Guitarist Robert Kidney has been the leader of 15-60-75 (a.k.a. the Numbers Band) for nearly four decades. He hasn't had a second of silence in more than 25 years. By the early 1980s, 15 years of exposure to amplified sound had left him with a condition called tinnitus, a form of hearing damage that causes victims to hear a constant high-pitched tone.
"It was severe enough that it was loud," recalls Kidney. "I had to make this adjustment to the fact that I had this permanent ringing in my ears, and it was part of my emotional state."
Hearing damage is just one of the occupational and lifestyle hazards of constant exposure to music — whether you're practicing two hours a day, playing 250 shows a year, bartending at a club, watching a show from next to the PA stack or just listening to your iPod for hours. The damage can compromise everything from how you communicate to how you move. But most music-related conditions are discussed infrequently. Even among music professionals, hearing loss has a stigma.
"Some musicians like Pete Townshend and Ted Nugent have spoken about it," says Dr. Laura Brady, an audiologist at the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center. "But it doesn't seem to be a message that's cool."
Whether you're part of a defensive line or a rhythm section, discussing damage can convey an unwanted impression of vulnerability. When bassist Jason Newsted left Metallica, he was comfortable talking about the band's tabloid-caliber relationship strains. He alluded to the lumps he'd taken in arenas over the previous 15 years, but he was vague, citing only "the physical damage I have done to myself over the years while playing the music that I love."
For this story, Scene surveyed 103 Northeast Ohio music professionals, 95 of them musicians. Fifty-three responded.
Of those responding, 42 (79 percent) reported permanent or lingering physical damage they attributed to music. Twenty-eight (53 percent) reported physical harm, from a chronic arm pain to a bad back. Thirty-four (64 percent) reported hearing loss. Nine (17 percent) reported tinnitus.
Only 23 responded to the question of whether they would have done things differently, knowing what they know now. Four said they would have taken stronger precautions; 17 said they wouldn't. Only one said he'd avoided injury by taking advice to be cautious.
Keelhaul drummer Will Scharf has played in some of Cleveland's loudest, heaviest bands since the early '90s. He didn't start wearing earplugs until he was 22.
"Bad idea, waiting that long," says Scharf. "[Now] 'What' and 'huh' are like punctuation marks in my vocabulary."
Pondering his muffled existence, Scharf wishes someone had brought it to his attention sooner. He thinks the worst of his hearing loss was "absolutely avoidable. It's just that most kids don't give a shit about it until it's too late."
Dr. Brady tries to get the word out. She presents hearing conservation programs to people of all ages. She offers a program called Safe Sound in grade schools. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, noise-induced hearing loss affects more than five million children between the age of 6 and 9. And that's usually before they get their first iPod or cell phone.
"Hearing loss caused by loud sound is permanent," says Brady. "It's something you live with for the rest of your life and will affect all areas of your life — your relationship with your spouse, your friends, your children, your employer. It affects communication, and communication is critical to daily living. We tell people that your ears need to last a lifetime."
As a rule of thumb, Brady says if you can't have a conversation with someone next to you without shouting, the sound level is loud enough that you should wear some kind of hearing protection. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers 90 decibels the threshold of risk for hearing damage. Concert-level volume and point-blank earbuds routinely exceed that.
Like an old football injury, a single loud show when you're 17 can leave you more susceptible when you're 28. Unless you like the idea of wearing a hearing aid — they do get smaller every year, but they still won't eliminate tinnitus — prevention beats the best treatment options.
Hearing conservation is often as simple as turning down your iPod and wearing earplugs, whether you're dancing at the club or mowing the lawn — or at an all-day, 10-band festival. If you're not wearing them, the guys onstage probably are. Civilians are well protected with the type of foam earplugs you can buy at many clubs or cost around $10 for a jar of 100 at any pharmacy.
Musicians tend to resist earplugs because they limit the sounds you can hear. But earplugs have come a long way. Specialized plugs, while expensive, distribute volume reduction evenly across the entire hearing spectrum. Also, says Brady, in-ear monitoring systems can be less harmful than onstage monitors that are the size of a footlocker. Chest-thumping bass is exciting, but you don't always have to feel the sound. Sometimes hearing it is enough.
For every band that recognizes the make-your-ears-bleed aesthetic as an unnecessary indulgence, there are 999 that don't.
"I do think that music in live music clubs tends to be way too loud," says the House Popes' Michael Graham. "I think the problem is particularly bad here in Northeast Ohio, perhaps because of all the heavy metal bands and fans around here. I honestly think more people would go to live-music venues if they could converse a bit, without shouting into the ear next to them, while the band was playing. My own bands make an effort to play more quietly onstage, and audience members have responded that it is nice not to feel like they're getting blasted."
After 40 years, the Numbers Band's Robert Kidney has some hard-won but simple knowledge: Just turn it down.
"The tendency of musicians is if you can't hear yourself, they turn up," says Kidney. "I have all these rules in the band to keep the sound down."
WHERE THE STRINGS COME IN
Soulless bassist Dave "Big Metal" Johnson had an eardrum literally explode while on tour — but that was the result of a sinus and ear infection. He can't be sure whether playing booming, low-end heavy metal contributed to the eruption. His real problem is in his hands and wrists. On bad days, they swell and radiate pain. Musicians who use their fingers most are especially prone to repetitive-stress conditions like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome — whether they make music for the mosh pit or in the orchestra pit.
