Ear Plugs and The Brass Player

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By Nick Drozdoff

Ear plugs:
An Unfortunate Need For Compromise For Many Of Us

I would like to discuss the pros and cons of using ear plugs while playing trumpet. In my article “Myths About Trumpet Playing” I comment negatively abouth their use, and my feelings haven’t changed, but my own circumstances compel me to add this article. I hope that my comments can add to the mass of information available to brass players enabling them to come to their own conclusions.

Feedback control system

As I discussed in my original comments on ear plugs, playing a brasswind instrument (or any instrument, for that matter) is tantamount to managing a feedback control system. If the feedback loop is broken, the system will wander about wildly, unguided. That is a brass player who is in an environment that prevents him from hearing his sound. Playing by feel simply doesn’t work.

Now I have suggested that one point their horn at the music stand and let the “bounce back” from that provide the necessary feedback to enable one to play in tune with the section. I still feel this makes sense, but what if the band is so loud as to mask even that sound? Add to this the caveat that room acoustics can be a problem, and we’re back to the original problem.

Playing in the “Bat Cave

This is exactly what I have been facing recently. My primary music contractor is a good musician, a decent man, pays well and fast, and is quite busy. I can’t complain. However, we have been playing many gigs recently that have been in rooms with the acoustics of the Bat Cave and at volumes that Ted Nugent would be proud of.

I’ve gone home with my ears ringing, my chops worn out and my attitude in need of serious adjustment. The fact that the clients are essentially demanding this doesn’t really help.

After talking to our trombone player, I finally decided to break down and try some ear plugs. I have been experimenting quite a bit and these are the recommendations that I would make regarding their use.

Decibel reduction

In circumstances such as these you need about 30 db reduction. Therefore, I would not suggest the use of “Sonic” ear plugs. They only have about a 6 db reduction. They supposedly stop sharp impulses from getting through, but the hits from the snare on 2 and 4 seem to keep these locked up. I find things are actually worse when using these.

Many drug stores carry foam ear plugs that provide the necessary reduction. This is what works best for me. They do not have a flat response, however. This is a problem. They tend to lop off the high and low end quite deeply leaving the middle for you to hear. This gives us the “telephone acoustics” that are so frustrating to listen to. However, this may be a necessary compromise.

Jaw feedback

ear plugsNow playing a brasswind does not have the same resonance characteristics as singing. Jaw feedback works differently, but it does work to an extent.

To test this, use your finger to completely plug up one ear and buzz your lips. You will hear this in your head in a rather striking fashion. Now this will change quite a bit when you actually play the horn, but you should get the idea. You’ll get some feedback for pitch control directly through your head.

This is indeed what you are looking for when you use ear plugs. Here are some suggestions for taking the best advantage of all of this. Now, I am greatly simplifiying the commentary on physiology here. This article is not intended to discuss those aspects in any detail. You would be wise to look elsewhere for more definitive discussions on sound resonance in the head.

How to use the ear plugs

First, I only plug up one ear, if I can stand it. The rhythm section, a big contributor to egregious volume problems, is to my left, so I will often plug up this ear. However, the tenor player stands bewteen me and the rhythm section, so, if I am having problems playing in tune on a particular evening, I might choose to plug up my right ear instead. Remember, the function of the ear plugs is not simply to reduce volume, but to allow you to control your instrument better in the heat of battle.

Second, I pick the ear to plug up by virtue of the overall sound that I am left with. In general I am most satisfied with the sound that I hear when I plug up my right ear, but this exposes my left ear to the aural onslaught from the rhythm section.

Finally, I still point at my music stand or the stand light to get some bounce back. I position my microphone to allow me to do that. Even though the volume can mask the bounce back from the stand, it is still there. I want to get every advantage I can when things get this loud.

On some occasions, things will be so incredibly loud as to make it necessary to plug both ears. If it gets to this point, one simply needs to “grin and bear it.” It will all be over soon enough. There are some expensive earplugs that will minimize this frustration, however. There are comments on these following.

In conclusion of this section, you need to experiment to find out what works best in your circumstances.

Drawbacks to using ear plugs

For me, this is simple. It sounds lousy. I love the sound of trumpet. With ear plugs I don’t hear a horn, it just sounds like a giant melodious bug. By using only one plug, this is minimized, but, ideally, I feel they are to be avoided, if possible.

Advantages to using ear plugs

The obvious one is that you don’t go home with your ears ringing.

Not so obvious is the fact that, you might actually find it a little easier to play in tune if you experiment and find a setup that works for you.

Even less obvious is the possibility of actually making your trumpet playing more consistent in the heat of battle. When it is really loud and I am blasting away trying to make everything fit in, I find my chops will get a little tired and my sound and endurance suffers. However, if I plug up one ear, I listen more carefully to that melodius bug that I hear and I find that I can regain a proper focus in my playing.

At the risk of belaboring an issue, the high notes are “easier”, which is to say, I focus on getting a proper grip and making a proper buzz in that bug that I am listening to. Needless to say, I am not playing quite as loud as I would be without the plug, but that’s what the microphone is there for.

A cautionary note

A word of advice, though. Before going out on a gig and trying these things, I would practice a bit with and without the plugs. You need to get a feel for how it sounds when you achieve a certain buzzing quality that you hear with the ear plugs in. Also, practice with one and then both ears plugged so that you are prepared to deal with possible changes in plan when you get to work.

Custom plugs

As a final comment, I know quite a few musicians who have spent between $100 to $200 for custom ear plugs. A mold is taken of the ear canals and special plugs are then built to fit the individual customer. I understand that they are wonderful. They can achieve up 31 db reduction and are supossedly reasonably flat in response. You’ll need to research audiologists on this matter.

For now, I’ll continue to use the foam plugs. I wish I didn’t have to deal with these. It all seems so unnatural and unecessary, but we often find ourselves in circumstances that force us to compromise.

As always, I hope this little discussion can give you some ideas to work with.

Nick Drozdoff

2 Responses to “Ear Plugs and The Brass Player”

  1. Joe Califano says:

    Hi Nick,

    I have moved and am now at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC

    I have the ear plugs from an audiologist…I think they are better than foam. You might want to try them.

    Joe Califano

  2. Tim says:

    Hi Nick,

    Nicely put. I know you’ve written this a long time ago but it still made great reading. Would love to know how your battle with earplugs has progressed. I had some moulded several years ago and just couldn’t get on with them so fell back into the habit of playing with nothing but with the gigs I’m playing in our 9 piece funk band (and the venues we’re in) the ringing sadly now hasn’t gone away. It’s a sad fact I’ve had to come to terms with and playing with plugs removes so much of the pleasure of a live gig and my confidence in my own sound, especially when hitting anything with three lines plus above the stave! However, it’s plug them up or suffer the consequences which I now am (at the age of just 26).

    My advice would be to any young players out there would be to plug them up, stick with it and get used to it. Tinnitus is just not worth it…I can testify to it.

    Happy gigging.


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