Once a musician develops hearing loss, many simply stop playing. Suddenly, they’re faced with a unique set of challenges that go beyond simply understanding and being able to interpret musical sounds. Negotiating the audio spectrum of music, adjustments of hearing aids or cochlear implants, and coordinating and harmonizing talent, skill and muscle memory are just a few of these challenges. Picking up where they left off before their hearing loss – or in some cases starting from scratch with a lifelong hearing loss – is daunting.
However, as a professional musician who developed bilateral hearing loss myself, I can tell you that many of us do and will do whatever it takes to continue their musical passions – for music is a soul pursuit not just a technical one.
As a professional musician who developed bilateral hearing loss myself, I can tell you that many of us do and will do whatever it takes to continue their musical passions – for music is a soul pursuit not just a technical one.
A colleague of mine who understands this well is Wendy Cheng, a violist with bilateral hearing loss since the age of 9 and the founder of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss. AAMHL’s diverse membership includes musicians all along the hearing spectrum and for whom hearing loss is “significant enough to impact how they play or no longer play their instruments and/or perform.”
I spoke with Wendy about her life and work.
Stu: How were you able to negotiate the violin with your hearing loss at an early age?
Wendy: Actually, I did not start violin until my sophomore year of college although the desire to learn violin came about 3 years before, when I was a high school junior. By that time, my right ear was profoundly deaf and my left ear was aided, but the loss in the left ear was already in the severe range.
I kept hearing over and over again from string teachers how it was important to play in tune, but no one around me know how to assist a very hard of hearing person develop intonation skills. In those days, my parents were immensely skeptical as to whether a person with a significant, bilateral hearing loss could master a musical instrument with such high intonation requirements. I basically defied my parents when I signed up for “Applied Music – Violin” in the spring semester of my sophomore year of college.
My piano and sight reading background were a big help during that spring semester. I also used a Phonic Ear FM system for violin lessons, and it was then I discovered something called sympathetic ringing. That is every octave of the 4 open strings (E, A, D G) would ring or echo. So I would that use that information to help me develop intonation skills as much as I could. I learn to use digital tuners as well.
Stu: What adjustments did you make as you got older and switched to viola, for example?
Wendy: About a year after receiving my initial cochlear implant, I realized I couldn’t discriminate any note that was an octave or more above high C. And because I had this goal of learning to play in fifth position on the fingerboard, I thought I probably couldn’t play in fifth position on the violin, but perhaps I could do it on the viola. Learning cello was out of the question since I had problems discriminating notes which were more than an octave below middle C. I’ve been playing viola ever since.
Stu: What sound/hearing/tonal/other issues remain for you as a musician?
Wendy: In addition to intonation, the other major issue I face is dynamics. I can’t tell the difference in fine shading of dynamic colors — for example, the difference between piano and mezzo-piano. Trying to perform a piece requiring lots of crescendos and descrescendos is a challenge. I’m looking for an app that would help me in visualizing and performing pieces with a lot of dynamic shading and contrast in the same way that my tuner apps help me with intonation and metronome app help me with rhythm and speed.
Stu: How has your hearing loss affected your musicality and your enjoyment of music?
Wendy: I think my hearing loss has had made it more of a challenge to play music as well as to appreciate music. I gravitate toward treble instruments and don’t really like hearing music in low frequencies. I also prefer listening to music with fewer instruments, like chamber music. I can listen to symphonic music, but it takes me much longer to understand a piece with overlapping harmonies and layers of music. It also affects how I communicate with my music teachers. I’ve told them they can’t talk to me while I’m playing. (A common habit among music teachers is to make comments while their students is playing.)
Stu: When and why did you start the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss?
Wendy: By 2001, I had realized most audiologists had little training in musical acoustics. I was fed up with the general viewpoint within the hearing healthcare industry, which was overly focused on providing people with hearing loss with access to speech. Speech understanding was seen as essential to human survival while music was not. I wanted to create a community where audiologists, music educators and musicians with hearing loss could all work together to resolve important issues, such as developing good hearing aids and cochlear implants that could simultaneously and capably handle the demands of both music listening and music performance.
Speech understanding was seen as essential to human survival while music was not.
Stu: Was it to give you a “community” to connect with?
Wendy: You could say that. I hoped to find like-minded people with hearing loss who shared my deep passion for studying aural music.
Stu: In the Association do most of the participants wear hearing aids or cochlear implants?
Wendy: We have more hearing aid users than cochlear implants.
Stu: Are their common instruments among the members? More classical musicians or more popular musicians?
Wendy: I would say by far we have more piano players than any other instrument. I suspect that the major reason for this is that learning piano does not have a high intonation requirement compared to most orchestral instruments. Fretted string instrumentalists (banjo, guitar, bass, etc.) come a close second and then percussion instruments. I would say orchestral instruments come last. I surmise at present that there is a 50-50 split between classical and pop musicians.
Stu: Given that each hearing loss is so unique, what commonalities if any do your members share?
