If you are aficionado of online high note trumpet playing and instruction, you have almost certainly run across the legendary Lynn Nicholson screaming away with a set of heavy duty hearing protection muffs on. I use these as well, whenever I go into a short stretch of loud playing (refer back to my blog on soft practice for more on that subject).
There are a couple of reasons for doing this. The first is obvious. Trumpet can be a very loud instrument. When you are playing it you're pretty close to the business end of the horn even though it is pointing away from you. This can be tough on your hearing. If you practice long hours you can actually be surpassing OSHA standards.
"The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) Noise standard (29 CFR 1910.95) requires employers to have a hearing conservation program in place if workers are exposed to a time-weighted average (TWA) noise level of 85 decibels (dBA) or higher over an 8-hour work shift."
I guarantee that your horn can get past this volume level with this proximity. So, it is wisdom to use some hearing protection.
There is another reason to be doing this. I originally learned this from the great Bobby Shew. I took a couple of lessons from him when he was working in the Midwest. He suggested putting in an ear plug in one ear. While hearing protection was an issue, he had another reason to do this. Now, it's time for a bit of acoustics.
Trumpet is a "feed-back control system." You give the system a command (go to play a note) and adjust the machine (trumpet+embouchure+musician) to get the desired results (play a particular note). Well, what is the feed back loop for this? The trumpeter has to hear the note to know that he/she has picked the right one! With any valve combination there is technically an infinite number of harmonics you can choose from (OK, there are limitations brought on by physical limits and non linearity, but you get the idea). The only way you can know you have chosen the correct note is by hearing it. THAT is the feedback loop.
Well, if you are playing with a very loud band or outdoors, if can be tough to hear yourself, so the feedback loop is partially broken. This will cause the system to sway wildly till it locks in on the desired outcome, unless the loop is totally broken. Then the system will just flail about. How do we as trumpeters tend to deal with this, unconsciously? We play LOUDER, and sometimes DISTORT THE EMBOUCHURE.. This is another way the system will flail about. You'll start escalating the volume until you can hear yourself in a way that fits you mental image of what you want to sound like. Depending on the circumstances, you can find yourself playing way to loud, a condition trumpeters refer to as "over blowing." You may also find your self distorting your embouchure (again without realizing you are doing this) and possibly doing some damage.
So, how does an ear plug in one ear help you?
Buzz your lips and plug up your ear. You can hear the buzzing in your head. This is jaw and head feedback. This is similar to singers plugging up an ear in loud environments. The difference is that, for singers, the resonant system is the human body (mouth, oral cavity, chest etc) so by plugging an ear you hear your VOICE removed from the room sound.
With a trumpet the resonant system is the wind column in the horn which is outside of your body. When you plug an ear you hear the lips buzzing. Thus this is not nearly as pleasant experience for the trumpeter as it is for the singer. So why bother?
First, if things are really loud, you are protecting your hearing. Second, once you get used to playing with one ear plugged up with an ear plug, you will be reducing your tendency to over blow the system (player combined with horn). You will unconsciously find yourself pulling back just enough to save your chops. It is automatic. By leaving one ear open you can still enjoy your natural sound a bit, but with the one ear plugged up, you'll save your chops in a tough environment. Your intonation will improve, too. When rock band horn sections sound wildly out of tune, this is almost always due to the fact that the performers sounds are being masked to their ears by the overwhelming volume of the rest of the band.
Here is what I have experienced. I hate the sound of just my lips buzzing in my head, so I try to get away without the ear plugs. However, if the sound is not good, I will find myself missing some notes and distorting my embouchure a bit. When it gets to this point, I'll put an ear plug in my left ear. It is like I have just gotten a second wind! My chops will come back, my accuracy improves and my focus and range get better. In fact this can be a problem solver on a so called "bad day" with my chops. Let me elaborate by starting with an example of how this helps.
I just did a huge weekend of recording with a big band, playing most of the lead with gigs in the evening as well. Using the ear plug helped me feel a second and third wind by helping me maintain my endurance. Next, in the studio, the engineer didn't quite know how to handle the monitor mix with so many musicians crammed into a space that was really a little too small for a 15 piece big band, so the trumpets were not rally in the mix individually. Usually I just take one headphone off of my right ear and listen to the track with my left, but with too many horns in the room, I was still masked by all of the ambient sound, so I PUT AN EAR PLUG INTO MY LEFT EAR, and then wore both headphones. Voila! I was able to play 11 hours worth of big band recording without banging my chops up. This trick really helps and it works.
If you read my blog about soft playing you see that I spend about 95% of my practice playing very quietly and NEVER above high C. When I do work on my range and power, I still play quite quietly. I like to do this without ear plugs. I like to listen to the smoothness of my tone. As I get up to about a high G in trumpet speak (F concert) I'll start to bring the volume up. Occasionally, things might start to unravel on "one of those days." As mentioned earlier, I will put the shooters muffs on as the volume escalates. As soon as I do this, or put an ear plug in one ear, almost immediately the rough day vaporizes. Everything comes into focus. The problem was that I wasn't just starting to do some over blowing. I was distorting my embouchure. By bring the focus back into my head, I stopped that. I can't explain why this happens, the psychology of it all, but it does happen.
One might be concerned about the idea that you are pulling back too much when you play with an ear plug in. This has not been my experience. I have checked (with recordings and by removing the earplug for a few seconds to check my actual volume and blend) and it my volume is just fine. Before putting in the ear plug, I was OVER blowing and my chops would get spread out and my tone would be unfocused and brittle. If I pop in the ear plug, it all comes together nicely.
Now, to conclude: I prefer to use one ear plug. If the band is incredibly loud, I will plug up both ears. At this point, it is all a big compromise. To not be able to hear myself is to play out of tune, distorted and inaccurately. Also, when I play jazz - improvise a solo - I usually pull the ear plug out.
Here is an important point. In addition to practicing with workers' ear protection muffs, I also practice with the ear plugs I use on gigs. This way I know in advance how it will feel.
You can go to an audiologist and by expensive ear plugs, or you can go to any Wallgreens and by some 30 dB ear plugs in foam or swimmers' style. These will do just fine.
I have worked with many heavy hitting pros and MOST of them will use ear plugs on at least part of a gig.
I hope this little article gives you something to think about as your work as a trumpeter progresses.
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