They gave us each a pair of earplugs. I realized soon thereafter those little noise-canceling and decibel-reducing items were worth their weight in gold. Clanging 18-inch brass plates together for several hours a day will do that to a person.

As a cymbalist in the University of Minnesota Marching Band for one and a half years, it would be foolish of me to proclaim my hearing ability to be none the worse. I did wear earplugs every day and on the unfortunate occasion I did not have earplugs, I felt like my hearing days were over.

Truth be told, I forgot my earplugs often. Thus, I pestered my section leaders to allow me to grab yet another extra pair. It soon became a strange, unintentional, yet unavoidable running joke within the cymbal circle. How grateful I was to be able to have earplugs most of the time.

After crashing cymbals for eight hours on game days, those pieces of foam were the only things standing between deafness and minor hearing impairment. I remember vividly the terror and frustration that gripped me one sunny Saturday when, somehow, my profuse sweating caused the dislodgment of an earplug. It felt like someone was using a chainsaw within my eardrum.

Hearing has been something I've always hyper-valued since I was little, often to my social expense. Parades were the worst. Not only did the drum lines send machine gun fire into my ear, but the emergency response vehicles would shamelessly blast away my last vestiges of auditory perception.

I would cover my ears if I was only with family, but I dared not do so in the vicinity of my peers. After all, these were important people to impress and did they cover their ears like weaklings? No, they reveled in the noise! If I covered my ears, I would be looked down upon as unable to cope with such awesomeness.

These awesome people were also the ones who would triumphantly stroll across the playground during winter while wearing shorts and a T-shirt and say to everyone within earshot (or not) "It's warm!" Like I said: awesome.

In high school, I must have still been recovering from these significant social defeats because I didn't use earplugs when playing in marching band or in the percussion section. My paradigm began to shift my senior year and was cemented in place during my first University of Minnesota Marching Band season. Whenever I saw someone without earplugs standing in front of the band I would think, "Are you crazy?!?" and proceed to crash louder in order for them to get the hint. Maybe some people don't care about their hearing.

That's unfortunate because I have found hearing to be important not only in sensing oncoming traffic, but also in feeling like I am a part of my environment. When I open my ears I can better connect with my surroundings and not just observe them. Several, almost ethereal experiences come to mind, no doubt prompted by the layers of snow outside my window.

My mom would tell me to go play outside in the falling snow. I would bundle up in numerous layers, including my very noisy snow pants and winter coat, and step outside. Several inches would have coated the ground and the snow would continue to fall. Just outside the front door, I would pause and not breathe. No wind. Everything was muted by the snow. I listened to this nothingness until I felt like I could fall into it.

One slight movement on my part and the silence would be interrupted by my clothing scraping together, so I would repeat this. Silence. Noise. Silence. Noise. It was very calming. I would fall backward into a snow bank and lie there for a while, listening. My hearing would extend and soon I would be able to catch things I normally would have missed: snow hitting the ground, cars driving around a half mile away, the rustle of animals in the trees.

I do not listen like this often anymore. I let my thoughts crowd out the simple joys of listening. I hear more than I listen. When I stop and listen I hear cacophonies of birds I never knew existed. My perception of sight and touch is enhanced. The sun feels warmer. The wind is more refreshing. The landscape in the distance is clearer. It's like meditating, but instead of looking inside, it's attempting to be more aware of what's outside the mind.

It may sound otherworldly, but it is just a conscious decision to listen instead of hearing. There is a difference and the former is much more enjoyable.