their music but at a safer level.  All were supplied with flat attenuator musicians’ earplugs.

Some environmental changes were suggested, such as use a ¾-inch Plexiglas™ shield that is in line between the high hat cymbals of the drummer and Jon Batiste’s ears. Sound travels in straight lines so if Jon has to look through a clear Lucite or Plexiglas shield to see the drummer, that means that the sound is lessened at Jon’s ear. 

Another strategy to use bass “shakers.”  These are small loudspeakers that transduce only the very low-frequency- almost tactile- sounds.  Drummers can attach these speakers to the vertical bar of their seat and bass players can use them bolted to a piece of 3/4-inch plywood that sits on the floor in the area where they play.  These cause the bass player and drummer to hear and feel the music such that the volume can be slightly reduced.

Other strategies were common sense- moderation- take a break after a loud gig and perhaps put off mowing your lawn for a couple of days.  This one will be easy for some members of the group who live in New York City where lawns are a rarity in some parts. 

The saxophone player Eddie Barbash said, “I generally let my ears rest after a gig.”  This is one smart guy! (Also a great saxophone and penny whistle player!)

Another strategy discussed was to stay cool- don’t get stressed out.  We are not sure exactly what is happening, but if musicians hate the music they are playing (forced to play?), then it will be more damaging to them than if the music is of their own liking.  The explanation is biochemical, but this is a real effect.  Along the same vein, try to find out what works for you to stay unstressed- reading, yoga, exercise, or just vegging in front of a TV- anything that does it for you, will be beneficial.

All the musicians had their hearing tested and, amazingly, all had excellent hearing – that of a 10-year-old kid (who doesn’t listen to MP3 players at full volume).  This is not commonly seen with musicians- typically some early (and some late) warning signs of hearing loss are quite apparent.

Part of the reason is that the band members in Stay Human are still in their 20s.  Another issue is that these guys know how to take care of themselves.  None of them smoke, and they truly like to hang with one another.  I can’t imagine that they are ever stressed out- their road manager may be a different issue- I think he said something about “… herding cats”.

The lack of stress, moderation, taking breaks, appropriate hearing protection, good diet and exercise all contribute to maintaining their hearing. 

I attended a concert that evening with them with my trusty sound level meter and the levels were high- over 100 dB, but with all of the other things going for them, an hour or so of 100-dB is not damaging. Of course, they should not go out and volunteer to cut someone’s lawn that evening- wait until the sun comes up at least, or get the road manager to do it for them.

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.