Mark Claffey, 17, a drummer for the Golden Falcons at Franklin Heights High School in Columbus, Ohio calls himself a band nerd. Yet his passion has cost him the health of his ears.
Indoor band rehearsals led Claffey's ears to pain initially, and then a ringing sound.
Now, he is abnormally sensitive to sound. If someone cranks the car radio, "I get a sharp shooting pain in my right ear," says Claffey, who now wears earplugs when he plays.
Says Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital in Boston, marching bands expose young ears to loud sounds and can cause irreparable hearing damage. Yet, rock stars and music pros have known this for decades. But only in February did the National Association for Music Education issue a statement noting that music educators should recognize music as a cause of noise-induced hearing loss.
"The awareness of these issues is relatively new to the field," informs Michael Blakeslee, the group's deputy executive director. He notes that many hearing problems stem from young people's use of iPods and other such devices, which blast sound directly into the ears.
Typically, ear injuries don't heal, warns Fligor. "It's a tragic situation that is completely preventable," he says. There's no way to know who, like Claffey, is most susceptible to ear damage.
An estimated 2 million students in the USA play in middle- and high-school marching bands, along with 250,000 in college marching bands, according to Drum Corps International. They practice for hours at volumes intended to "fill up a football stadium," often in small rooms that amplify sound, says Kris Chesky of the Texas Center for Music and Medicine at the University of North Texas in Denton.
Music ensemble is an "at-risk instructional activity, just like chemistry lab," Chesky adds.
Hearing damage tends to be cumulative, and problems are often not noticed for a long time. Little data exist on how often musicians of any sort are affected. Yet, in one survey of more than 3,200 musicians Chesky conducted in 2000, 32% of drummers, 25% of tuba players and 18% of flute players reported hearing problems. All had around eight years of experience as professional musicians.
Measurements taken by Joseph Keefe, a 2004 graduate of Duke University in Durham, N.C., who was a drummer in the marching band there, show that band members were exposed to sound levels of more than 100 decibels (120 decibels is considered the threshold of pain) for hours at a stretch. At that intensity, unprotected ears can be damaged in just 15 minutes, says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Now, at Duke, earplugs are mandatory for percussionists and optional for others.
Marching bands are safety-conscious in some ways. At Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Ky., the Marching Colonels wear sunscreen outdoors and take frequent water breaks. Ear protection never came up, admits band director Robb Duddey.
Dixie Heights drummer Chris La Mar, 15 had no clue how to protect his hearing. All he knew was that his ears "hurt pretty bad" after his three-hour drum rehearsals. "The next day we do it all over again," Chris recalls.
Last year, a bandmate's father provided earplugs for the entire drumline. Chris, relieved, credits them with saving his hearing. The real problem with marching-band culture, however, is that students are afraid to complain, opines James Forger, dean of the College of Music at Michigan State University. "You are in a power structure, lining up, and you do what you are told," he says.
"There is an assumption that if you get injured, you are not strong or talented enough," adds his colleague Judy Palac, associate professor of music education. "The fact is, it is criminal to put students at risk."