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Carolyn Gahan noticed the ringing in her ears one night after leaving a concert. It was normal for her ears to ring occasionally. A junior vocal performance major from Knoxville, Gahan spends most of her time around music, whether at concerts, in studios, or while doing her homework.

“Half of my assignments are to listen to music,” says Gahan, a soprano in the Chamber Singers. “My ears are a part of my job.”

Hearing loss was not a concern for Gahan until, in her first year at UT, she received a School of Music notification of a mandatory screening with the UT Health Science Center’s Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology.

Gahan went and received good news: no hearing damage detected. Her result was the same when she was screened again this past fall as a sophomore.

“I assumed the screenings were just a requirement for all UT music majors,” Gahan says.

The required screenings actually date back to just 2018, when Denise Descouzis, who completed a master’s degree in audiology from UT in 1978 and practiced professionally for nearly four decades in Texas, created the Dave Lipscomb Hearing Conservation Fund to increase awareness of hearing damage among UT’s music students.

In two years, the project has flourished as a partnership between the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology and the School of Music. In addition to helping individual students, the project is working to measure the impact of noise exposure on music students over the course of their time at UT.

“These students are preparing to be in music all of their lives, so we take their hearing and health very seriously,” says Jeff Pappas, director of the School of Music. “It’s been thrilling to get out of our silos and work as partners for their benefit.”

Gahan is more aware today about tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ears—noise-induced hearing loss, and the risks she runs as a musician than she was before, thanks to the information she’s received. She’s taking steps to be more careful around loud noises and do what she can to protect herself.

“Hearing is valuable—I want to be able to hear for the rest of my life,” Gahan says.

Spreading the Word

Audiologist Julie Beeler gives a hearing test to a student.
Audiologist Julie Beeler gives a hearing test to a student.

During the first semester of screenings conducted by audiology professors and staff inside UT’s Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, 22 of the 61 first-year music students tested showed some degree of hearing loss. A year later, five others who hadn’t previously been flagged had developed hearing loss.

Of the 51 incoming students last fall, 22 had hearing damage.

“The criteria for determining thresholds outside the range of normal is very specific,” says Julie Beeler, an audiologist and speech pathologist who works with the program.

A student with undamaged hearing should be able to hear sounds at 25 decibels or lower—the equivalent of a refrigerator buzzing, birds chirping, or whispering in a library. During screenings, students are instructed to raise their hand when they can hear a sound. For those who can’t register the more delicate sounds, the test progresses to higher ranges—40–50 decibels (male voices), then 60–70 decibels (motorcycles, vacuum cleaners, and crickets chirping)—until the participant can hear the noise.

In addition to students who show overall hearing loss, those with a difference of 15 decibels or more between one ear and the other are flagged.

“Ideally we want responses between ears to be very symmetric,” Beeler says.

Uneven hearing damage tends to appear among instrumentalists such as piccolo and flute players, who play more closely to one ear. That was the case for Megan Brooker, a flutist who graduated from UT with a degree in music education in 2014.

“My last year of college, I was student teaching and I realized certain pitches made my left ear rattle,” says Brooker. “At that time, hearing damage wasn’t really on my radar.”

Brooker now manages the hearing conservation partnership on behalf of the School of Music, where she serves as first-year coordinator. She hopes that drawing students’ attention to the potential consequences will help them become more proactive about prevention.

Students who show signs of damage in the initial screening are invited to the audiology department’s offices in South Neyland Stadium for a full screening. But few have taken advantage of the opportunity.

“We know we have to help these students understand what is at stake,” says Patti Johnstone, director of clinical education in audiology. “Noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent irreversible. It’s also 100 percent preventable.”

The School of Design, formerly the graphic design program, became involved to help spread awareness using their talents to create informative, attention-grabbing videos.

Director Sarah Lowe had already been thinking about a way to partner with the audiology department when she heard about the hearing conservation project.

Every year, students in her Research Methods in Design class collaborate with a community partner for their final class project. Past classes have produced a children’s book for the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, a mobile walking tour app featuring African American historic and cultural sites for the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, and projects for the College of Nursing and Vine Middle Magnet School.

Lowe’s students are the same age as the music students being screened, making them perhaps the ideal messengers. When she assigned the project, she asked her students a question that effectively guided their work: “What would you listen to that would make you do something to protect your hearing?”

Alayna Davis
Alayna Davis

One student, Alayna Davis (’20), was aware of what was at stake for the musicians. Her father is deaf in one ear and has acute tinnitus in the other. She and classmates Henry Burgin, Marieli Valencia, and Cole Field focused their video on tinnitus, which they compared to the feeling of having a pebble in your shoe—a pebble that never goes away.

“We didn’t just want to give people the information,” says Davis, a native of Maynardville, Tennessee, who is currently a Fulbright Scholar in the United Kingdom. “We wanted them to have the feeling of experiencing it. Empathy was how we wanted to make the connection.”

Davis and her team were recognized with a gold award at UT’s 2020 Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (EURēCA) and earned a juror’s award at the 73rd Annual Student Art Competition for the video.

Another team, led by Knoxville’s Evan Zelem, produced a video chronicling a normal day for a music student: walking to class, practicing alone and in a group rehearsal room, hanging out with friends at a party. The video ends with the student, who’s been snapping his fingers and fiddling with his ear throughout his time on screen, at the doctor’s office, where he’s given a hearing aid.

“When it’s your sustenance, you may not think of the danger you’re putting your ears in until it’s too late and the harm has already been done,” Pappas says. “But the fact is you cannot do music—whether you’re a performer, conductor, or teacher—if you cannot hear it.”

This past fall, Beeler and Brooker organized a lunch for music students who participated in the screenings. They had laptops and screens set up around the room with both videos.

“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” Beeler says. “We’re hoping we’ll see more students return for a formal evaluation with one of our audiologists.”

But it wasn’t only the music students whose awareness was raised. The audiology department gave the design students foam earplugs. At some point, Davis says, most of the students started questioning themselves about the damage loud music in their headphones or at concerts might be doing to them. Should they consider hearing protection too?

Davis went online and ordered a pair of earplugs. They came in a metal case with a clip that easily attaches to her key chains, and she carries them with her every day.

“Our professors tell us that design can have a massive impact on people,” Davis says. “This project was eye-opening. It had an impact on all of us.”

Pause, Protect, Play

The partnership recently launched a campaign, Pause, Protect, Play, with resources and other information available online. While the initial plan was for the project to last three years, it’s since been extended indefinitely by Descouzis in hopes of informing more students about the importance of protecting their hearing.

“There’s no end to this in our minds,” says Johnstone of the audiology department’s commitment. “We have the equipment, and we know there are tremendous research opportunities here with the School of Music.”

Aside from this effort, Johnstone, Pappas, and engineering professor Jeff Reinbolt are working on a project to create a hearing aid that provides a better listening experience for musicians who already have impaired hearing.

But prevention is still the priority.

“We think nothing about getting a physical, our teeth cleaned, or our eyes checked if we see a blur,” Pappas says. “We want to add hearing to that list.”

Specialized hearing protection is the best way for musicians to protect their hearing while preserving their ability to hear the details of sound they need to do their jobs. But everyday preventative measures, such as wearing foam ear plugs, lowering the speaker volume in the car and when listening through earbuds, and avoiding environments with excessively loud noises, are also essential. Pause, Protect, Play, will continue to emphasize those points for years to come.

“One day, we may look back at this hearing issue,” says Pappas, “and we want our students and everyone else to know that hearing health at UT wasn’t a backburner issue. We were one of the places pushing to spread awareness and tackle this issue head on.”

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CONTACT

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)