Musicians get an earful on hearing protection at convention

Susan Valot/KPCC

Musicians and music fans get their ears checked at the House Research Institute's hearing booth at the recent NAMM Show in Anaheim.

At the music industry’s annual NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center, the exhibit floor is full of sound: electric guitars, drums, the latest amplifiers — all cranked rocker loud.

It's so loud that guys with decibel meters – the “sound patrol” – roam the floor to keep the noise at a sane level.

Jeff Chumbley with the NAMM Sound Patrol says the goal is to keep the decibel level to about the same as a lawnmower.

“Some people don’t like us – the ones that want to keep jamming,” says Chumbley.

“But I’d say 80 percent of the people like us and say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here just to keep it down.’ It’s so much more enjoyable for people when they don’t have to really struggle to hear.”

The Sound Patrol’s efforts help out Marilee Potthoff, who mans the booth for the House Research Institute – formerly House Ear Institute. The booth is a trailer parked in the back corner of the exhibit hall.

Step inside, away from the NAMM din and you can get your hearing checked.

Potthoff says when the House institute began offering hearing tests at the NAMM show a decade ago, musicians worried what their bosses would think. “People were a little bit hesitant," she says.

"They were afraid to have their hearing tested. They’re also afraid to know themselves in terms of what the results are going to be.”

But, says Potthoff, the music industry has come a long way.

“It’s really been a sea change in terms of just the understanding and appreciation of protecting their hearing.”

Potthoff says concert venues now sell earplugs, something she says was “unheard of” a decade ago. She says the earlier the House Research Institute team can reach people in the industry, the better.

“Most people realize that they’re having a hard time communicating,” says Potthoff. “They are kind of questioning whether or not they might have a hearing loss and they’re curious, so they come here.”

Frank Duvall, who teaches at a music school in Mission Viejo, stopped by the House Institute booth.

“I Facebooked everybody from inside the booth: ‘I’m over here getting my ears tested. Get over here and do it.’ And I don’t do that about other exhibitors.”

Duvall says he first got his hearing tested a few years ago. He'd played in bands in whole life and now his family and friends were telling him that he had a hearing problem.

“I think that my peers – and I was born in the early ‘60s – my peers who are still playing music are more aware of it now,” says Duvall. “They do hear their wives saying, ‘You can’t hear.’ They hear people telling them they have hearing problems. And so they don’t want to lose that. And I certainly bring it up a lot. We talk a lot about it.”

Christopher Reyes talks a lot about it, too. He sells earplugs at Guitar Center in Rancho Cucamonga. He says his customers span all ages.

“I see little kids that are coming in that take classes for guitar or bass drums or whatever it may be,” says Reyes. “The teachers are telling them: ‘Get some earplugs for yourself.’ And I see the old guys that come in and are still like, ‘I play shows all the time and I need earplugs.’

Reyes says he thinks most people in the music industry are more aware about hearing loss.

But Todd Barth disagrees. Barth spent a decade as a guitarist in the Hollywood music scene before moving to Texas, where he teaches guitar.

He says it's his experience that most musicians – especially the younger ones - are “oblivious” to hearing loss.

“The younger generation has the iPods and headsets and they don’t think about protecting their hearing,” says Barth.

“I don’t think most people pay attention until there’s a problem later on. And the problem is people don’t start having problems until they’re in their 40s, 50s and 60s. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t think about that,” says Barth. “The only reason I paid attention is because I started having ringing and I was concerned about that.I still have it and it’s gotten a little worse, but fortunately, my hearing is normal.”

Barth says he kind of goes overboard now.

"I’m doing everything I can to protect myself now," Barth says. "We do classes at the gym – spin classes and body classes – and I bring ... earplugs to those classes because the music and the teacher is so loud. And most people don’t do that, but I want to take care of my ears, so I do it."

The L.A.-based House Research Institute hopes people will walk away with a similar understanding - and a pair of earplugs.

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