Shuffle: Musician-Turned-Audiologist is Changing the Tune About Hearing Wellness

Oct 11, 2018

Musician-turned-audiologist Heather Malyuk is a trained fiddle and guitar player based in Streetsboro, who owns and operates a mobile hearing wellness business. She's one of only a handful of audiologists in the country who specializes in this type of wellness for the professional music industry.

What makes Malyuk uniquely qualified in her field is not just her background as a performing musician, or the “gear” she carries along with her to each appointment, but also how she goes about her knowledge base and individualized appointments with musicians.

“Music audiology is a very small specialty,” Malyuk said. “And while a lot of audiologists can go out and work with musicians, they might not know how to care for them properly — to no fault of their own. Simply, the education is not there.”

Malyuk, through her business, Soundcheck Audiology, approaches each appointment by first spending around 45 minutes educating musicians on the functionality of the ear and the upkeep of their hearing health.

'You can shove putty into it, but if you don't know how to take care of it, it's something totally different'

She will then make a custom mold of their inner ear out of putty-like silicone that is used to create a piece of equipment to protect their hearing when exposed to sound.

“Typically, a musician will simply view the audiologist as a ‘putty stuffer’ or a piece of ear gear, whether it’s in-ear monitors or ear plugs,” Malyuk said. “And you can shove putty into it, but if you don’t know how to take care of it, it’s something totally different.”

Malyuk works with musicians from all genres, backgrounds and locations. She travels with a compact carrying case that contains her educational resources, tools and materials to create custom ear impressions.

She treats her appointments with each musician the same, whether it’s an internationally touring rock band, a chart-topping pop star, a student orchestra, stage techs or a local group playing weekend gigs.

Heather Malyuk uses silicone to create a custom ear impression that's used for devices such as ear plugs or in-ear monitors
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz / WKSU

Creating a custom ear impression
She offered to create a custom mold of my left ear. She first removed a tool called an oto-light from her case to look inside my ear canal.

She explained she could see my ear canal, ear drum and the first bone in my middle ear.

She then inserted a small piece of foam, called an oto-block, into the same ear. The foam felt similar to a generic, inexpensive earplug.

Malyuk places this foam to protect the inner ear from the silicone, which will be used to create the custom mold. She explained she uses both a base and catalyst silicone, which bonds when mixed together.

“A really important part of the process here for musicians is moving your jaw, opening your mouth, smiling, moving around,” Malyuk said.

Pretending I was a vocalist, I relaxed my jaw as Malyuk mixed green and white silicone together in her hands to form a ball. She placed the mixed silicone into my left ear.

After a few minutes, the mold solidified, and she removed it. The light-green object was just a couple inches long and looked like a piece of chewed bubblegum.

For regular clients, Malyuk then sends the impression off to a manufacturer to create an investment, or they will scan and 3D print the mold to create their custom hearing wellness device. 

Teaching hearing wellness
Malyuk said the ongoing wellness she recommends for each client varies based on their individual needs.

She recommends maintaining an ongoing relationship with one’s audiologist for fit tests of their ear equipment and getting annual hearing tests to make sure they’re getting the protection they need.

Musicians will often sit down with her and say they’ve visited multiple audiologists and had hearing tests. But those audiologists will say they can’t help them improve their hearing because it is a side effect of working in the music industry.

“And I say, well, you’re not fine — obviously you’re struggling,” Malyuk said. “And let’s get you to a safer position to where you can work.”

Malyuk said her services are regarded as preventative care, so they are not covered by medical insurance.

However, she works to keep her rates affordable for all clients. A pair of custom ear plugs cost around $200, while the in-ear monitors can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Her individualized appointments cost $95 and include an inspection of each musician’s ear, education on prevention of music-induced hearing disorders, counseling on any exiting disorders and a consultation for in-ear devices.

'The rock musicians are more willing to talk about hearing. The classical world is not ready yet.'

An evolving industry
Malyuk said there is a lot of misinformation about what an audiologist who works with musicians does, but she is optimistic that the perception and industry are changing.

“Many people don’t know how to properly protect their ears, even while attending concerts,” she said. “There truly aren’t that many audiologists for the population. Most people don’t get hearing tests on a regular basis.”

She said it can be difficult being one of the few audiologists working specifically with musicians in the country, but she is excited by the possibility of that number growing.

She added that many musicians, like herself, have taken an interest in hearing wellness and are studying to become involved in the field.

Rock musicians are some of those most interested in audiology and ear care in general, according to Malyuk.

“What’s interesting with me working so often within the rock industry and within the classical industry [is] seeing the differences,” Malyuk said. “The rock musicians are more willing to talk about hearing. The classical world is not ready yet. There’s a different level of perfection there, and they’re often far more injured than the rock musicians. They have more hours of exposure, so they are exposed to a lot more sound.”

Balancing work as a performer and entrepreneur
Malyuk still actively works as a musician and performs with her sister, Lisa Malyuk, as well as her old-time band Glass Mountain.

She has been operating Soundcheck Audiology for one year and transitioned from a musician to an entrepreneur after studying under Sensaphonics Founder Michael Santucci. She served as clinical director at Sensaphonics.

She is on the executive council of the National Hearing Conservation Association, along with other boards and organizations, including the American Academy of Audiology, the College Music Society’s Wellness Committee and the Ohio Academy of Audiology.

Malyuk worked as an audiologist in Chicago but moved back to Northeast Ohio after missing home. Her business has spread through word of mouth, lectures and referrals from her clients and other audiologists specializing in hearing wellness.

She hopes to work with more local musicians in Northeast Ohio.

Editor's Note: This post has been corrected to reflect that Malyuk has operated Soundcheck Audiology for one year instead of six and prior to that served as clinical director at Sensaphonics.