"String instrumentalists are the most likely to get hurt," testifies Nina Paris, the founder and president of the International Foundation for Performing Arts Medicine, an organization that maintains a growing database of literature and research on music-related psychological and physical issues. "Guitar, violin, cello. In general, musicians suffer from overuse."
Practice is important, but Paris says it doesn't have to tax your tendons. Recent research has applied a sports-medicine technique called Mental Practice to music rehearsal. Once a player knows how to go through the motions, she can warm up her brain by reading music, humming or merely listening to music, thus reducing hours of stress on the fingers, arm and back. And, as with any intense physical activity, you can't go wrong with warm-up and cool-down stretches, especially if you're a metal musician who head-bangs for an hour straight.
Too many musicians don't take advantage of how adjustable their gear is. Tight strings, cramped drum kits and short mic stands can rack your muscles, bones and nerves, creating leg pain from sciatica or chronic body aches like arthritis. For Johnson's arm issues, part of the solution was a simple, over-the-counter brace that keeps his wrist straight while he sleeps. And whether it's your day job or night gig, sometimes you can fix nagging physical issues by adjusting your workplace ergonomics.
"Shorten the strap and raise your guitar up," advises Johnson. "When you play really low, it makes your fretting hand bend at the wrist really bad. You can reduce some of that pain and play better at the same time."
Paris notes that, for punk drummers and classical pianists alike, keeping healthy will make you even healthier.
"[Musicians] don't exercise enough in terms of cardiovascular health," she says. "They're sitting and they're practicing, and they're sitting when they're performing, and they're sitting in the car going home and sitting and sitting. They need good cardiovascular health just like any athlete — because they are athletes — to endure the demands of their gig. And a good cardiovascular system is going to help get inflammation out of the muscles and tendons."
DRINKING AND DIVING
Sometimes music damage creeps up on you. Sometimes it hits you all at once. Larry Gargus's final show with Don Austin was nearly his final night on Earth. During the last minute of their last song, he broke one of his rules, and he's still paying for it.
"What you have to understand, even though we were in a hardcore band, the whole slam-dancing thing was not fun [to us],"says Gargus, who — three years later — has recovered as much as he ever will. "We got tired of the kickboxers and ninjas. You turn 20, it gets old. I'll kill a motherfucker that stage-dives. One, you're in my space. Two, you're going to kill someone. I proved my point."
Don Austin was known as a drinking band. It wasn't uncommon for singer Gargus to throw up in an empty beer pitcher while his band continued plowing through a song. The Akron group's final show took place in April 2006, at the Lime Spider. The players were sloppy, Gargus fondly remembers: "Piss drunk — our usual, belligerent selves." After the last song, he headed for the restroom to hurl.
As Gargus emptied his stomach, drummer Sean Spindler popped his head in and asked Gargus if he could handle an encore. "I said 'What song are we playing?'" says Gargus. "That's the last thing I remember."
Gargus stepped onstage for a run through Devo's "Slap Your Mammy." Sixty seconds later, his brain was bleeding. The singer has since pieced together an account of his near-fatal incident through friends' recollections and videotape of the incident. With a belly full of cheap beer, Gargus decided to stage-dive. He climbed a monitor, jumped, executed half a somersault and landed on his head on the hard floor. When the ambulance arrived and carted him out, he still had the presence of mind to flip off the club owner. But he was slipping.
Fifteen hours later, he woke up in Akron General with a stabilizing collar around his neck, his forehead so swollen he looked like a Klingon. Doctors told his family he had massive cerebral hemorrhaging, with four centimeters of standing blood in his brainpan.
"It felt like my head was being crushed in a vice — not my outer head, inside," he says. "It felt like my eyes were being pulled from behind. The drugs they were giving me were pretty great, but I couldn't enjoy it."
Fortunately, Gargus had health insurance, so the four-day stay in the hospital wasn't financially crippling. But his head was a mess, inside and out. He couldn't think straight, couldn't stay awake long and could barely stand, much less balance well enough to walk. His neurologist has told him that regular crippling headaches are likely a permanent after-effect.
Don Austin used to play about once a month. After the injury, Gargus didn't return to the stage for a year. He's played only seven shows since. He says retiring from the stage has more to do with his home life than the bashed brain. But when he does perform, it's not the Crazy Larry show anymore. "To this day, I'm not the same guy I was [onstage]," says Gargus. "I'm not as aggressive."
Gargus says he wouldn't do it again. But he's not certain it was the wrong move.
"The doctor said, 'You should have died,'" says Gargus. "Part of me [thinks], 'It's the stupidest thing you could have done.' But there's another part, the chest-beating 19-year-old [who says], 'Dude, that was your band's last show, and you almost died!' The upside is, it's a pretty good story."
A little lost functionality — or a lot — usually isn't enough to make a dedicated player (or fan) walk away from live music. Most music damage manifests incrementally. Music people can live with the injury but not without the music. And live music is generally more fun the closer you are to the Marshall stacks. And — bassist or baseball player — once you're in the spotlight, it's hard to walk away, even when it's getting hard to walk.
"It's competitive," says Paris, who has worked with entertainers from ballerinas to jazz musicians to maintain their health. "There's a high propensity to push through pain, and I don't know where they're getting it, other than they're working in a competitive area. If you lose your gig, someone else will get it. So they tend to not say anything."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.