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            Musician spreads lesson of safe listening to children
                                 By Marie McCullough Inquirer Staff Writer

        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
        "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
       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."

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