Wendy: Most AAMHL members understand the need for captioning musical events, especially during our conference this past May. I don’t have to explain why we need captioning or why we need assistive listening system such as induction loop system when we meet in person. Secondly, I would say between 70-80% of our membership use some form of hearing device (CI, Baha, hearing aids, PSAPs). Some have gone even further and use assistive listening devices in music lessons.
Stu: Are their topics in the forums that repeat?
Wendy: The most common requests I’ve seen are:
I’m losing my hearing. Where can I find an audiologist in [insert location] that can help me find hearing aids that are suitable for musicians?
My hearing seems to have worsened (I wear hearing aids now). Should I look into a cochlear implant?
Stu: How well are the audiology, research and product development communities responding to the hearing needs of musicians?
Wendy: I often think the age of onset of the hearing loss, along with individual preferences, are not factored in the research and development communities. For example, musicians who lose their hearing late in life have somewhat different issues than someone who lost their hearing at a younger age. Musicians who lose their hearing late in life need user friendly dosimeter apps for mobile devices that assist in providing feedback on sound intensity levels in a rehearsal or performance situations, as well as access to easily customizable and comfortable in-the-ear monitors to prevent further loss of hearing. Musicians and music students who were born with significant hearing loss and are already using hearing devices who want to play in a group ensemble will need visual apps or some other non-auditory ways to understand how to blend in a group, what it means to play in or out of tune, what it means to have a balanced sound. This is in addition to exploring how they can play in ensemble situations without damaging their hearing further.
Musicians who lose their hearing late in life have somewhat different issues than someone who lost their hearing at a younger age.
Stu: You highlight that musicians have gone back to performing. How are they doing? What are their issues and strategies ?
Wendy: Of the professional musicians I’ve highlighted, I think they all employ a variety of strategies that allows them to continue performing. For example, deaf jazz singer Mandy Harvey sings barefoot and touches the piano to perceive the correct beginning pitch. Guitarist and singer Blue O’Connell spent many hours relearning scales to be able to sing on pitch after getting cochlear implants.
Stu: What excites you about the future for musicians with hearing loss?
Wendy: I think it is exciting that more hearing devices are being developed that address the hearing requirements for music performance as well as music appreciation. I would like to think that more members of the hearing healthcare industry are coming to the realization that musicians who have hearing loss have the right to have good hearing devices that addresses their desire to continue making music. I also hope additional devices similar to Etymotic Research’s Companion Mic system can be developed to allow greater ease in ensemble music-making. I use this system to play string trios with my daughters. I am still looking for something that would work well for large ensembles, such as chamber orchestras.
Stu: What kind of aural or music therapy do you engage in?
Wendy: I don’t do much aural rehab right now, except to take voice lessons in addition to my viola lessons. My hope with voice lessons is to better develop my sense of musical pitch and learn to “blend” in a group, whether is a chorus or string trio. I have to learn to sing scales in voice lessons as well as to play 2-octave scales in viola lessons, so that does help me develop a finer sense of musical pitch.
Diatonic scales are easier to sing than chromatic ones, in my opinion. (I was floored and somewhat terrified that my voice teacher is now asking me to try singing chromatic scales the other day. I’m also being asked to sing diatonic scales WITHOUT the piano. This is exciting and scary.
Stu: Do most of your members take aural rehab or music therapy? What kinds?
Wendy: A few do aural rehab or ear training using musical scales. Other members take music lessons.
Stu: Who is leading the charge for musicians with hearing loss?
Wendy: I like to think that “leading the charge” for musicians with hearing loss is not limited to just one person or one group. For many years, Dr. Chasin has been instrumental (pun intended here) in highlighting the challenges that musicians face – the need to preserve hearing versus the need for better hearing devices/in-the-ear monitors that would accurately transmit what musicians need to hear. But I think there are other experts (Mead Killion, Brian Fligor, Dennis Colucci, Brad Ingrao, Michael Santucci, to name a few) that are also able to combine their background in music acoustics and hearing loss to create in-the-ear monitors (IEMs) and similar products for musicians who need to conserve their hearing.
And of course, I hope our Association can continue to serve as a resource and emotional support for musicians who are experiencing hearing loss (or hearing music for the first time via new hearing technology and want to get more out of music besides just listening), and are navigating the journey of finding what options will work for them.
Stu: Many thanks, Wendy. Keep up the great work!
If you’d like to contact the association and/or become a member, visit AAMHL’s collaborative site at Big Tent. You can fill out a membership profile, upload files and pictures, and post events of interest. There is a nice discussion forum where members can share information.
Stu Nunnery is a writer, composer, singer, musician, recording artist, actor and activist from Rhode Island. He has a special kinship and interest in musicians and singers with hearing loss, but writes on a variety of hearing issues from his 34 years experience with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. He has hearing in one ear and sight in one eye, which makes for interesting sensory challenges from time to time.
You can follow him here on Open Ears on a regular basis, or on Twitter @stununnery, where he hopes he will be of help, hope and inspiration to those of whom he affectionately calls the “hearing lost.”
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.”
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