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Love Your Ears

There's a ton of discussion about vocal health in the singing world, and how to keep our voices healthy over a (hopefully) long career. Another aspect of health that I don't think we discuss enough is hearing health.

Your ears are an essential part of your teaching tool kit. The ability to hear a singer and know what is happening physiologically is an indispensable part of your work. But what happens when your ears aren't working as well as they used to? Or what if you have a student with hearing loss? Those are really big questions, and there's a whole lot to discuss about them, but let's get started by defining what hearing loss is, and some important ways to prevent it. Unlike your voice, damage to your hearing is very often permanent, and avoiding injury is the only way to keep your hearing pristine for as long as possible.

The mechanism of hearing

Your ears are truly a wonder of mechanical and neurological function. I could spend time explaining how it works, but instead, I'll point you to this excellent video that I've used in classrooms for years about how the ear works. In less than seven minutes, you'll get a really good overview of the mechanics of hearing, called auditory transduction.

Types of hearing loss

There are three main types of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss, and a mixed hearing loss that has some of both.

Sensorineural hearing loss, also sometimes called noise-induced hearing loss, is the most common type and what we generally encounter as we age. However, it can happen at any point during a person's life, either suddenly or gradually over time, though gradual hearing loss is most common.

As illustrated in the above video, hair cells toward the opening of the cochlea pick up higher frequencies, and lower frequencies are picked up by hair cells higher up in the cochlea. Like with all things physics, as energy moves through a medium, in this case the lymphatic fluid in the cochlea, it loses energy. So the highest sound pressure energy is felt by the hair cells at the beginning of the cochlea, compared to those farther along the fluid trail. Now, it's a small difference, but it is important nonetheless. Because those higher frequencies are generally for unvoiced consonant sounds, with voiced consonants being a little lower in frequency, when those high frequency hair cells are damaged, they are less able to pick up those consonant sounds. This photo shows microscopic photos of normal cochlear hair cells and cells that have been damaged.

The damage to high frequency hair cells makes speech unintelligible, and most of the time when folks are having trouble discerning speech because of hearing loss, the vowel sounds (lower in frequency) are still clear enough, but the higher frequency sounds are missing. So it's not so much that folks can't hear, it's that they can't understand. For an example of what hearing loss is like, this video from the Hearing Health Centre in the UK is helpful:

Conductive hearing loss is less common, but can be just as impactful. A person with a conductive hearing loss has had damage to the actual structures in the ear somewhere along the pathway. Sometimes this type of hearing loss is congenital, and sometimes it occurs from injury.

A mixed hearing loss has some kind of combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

Keeping your ears healthy

In the voice studio, we hear a lot of things. Singers can make a lot of sound, and that's usually a great thing! What we should be concerned with, however, is how much sound we are actually taking in at any given time. Couple this with what we hear in rehearsals, performances, and in just every day life, and we could be cooking up an auditory disaster.

The first step to protecting your ears is managing the sound they take in. I have a set of ear plugs that were custom-made for me by an audiologist that attenuate sound equally across all frequencies. I wear them when I'm playing in a band or at a musical performance that has the potential to be pretty loud, as well as when I'm mowing the lawn and doing other things around the house that are loud. My ear plugs take the sound pressure levels down by 15 decibels, which I have found to be really helpful for me. You can find other types of musician's ear plugs online, ranging from more expensive custom-made ones like mine to those that are less custom but still effective.

The second step is knowing how much sound you are exposed to so you can manage it well. Having a decibel-reader for quick measurements or a noise dosimeter (if you've got the cash to spare, this is a much better way to analyze how much sound you're taking in over time) is a way to get the data you need to protect yourself. Once those hair cells are damaged, they don't grow back, so we want to preserve them for as long as possible.

Helping your students

Our clients are exposed to all kinds of sound, whether in their practicing, performing, or just in their lives. Educating them on how to protect their own hearing can be a vital part of our jobs as singing teachers. As an example, in some quick measurements in a practice room, me singing along with a piano measured over 100 decibels, which is a dangerous sound pressure level at any length of time. Wearing ear plugs or sound-dampening ear phones would have been wise for me during all of those hours over the years I spent in school. C'est la vie. But now I can educate my students about safer practicing habits.

Perhaps including some inexpensive musician's ear plugs could be a part of your welcome swag. Or maybe you include a handout to educate them about safe sound exposure. Getting regular audiology exams can also be helpful to keep track of where your ears are right now, and get you advice from a professional on how to protect your hearing.

Helping yourself

Your ears are a great asset to your teaching, so protecting them is key. Think about the way your studio is arranged, and how you might make the space so that sound can be dissipated or absorbed so it doesn't all come right to your ears. That might mean somethings as simple as opening a door or a window to allow room for sound waves to escape, and adding in some blankets, rugs, or pillows that can absorb sound. Maybe rather than singing right at you, your students can sing in a different direction. Think about the ambient noise in a space that is adding into the sound you are hearing. And of course, if you use headphones, keep them only as loud as you have to in order to hear adequately. Consider wearing hearing protection when doing household chores, like mowing the lawn or running the vacuum cleaner. All of that exposure adds up over time, and can weaken the hairs, making them more susceptible to breakage.

Your ears are worth protecting! Adding in habits that help protect those precious ears are worth your time and consideration.

Want more info on preventing hearing loss? This website from the CDC will give you tons of info!

Happy teaching!


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