I love my hearing, though you wouldn’t have guessed from the way I used to treat it.
I’ve spent the last fifteen years producing electronic music, often on headphones to avoid annoying neighbours at antisocial hours; I’ve spent countless weekends in clubs, clinging to speakers when I wasn’t DJing myself; and I’ve played keys in several bands, often seated within deafening distance of an ear-piercing arsenal of cymbals.
I occasionally bought disposable earplugs from the chemist and left them to gather dust in a drawer: like many musicians, I chose not to think about long-term damage to a sense I believed I’d be able to rely on forever.
Until I first heard the ringing – similar to the sort I used to get after a night of heavy clubbing, but infinitely more unsettling.
I was running around the park when it started, and the sound was so sudden and distinct that I found myself having to sit down, a single word forcing itself to the front of my mind as I struggled to banish it from my thoughts: tinnitus.
That night I lay in bed listening to what sounded like a distant orchestra tuning up in a part of my head to which I had no access. I didn’t sleep a wink, and the next morning I called my friend Eddy Temple-Morris, a DJ and musician who has long been campaigning for greater awareness of the condition he’s suffered from since his early teens.
Some of the things Eddy told me about tinnitus – that’s it’s generally permanent and incurable, for example – compounded my fear; others, such as the number of famous musicians working with the condition, were reassuring.
Most memorably, he told me that at that moment I was in a bad place – my most trusted sense turning against me, my head filled with dark thoughts and a distressing sound I couldn’t control – but that things would get better; that my brain would learn to tune the sound out and turn it down, something I didn’t dare believe at the time, but which has mercifully proved to be true.
In the meantime, he told me that as soon as I had a chance I needed to get myself to a specialist clinic and do the thing I’d been putting off for the better part of two decades: I needed to buy myself a pair of professional ear defenders.
Eddy put me in touch with Geraldine at Harley Street Hearing, who saw me the following day. The ear defenders turned up a week later, just in time for a DJ gig I’d been dreading since the onset of the ringing.
I needn’t have worried; with the earplugs in I found myself capable of hearing what was happening on stage better than I ever had in the past – the plugs filter out resonant frequencies, which means there’s no booming bass, no deadening mid-range or screeching top-end to drown out acoustic subtleties while they batter your hearing.
I was even able to pick out the voices of people around me in the club, something I’d not been able to do for years.
I’ve since played more shows, all of them with the earplugs in place, and the sense of hope it’s given me to know that I can still perform as well as produce music is priceless.
I only wish I’d started wearing them fifteen years ago, but hindsight isn’t a whole lot of use in these situations.
Music has the power to make us feel invincible, and it’s easy not to think about long-term damage to our hearing when it’s a sense we rely on so much.
But if you’re cranking up headphones to hear yourself mix in a club, if you’re producing your own music on maxed out monitor speakers, if you’re playing on stage near a drummer annihilating a set of cymbals – or if you are that drummer – if you’re doing any of these things and you’re not wearing ear protection, then you will have to think about long-term damage to your hearing, and it’s not going to be in a hypothetical, reading-an-article-on-the-internet sort of way.
If you love music, then you love your hearing. Get some proper ear defenders, and your hearing will love you back.