Musician spreads listening lesson
The award-winning musician had some important advice for his audience.
"First, don't stick your head in a tuba," said Oran Etkin. "Second, if you have earbuds, that's kind of like sticking your head in a tuba. So you should turn the volume waaaaay down."
The 400 children sitting on the cafeteria floor at John Hancock Demonstration School in Northeast Philadelphia hung on his words, as if the wiry, bushy-haired clarinetist were a sage. And in a way he was.
Etkin had brought his jazz combo - tuba, drums, and piano - to help fight the epidemic of youthful hearing loss that experts link to the explosion of personal listening devices such as iPods.
The concert, with Etkin's kid-centric versions of Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington hits, was part of the Listen to Your Buds campaign, a national effort by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association to teach preteens how to protect their hearing while using audio devices.
"We made a conscious decision to focus on the very young," said the association's spokesman, Joe Cerquone, explaining why elementary schools are the target. "Better to start them off on the right foot than try to break bad habits."
Over just the last five years, ownership of iPods, smart phones, and other audio devices has soared from 39 percent to 66 percent among 8- to 18-year-olds, according to Kaiser Family Foundation surveys.
On average, Kaiser found, they spend almost eight hours a day using entertainment media, with TV, audio devices, and computers leading the list. (Only the last-place medium - print - has been steadily falling since 1999.)
"Kids are not allowed to wear earbuds in school," said William Griffin, the city school's principal. "But in the neighborhood, on the playground, on the bus, you're going to see them wearing some kind of listening device."
Indeed, when Griffin asked how many youngsters had an iPod or its ilk, almost every hand went up. (This may have reflected peer pressure; some kindergartners interviewed later claimed iPods are the size of toaster ovens.)
The problem, experts say, is that kids play these devices too loud, despite volume-limiting features and manufacturers' generic warnings about safe listening levels. And because of earphones, parents today are less likely to scream "Turn that thing down!" than in the days of transistor radios and record players.
In August, an analysis of federal data provided evidence that the explosion of personal audio technology may be taking a toll on the young. The study found that the prevalence of hearing loss among 12- to 19-year-olds increased from 15 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 2005.
Even relatively brief listening may be dangerous if the volume is high enough, researchers in Belgium reported in June. They detected temporary hearing impairment in a group of young adults who listened to an MP3 player for one hour at about 100 decibels – louder than a motorcycle or lawn mower, but not as earsplitting as a rock concert.
Of course, rock-and-roll - not to mention rap, hip-hop, and heavy metal - is here to stay, so the hearing association decided to make music a big part of the Listen to Your Buds campaign. Over the last year, acclaimed children's music artists have performed in elementary schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington.
In Philadelphia, six elementary schools, including Hancock, are hosting Etkin or Brady Rymer, a 2009 Grammy nominee.
Israel-born Etkin, 31, an energetic Pied Piper who fuses jazz, reggae, folk, and other genres, on Tuesday used some material from Timbalooloo, a series of children's music classes he created.
But he also threw in some science, courtesy of his brother, Amit Etkin, a Stanford University neuroscientist. He explained that "tiny, tiny hairs way inside your ear" sway in reaction to sound.
"So let's be one giant ear," Etkin told the children. "When we play music quietly, you just wave your arms gently. And when we play loud, what do you do?"
Minutes later, after several exhausting bouts of frenzied arm-waving, he finished the analogy: "If you play loud noises all the time, those hairs are going to get really tired and break."
At the end, Griffin urged pupils to go back to their classes and sign the Listen to Your Buds "pledge" to keep the volume down and take listening breaks.
And then the association's Cerquone presented the school with a plaque, as corny as it was handsome, that certified Hancock "as an official 2010 Listen to Your Buds school."