Niko Charney, a student at The Manhattan School of Music, was born with profound unilateral sensorineural hearing loss in one ear. However, this went undiagnosed until the age of five.
Read more: Living with single-sided hearing loss
“I was constantly being told I was too loud, always turning up the television, and picking up the phone and then putting it to my other ear,” Niko said. “That’s when I got my hearing aid, which I nicknamed ‘Blue.’ As a kid, I went through all schooling with a bright blue Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid and a blue and green tie-dye style mold.”
It was not unusual for the other kids in the playground to point and ask what was in Niko’s ear. A natural joker, he told them that at age six that he used it to communicate with aliens. This made him far more interesting in their eyes, he says.
As he entered middle school, Niko says he began hiding his deafness by intentionally forgetting to wear his hearing aid to school, so that others wouldn’t see it and ask questions. Of course, this was hard for a boy struggling to understand everything going on in class. As long as he didn’t have to wear his aid, it seemed worth it.
“Then I began my high school journey and found a very similar scenario,” Niko said. “It wasn’t until my junior year that I really began to accept that this was part of me and that I performed better, academically, socially, and musically with a little blue hearing aid and had done since I was five.”
At a very young age, Niko was exposed to both musical theatre and piano. “I would play the upright piano at my grandma’s house every Sunday,” he recalled. “What I found to be so interesting is because the upright piano’s soundboard runs vertically instead of horizontally like a regular grand, the sound resonates in your face and made it a lot easier for me to feel the music when I was playing.”
As time went on and he entered senior year, he realized that he wanted to make a serious commitment to studying both music and theatre. He wanted to become a deaf actor.
“Twenty two applications later, I ended up at the Manhattan School of Music for a BM (Bachelor of Music) in Musical Theatre,” Niko said. “My first few months at school have been such a blast. I really am so in love with learning about the fascinating world of theatre and music, yet with that come the regular struggles of attending a top music conservatory in the country and then the struggles of attending a top music conservatory as someone with a hearing impairment. As I learn more and more, I have begun to find that there are very few, if any actors on Broadway with a born hearing impairment that are wearing hearing aids. Ultimately I have yet to find someone like me up on the stage, nor a mentor in the industry, someone like me who I could look up to.” This realization has made him form a new goal…
In addition to doing what he loves and sharing a true passion for telling stories and impacting the lives of audience members, he now wants to be one of the first deaf actors to make it to Broadway.
It takes a bold person to enter an industry that relies so heavily on the use of something they don’t quite have. It hasn’t been easy. Niko credits his family, supportive friends, and teachers, who have all helped him realize that his hearing loss is a part of who he is. He now wants to inspire and pioneer the way ahead for others with hearing loss, with an ‘I can do that’ attitude.
“Little kids -like I once was – want to become musicians, creators, and lovers of theatre no matter how they hear,” Niko said. “I hope to one day create a group for deaf actors, performers, and musicians. A quote I live by every day that helps me to push forward is by P.T. Barnum and it goes like this, ‘The noblest art is that of making others happy.’ I live by it every day and hope to soon be able to help people like me follow their dreams.”