This is how I found inspiration after hearing loss to continue to do what I love; play music.
As a musician, I have always been inspired by music and musicians, songs and songwriters. They have been my bromides, elixirs, and palliatives for whatever life might bring. Before my hearing loss, I appreciated all genres of music. I sang, performed, and recorded with great joy and ease.
It was music that tipped me off that my hearing was failing. Working in the studio with other singers on a television commercial jingle, I heard strange sounds in my head. I also felt a fullness, pain, and scratching in my ears, along with the onset of tinnitus. Most telling, I was singing off-key and my colleagues began to notice. Eventually, I had to quit. Music was gone as an inspiration as well as a livelihood that I had counted on.
Then, for decades as a musician with hearing loss, I hoped for a miracle that I might be able to one day make music again. I finally had to let that hope go too. There would be no miracles and I could no longer imagine being inspired by something that I could no longer participate in.
In 2013, after several decades away, I decided that I would not live without music any longer. By then, hearing technology had advanced. At the recommendation of a musician friend. I began auditory rehabilitation and focused listening training, and returned to vocal coaching. I discovered that musically, I wasn’t what I used to be. My voice was weak. I could not hold pitch while singing. The piano keys felt strange even in hands that had played them since I was four years old. And what I was hearing did not resemble the tones and emotion of what I remembered. Eventually, after much work and challenges, my mentors suggested that I might have to resign myself to speaking my lyrics instead of singing them.
That was the darkest moment.
As often happens, that’s often when inspiration appears. I had long collected quotes from others that connected with me, but I needed some new ones that spoke to my unrequited passion for music. Colleagues — several of them with their own hearing losses — and even renowned musicians didn’t let me down.
Beethoven, it is reported, once said that “To play a wrong note is insignificant, but to play without passion is inexcusable.” Here was the most famous of deaf musicians identifying the difference between perfection and performance. This was a distinction I well understood. Even without perfect hearing, one can still feel and express passion. I knew that was me. Passion for music and especially for performing came easily. How could I use my passion to make music again? Passion alone didn’t seem to be enough to address my challenges.
“How could I use my passion to make music again?”
Miles Davis, the incomparable jazz trumpet player, was reported to have said that “If you hit a wrong note, keep going. It’s the next note that determines if it’s right or wrong.” Yes, of course, even the greats hit wrong notes. But keep going. That was comforting as I struggled to find the right notes and sing in the correct pitch.
A musician’s group posted somewhere online that “Audiences don’t want you to be perfect, they want you to make them feel something.” Now I was getting much closer to making music again. I had always been successful at evoking emotion with my playing and singing. Perhaps I could do it again. But was that enough?
Most recently, I read a famous quote reputed to be from renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. As the story goes, in the middle of a difficult violin concerto, one of the strings on his violin snapped. The orchestra stopped, but after a brief pause, Perlman signaled to the conductor to continue. He then played on with three strings to a standing ovation. Perlman smiled and raised the bow of his violin to quiet the audience and said simply, “You know, sometimes it’s the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Make music with what you have left. There it was. The summation of the inspiration I was looking for. If these reported and reputed remarks are not totally accurate or true, the messages are clear. Keep going, play with passion, find the notes you can find, and play with everything you have left.
Together, they’ve given me the inspiration and strength to practice and perform through tinnitus and pitch problems, wrong notes, and vocal hiccups. The support and love of others provided the ground on which I walk once again.
In 2018, I recorded my first new single in more than 40 years – with great effort. It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. While recording, and in my attempt to get my vocal performance just right, I kept tripping over words, notes, and breaths. My engineer, a dear friend from years together in the music business, and someone who knows me and my music well, asked me why I was so stressed. She said, “Sing the way you can now, not the way you once did. You know how to do this.” I did, but I had forgotten what it “feels like” to sing from my heart with a damaged hearing apparatus and a rusty vocal mechanism.
She reminded me of the singer/songwriters that we both listened to and loved from the folk and pop era. “None of them was perfect or even a great singer,“ she said. “But each of them was unique.”
So am I. Whatever challenges I have, I can still “sell a song,” sing, or speak my lyrics if I have to, and give a passionate performance. Now new technology, techniques and some tricks of my own help get me through the fog that is hearing loss. They allow me to use “what’s left” to make music again.
What is your inspiration?