I started playing in brass bands whilst studying music at the University of Chichester, and found it a great way to relax; to enjoy playing lots of different styles of music; and to make friends along the way. Today the brass band scene is more exciting and diverse than ever before. Composers retain the genre’s traditional warmth, elegance and charm, whilst expanding capacities by combining live performance with choreography, costume, props and creative media to produce incredibly theatrical storytelling.
If you want to put on a great, standing ovation-worthy performance then some individual practice will be needed. That means working on technical skills with a tuner and metronome, but also requires good self-care. Taking care of your ears is absolutely crucial - these are the primary hardware for brass performance and are more important than any instrument, mouthpiece size or maestro.
Your ears are the most important tool for music-making, with the ability to hear an incredible amount of detail to the softest pianissimo, so it's important to look after them. I have spoken to brass players at all levels about their hearing and music-making, and have received mixed feedback. Many players have said they have played in brass bands for years and haven't experienced any issues with their hearing at all, whilst others have mentioned they experience a ringing sound or twitching feeling in their ears afterwards.
Personally, I'm part of the latter group, and after consulting an audiologist about the ringing sound I was hearing, I was diagnosed with tinnitus. This didn't come as a big surprise as I have spent years performing in various brass bands, orchestras and ensembles without wearing ear protection. However, recently I've also started to experience hyperacusis, meaning in addition to hearing a constant ringing noise, normal everyday sounds that are usually comfortable are now unbearably loud. This means I'm dependent on wearing ear plugs to tolerate most loud environments. This condition is more common amongst musicians.
Interestingly, whilst discussing this situation, I soon realised that the subject of protecting your hearing has become a very sensitive topic for both players and musical directors. It is rarely openly discussed, to the point that it is almost considered taboo. This may be due to the fiercely competitive nature of some brass bands. Some people I spoke to were even fearful that using earplugs may result in them being labelled as "unprofessional", "difficult" or "sensitive", which may damage reputations and careers. It's not surprising that many players and musical directors who are experiencing issues with their hearing have instead opted to ignore it or suffer in silence.
Unfortunately there's simply no getting away from the fact that brass bands are loud - at the most extreme, they have the potential to peak at 140dB, the equivalent of an airplane taking off. My best advice is that it's important to remember that noise-induced hearing loss is easily preventable but also irreversible. Therefore, I would recommended using earplugs to help protect your hearing and avoid problems down the line.
It’s important to find some ear protection that works for you. Many brass players start by trying out a cheap pair of ear plugs to see if they like them, but the sound is muffled and they experience an annoying booming effect when they play. This is called occlusion, and happens because vibrations naturally escape through the ears when you play a brass instrument, as the initial sound vibrations are created internally, inside the body, by buzzing the lips. If you stick your fingers in your ears and hum you'll get the same effect, it will feel like you've stuck your head in a barrel or fish bowl. This problem can be overcome by using moulded, deep fitting earplugs with venting and attenuating filters.
Playing a brass instrument is a hobby or profession that can bring a huge amount of joy - it’s just important to stay safe and look after yourself so that you can enjoy it for the rest of your life. I hope my advice has been helpful.