World traveler, writer… and hearing aid wearer
May 16, 2016
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May 18, 2016

6 tips for musicians with hearing loss

hearing rehabilitation for musicians

Recently, a gentlemen who knew that I had returned to music after three decades away due to my hearing loss approached me with a serious – if not desperate – look on his face.

He was a piano player and told me he was having trouble “lining things up.” I took that to mean, and he later confirmed, that what he knew he was playing was not what he was hearing – and vice versa.

In a general sense, I understood his problem well. Ever since that day in 1981 when I said goodbye to music – listening to it, playing it, singing along and even recording it – I had trouble “lining things up,” too. And frankly I had no idea where to begin to fix it either. If at all.

Listening to my friend, it made me think back to my own musical journey and to all the things I did to try and get things “lined up” again. It’s been a long process, complicated by my particular Sensorineural hearing loss and by my previous musical life, which had given me high expectations. Advances in hearing technology and new discoveries about the brain gave me hope. But putting the pieces of my musical self together again has been a daunting task for one who had been musically “dormant” for more than 30 years.

musician with hearing lossFor the longest time I believed the problem might be simple. Though my hearing loss provided a gauntlet of quirks and challenges to overcome, I came to believe that if I could somehow just correct the pitch distortion I was experiencing I’d be good to go.

The first step then was to try and find out how to address the pitch issue I was experiencing. I soon discovered that that issue was related to several other issues that would have to be addressed as part of the process.

So to my piano playing friend, let patience be the first note of your next song. Here are my 6 tips for rebuilding your musical self as a musician with hearing loss:

Get an assessment of your hearing loss and how it might affect your enjoyment of music

Every hearing loss is different of course and the approach you take to rebuilding your musical self will be very dependent on that. Ask your audiologist to do the assessment or provide a referral to a professional who can. 

Check your tech

Do not expect an old hearing aid to do the job for you musically. Hearing aids today have lots of bells and whistles, and if you want to play, sing or hear music well, then get the right hearing technology with the right settings and programs. For the past year I have been wearing a Phonak Audeo V hearing aid in my right ear. I have no hearing in the left ear. The digital hearing aid has multiple programs, including a noise reduction setting and three musical programs that my audiologist tweaks from time-to-time depending on my experience and needs. The music programs provide a broader range of frequencies and less processing. I’ve found it important to return to my audiologist regularly to make adjustments. The right hearing aid will give your brain the best chance to adapt and adjust what it can. It’s also important to care for your hearing technology properly, by changing filters regularly and having fresh batteries on hand.

Get involved in aural rehab

Engage in listening exercises. It turns out that listening exercises help your speech comprehension, which in turn helps your musical hearing. It’s a brain thing. The ears listen and the brain hears. My hearing rehab specialist has recommended that I continue to work with him in session, listen to books on tape, online programs, and to music again. He suggests FAVORS (Familiar, Auditory-Visual, Original, Rhythmic, and Simple) music may be the best starting point for both cochlear implant and hearing aid users.

This not only lets the brain hear and allows the music to stir the emotions, but it has helped to reawaken my musical muscle memory, too.  

Keep it simple

I often play the piano and guitar one note at a time as a listening exercise, then a scale, then a chord, maybe an arpeggio – over and over again. I continue to do this as a warm up before practicing or performing. I often close my eyes and just let the brain hear without being distracted visually. 

Once upon a time I could sing a note and hold that note easily, sing a musical phrase and do an entire song without a pitch hitch. The memory of that is still within me and I return to it by not only playing and listening to music but more importantly, by singing. It’s become a thing of mine lately to suggest to anyone with a hearing loss who loves music to take vocal coaching.  

Get some vocal coaching

If you want to make music again take vocal lessons and find the music that’s inside you. No matter your loss, it’s there. When I started singing again I realized I had forgotten correct breathing technique. Breathing incorrectly does not allow me to hold a note for very long or to find pitch and sustain it. Singing also reintroduces musical tones to me in a very physical and visceral way, providing another connection to the notes I’m looking for. A kind of “lining things up” within.

Work on building confidence

Yes, my friend, confidence plays a big role in making music again. Like “lining things up,” this will take time and practice too. I call my performances “works in progress” and suggest that you might do the same as well. At this moment in life, frankly, it’s all a work in progress, isn’t it?

In sum, I had to try and “hear” all of these things simultaneously until I could get to point where I could just let it go, trust my preparation and muscle memory and play and sing my heart out. After my most recent concert I declared that the pieces were finally in place. Not perfectly, mind you, and they would have to be tweaked each time out, but I finally knew how to make them work together. Getting them to work consistently is the next task.

But wait there’s more. There’s always more

Now that I had figured out how to “line myself up” the experts in the field of music and hearing loss tossed a few more fish into the pond. Canadian audiologist Marshall Chasin has recommended musicians try to make music using analog rather than digital hearing aids and he suggests not wear hearing aids when practicing or performing to protect the ears from the higher volume the aid provides. That may sound counter-intuitive but read up and see what Chasin has to say. And talk about it with your audiologist.   

Tweaks. There’s always tweaks.

Are you a musician or singer? Have you discovered how to line yourself up with your hearing loss? Are you getting help to put yourself back together musically?

Author Details
Stu Nunnery is a professional writer, musician, composer, actor and activist. In 2013 he began a years-long journey to return to making music after a bilateral hearing loss ended a successful career forty-five years ago. Taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, auditory training and vocal work, he resumed performing in 2017 and made his first new recording in 2018. Recently, Stu also completed a screenplay about his musical journey. A graduate of Princeton University, Stu has studied piano, voice, acting, improvisation and public speaking. He is a member of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, and for his activism, is a Phonak “hEARo” and a “HearStrong Champion.”