Chris Fazio plays violin and trumpet with local band The Hills and the Rivers now, but he's played pretty much every instrument in his day, including drums, which he played in some loud bands as a kid. And while many musicians start to experience hearing problems later in life, it hit Fazio at age 16.
"I remember the day," Fazio says. "I was playing a loud show, playing drums, and after the show, I noticed my hearing was really muffled; I couldn't hear people speaking very well. I had tinnitus afterward, and the tinnitus never really went away. It got a little better, but it didn't go away."
If Dr. Catherine Palmer has her way, stories like Fazio's will eventually be a thing of the past — because young people, especially young musicians, will be better educated on the risks presented by regular exposure to loud noise. Palmer, director of audiology at UPMC's Eye and Ear Institute (and a professor at Pitt), heads up the Musicians' Hearing Center, a UPMC unit focusing on preventing hearing loss and related symptoms in musicians.
"We started the Musicians' Hearing Center in 2003," Palmer says, "with the goal of preventing hearing loss." Musicians, unlike others who work in noise-heavy occupations, aren't subject to workplace-safety noise regulations, she notes. And "musicians have a 100 percent chance of hearing damage," she notes. Musicians can end up with hearing loss, but also a host of other symptoms including tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and sensitivity to certain frequencies.
The UPMC center is one of only a few of its kind, modeled partly on the Musicians' Clinics of Canada, an educational and clinical institution begun in 1986 at McMaster University. Palmer works with school groups — mostly bands and orchestras — and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and gives educational lectures to music students at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Vocalists always get vocal-health education," Palmer notes. "But instrumentalists in the past have rarely gotten any information about hearing health. CMU has been a leader in changing that."
Fazio says "there was nothing" in terms of education when he was coming up in middle- and high-school band. "I remember in high school looking at all the health books and there was nothing about protecting your hearing." He attributes his failure to use hearing protection to being young and not knowing better. "I just didn't think it was that big a deal."
Musicians of all sorts — from concert bassoonists to screamo guitarists — are at risk for hearing loss and related afflictions like tinnitus, Palmer says. And for many years, musicians were paid little attention by the medical world.
"For a long time, we had nothing to offer," Palmer says. Musicians are unlikely to want to play with the cheap foam earplugs used by construction workers and insomniacs, because they mute pitches at different rates, distorting the sound of the musician's instrument and those around her or him. It was only in the late 1980s when custom musicians' earplugs were developed.