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Tune Up, Turn It Down

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What Montgomery, along with speech-language pathologists and nurses, discovered was a higher-thanexpected incidence of hearing loss among students in general. Thirteen percent of the district's seniors, for example, experienced hearing loss below the level of 25 decibels (the sound of a whisper at two feet).

In the lower grades, unheard-of hearing losses were also noted.

"Ten years ago, you'd record hearing losses in 2 to 3 percent of the population at this age,'' says Montgomery. "Now, you get 7 or 8 percent.''

Hearing loss among children, she adds, is due to some of their noisy extracurricular activities. For example, many listen to music over headphones at levels loud enough, she jokes, "to make their teeth rattle.'' Some also engage in target shooting or dirt-bike riding.

But among musicians, the study notes, hearing loss was more prevalent. Among 12th grade instrumentalists, for example, the incidence of hearing loss was far greater--26 percent--than among nonmusicians.

Montgomery and the other researchers are now trying to determine whether some musicians are more likely than others to suffer damage. At the moment, she says, "It seems that it's not what you play, it's where you sit.''

In other words, the student who plays oboe ultimately suffers greater hearing damage than the cymbal player or bass drummer who plays behind the reed section.

A number of possible solutions may help band members tone things down. One, Montgomery suggests, is the installation of a sound-level meter in the band room, one that would be programmed to trigger a flashing light once the music soared into the danger zone. The band director could then instruct student musicians to curb their fortissimo impulses. Another preventive measure, she says, would be a mandatory five-minute break at least once an hour. "That's considered a federal occupational standard,'' she says, "and yet we don't use those standards with our own kids.''

--Jeff Meade

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