Flute "Gear" Includes the Ear

Northeast Ohio is enjoying one of the coldest months of February on record. So far, the average temperature for Feb 2015 is 6.3 degrees, which is well below the average of 20.2 degrees. My kids have had 3 snow days due to wind chill and 2 days of two-hour delays out of 17 school days in February to date. What does this have to do with flute playing? It’s all about location! My usual practice location is my basement, where I keep all my flute “gear.” However, when it’s this cold outside, the basement is really, really cold. My surgically-repaired left hand is very sensitive to temperature and just doesn’t want to work well in cold environments. Since I can’t play my flute wearing my Gore-Tex ski mittens, I move all the “gear” upstairs to my auxiliary practice area, other wise known as the living room, which features a gas fireplace! Other important living room design features include a hard wood type floor, plastered ceiling, minimal curtains and not much soft furniture. This auxiliary practice area, while being warmer, is definitely a very live, very loud practice space, strangely reminiscent of an undergraduate practice room, only bigger. This location demands the use of hearing protection, especially when practicing loud, high passages. Working on some new repertoire with lots of loud, busy, high stuff for upcoming programs as part of the Aella Flute Duo and also as a soloist results in an almost instant headache without the use of ear plugs. The finger and articulation exercises from Paul Edmund-Davies’ book, The 28 Day Warm Up Book for all flautists....eventually, work up to the extreme high range and can also make my ears ring in this fireside practice space. So, I wear my ear plugs. 

Noise induced hearing loss is no joke! All musicians must take responsibility for the health and safety of their ears. If you can’t hear, your career is over. I learned a lot of great things as a college student, but nobody ever told me to get hearing protection. How much damage did we do to ourselves with all of those hours in little practice rooms without anything for our ears? I took a percussion workshop for band directors at the University of Akron a few years ago taught by percussion professor, Dr. Larry Snider, and was pleased to learn that he insists that all incoming freshman percussion majors get their hearing assessed on campus at the audiology clinic, buy custom-made ear plugs for musicians and use them on a regular basis. I spent 10 years as part of a high school marching band staff and only wore ear plugs during inside rehearsals for 7 of those years. At that time, I was wearing extra ear plugs that my husband uses when he has to work onsite as a engineer in steel mills. 

There are many different types of ear plugs available for musicians and just about as many opinions about which is the best. I have two different kinds that I use. I have two pairs of Etymotic Plugs http://www.etymotic.com/consumer/hearing-protection/er20.html that I’ve had ever since I attended a session by Dr. Stephen Mitchell called Ears to You: Hearing and Noise at the 2011 NFA convention in Charlotte. I keep one pair in my flute gig bag and one pair in my purse, which have proven useful in many different environments that parents find themselves in. I also use these for lawn mowing, when I have to do it, and most recently used them while operating a hideously loud vacuum cleaner that was about to fail. These are cheap (less than $20) and I suggest buying a slew of them and handing them out like party favors. Give a pair to your spouse, give some to your kids, give some to your students. Well, maybe not, we already give so much to our students. Instead, give them the website address so they can buy their own and learn to be responsible for their own ears.  

I also have a pair of rifle range headphones that I use for extended practice of high stuff and for piccolo practice. These came from the gun section of the local sports store. I haven’t used these for several years since I’m not able to really play my piccolo at all or practice any flute for a long period at this point due to the limitations of my left hand. I'm not whining - because I can play now and I couldn’t before my hand was rebuilt! I just can’t play for as often or as crazily as I want. Click here to read all about that if you’re interested.

Many of my flutist friends have been to see an audiologist and use the more expensive, custom-fit ear plugs designed for musicians. At this point, I don’t have a regular orchestral position or band directing gig, so I haven’t felt the need to make this financial investment. However, I think it’s time. Here’s where I’m going to start http://www.sensaphonics.com/. Dr. Heather Malyuk, from Sensaphonics, did a presentation for the Ohio Music Teachers Association in October 2014 which got a great review from a trusted colleague who did attend. Dr. Malyuk is based in Chicago, but there is a list of Sensaphonics Gold Circle Audiologists who have additional training and have been working extensively with musicians and sound engineers. Find an audiologist, get your hearing assessed, get some type of hearing protection, and then use it! We work so hard to train our ears to do what we need them to do as musicians. Let’s give them a little bit of extra love and care in return, as they are part of our “gear” that cannot be replaced. Stay warm!