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Saving Rockers From Hearing Loss, One Ear Plug At A Time

Photo by Patrick Houdek
In addition to being an audiologist, Anthony Kovacs is also the lead vocalist for the Chicago punk band Shot Baker.

For more than a decade, a typical “work day” for Anthony Kovacs meant spending time on stage with loud guitars and drums, singing into a microphone as the lead vocalist for the Chicago punk band Shot Baker.

Even when he wasn’t on stage, Kovacs said his daily life was pretty noisy.

“When I wasn’t on tour I was working in music venues as a door guy or whatever I was doing, so I was exposed to loud quite a bit,” he said. “And at some point, I noticed that my hearing wasn’t as sharp as it once was, and it actually started scaring me into wearing hearing protection.”

Now he’s Dr. Kovacs, an audiologist. Recently he -- along with several University of Northern Colorado audiology students -- attended the Fort Collins music festival Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Whippoorwill's Staci Foster reacts to the silicone impression material in her ear.

In partnership with the nonprofit MusiCares the festival brought in Kovacs and his team to turn music venue The Armory’s green room into a makeshift waiting room. Each day of the event, musicians performing at the festival could sign up to be fitted with custom ear plugs.

Whippoorwill guitarist and banjo player Staci Foster looks a little nervous about the long tube full of silicone-based goo that’s about to be inserted into her ear. But, she’s recently noticed problems with her hearing.

“I do have some ringing -- not a whole lot -- but I’ve noticed it in the last year,” Foster said. “I usually have to ask ‘What?’ a couple times. So I think I’ve definitely got some hearing damage.”

Foster admits she doesn’t wear hearing protection at all when she’s on stage. When she’s at concerts as a fan she uses the cheap, foam ones from the drugstore.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
More than 100 musicians and festival crew members were fitted for free custom ear plugs at Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest.

“And if I don’t have any, I will usually grab a napkin at the venue or restaurant that I’m at and just shove them in my ears,” she said.

Kovacs said he isn’t surprised that hearing protection hasn’t been a big priority for many musicians. There can be a lot of barriers.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Spencer Townshend Hughes, of the band The Hollow, shows off his ear mold impressions. The molds will be made into custom-fit ear plugs.

“With hearing protection, it can be challenging to communicate on stage and to hear your instrument with as much clarity as you need to,” he said.

Foam ear plugs let in the bass and cut down the treble, kind of like when you hear the music at a party next door, Kovacs said. Custom musician’s plugs cut down all the frequencies evenly.

“So it’s almost as though you just turned the volume down,” he said.

Kovacs didn’t start wearing hearing protection until he started noticing the problem.

“I would go into the recording studio and the producer is saying, ‘You’re flat. You need to sing in key,’” he said. “And I’m saying, ‘No I’m not. I’m dead on. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And he’s going, ‘No, you’re flat!’ And I’m arguing with the producer about whether I’m flat or sharp or whatever.”

That’s why the group MusiCares is offering the free ear plugs.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
After more than a decade in the punk band Shot Baker, Anthony Kovacs went back to school and is now an audiologist. One of his primary focuses is on helping musicians protect their hearing.

It’s just one of the Recording Academy nonprofit’s outreach efforts, which include health care and alcohol and drug addiction counseling. This summer as part of its Hearing Health Initiative, the program has provided custom-fit ear plugs to more than 3,000 people at a variety of music festivals, including Chicago’s Lollapalooza and California’s Afropunk.

The ear plugs aren’t just for musicians. People in the music industry -- including producers, sound engineers and music venue employees also can take advantage of the program.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
John Morse (right) watches others getting ear molds made as the silicone in his ears sets.

At Bohemian Nights, John Morse -- president of the local stagehand’s union -- brought his staff in to get fitted for ear plugs.

For 52 years, Morse has been a stagehand, working at theaters and music venues moving and setting up lighting and sound equipment.

“We didn’t think about it early on,” he said. “I’ve only been wearing hearing protection for three or four years only.”

Luckily, he said he hasn’t noticed any problems. Morse said he’s hoping that getting the ear plugs will keep it that way.

For Anthony Kovacs, who still does the occasional show or recording session, one of his missions is spreading the word about hearing protection to those who make music a major part of their lives.

“Musicians, sound engineers, even bouncers at a loud music venue who are just exposed night after night to really loud music, eventually that very well can take a toll on your hearing,” he said. “When you rely on your ears for your livelihood, you really need to protect them.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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