The Grace Notes in My Life as a Musician With Hearing Loss
When I was a kid in elementary school I passed every hearing test the mothers in the PTA administered. I was a pretty clever little girl. I learned that every test has a visible “tell” and knew how to guess correctly on all of them. I never wanted to fail any test. I learned to read lips, and assumed everyone else also heard the annoying ringing I heard constantly. It wasn’t until 2008, at age 31, that I learned I likely was born with a severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.
I hadn’t heard the term before, but I was told this helped explain the tinnitus, the perception of sound when no actual sound source is present. For me, it’s constant. It used to be just a tiny ring I could tune out. Now I can hear it over almost anything. Sleeping is hard. Sitting in the quiet to try to meditate or collect my thoughts is increasingly difficult.
When I went to the audiologist 10 years ago, I hadn’t had my ears tested since I was little. I didn’t know what to expect. The diagnosis of a severe hearing loss was much worse than I had ever imagined it would be, because it is also progressive. I left the office knowing at some point — no one can tell me exactly when — I’ll be completely deaf.
As the mother to three children, then young boys, I wondered how much longer I’d be able to hear them say “I love you,” or if my ears would hold out long enough to hear their grown-up voices. No one told me when my hearing started to get worse how exhausting it was going to be to struggle to hear people and the world around me all day, every day. They couldn’t tell me that removing my hearing aids at night would be such a relief because at that point I can stop struggling for the day.
I wonder how much longer it will be until I can’t hear music? Music is not only my passion, it’s my chosen profession. I never wanted to be anything but a musician in some capacity. My dad played the guitar. My mother says when I was little I liked to sit in front of him and touch his guitar. I stood in front of the stereo and touched the speakers. In retrospect, I suppose I was trying to “hear” the music.
From a very young age I loved to sing, and am fortunate that my tiny body held this very big voice. That gift and love went with me into high school. I played the clarinet and percussion and sang in the choir. I won several talent competitions, and my love for performance just grew.
I knew I’d go to college and major in music as a vocalist. I knew I wanted to share my love for music and teach others. But college was a very difficult and stressful time. There was a course called “Sight Singing and Ear Training” required to complete my Bachelor’s in music. With my undiagnosed hearing loss, I struggled. Professors kept trying to teach me but with my hearing compromised, none of us realized how big a challenge it would be.
I did get to teach music to every level, in my home studio as well as with a music school. But eventually, I wasn’t able to hear my vocal students well enough to give them what they needed to succeed. My piano students were easier because I could see the keys. Still, I can’t hear the highest frequencies, and now I’m losing the lower pitches as well.
I want young musicians to be given the very best tools to grow and learn, and enjoy a lifetime of giving that gift back to the world. A music teacher who is not able to hear well enough to instruct and correct her students is doing her students a disservice. So that chapter of my life finished.
My love for music and performance is still as strong as it’s ever been. I have hearing aids with a setting that lets me still be able to enjoy music. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
My hearing loss journey has brought me to the cochlear implant. I’m a candidate in the preliminary stages of that process. Although my ears meet the criteria to qualify for the implant, my insurance hasn’t agreed to cover the cost for now. My hearing has to decline a bit more to be covered, and the out-of-pocket cost financially outweighs the benefit for now. Fortunately, my hearing aids are also technologically advanced and I have been doing well with them, and the masking program they have diminishes my tinnitus.
Living with tinnitus and hearing loss can be overwhelming and difficult, but I’m not as afraid of living this way as I used to be. Everyone has a thing. This is just mine. I like to say I don’t live with hearing loss — it lives with me.
My life isn’t defined or consumed by my ears, although it’s felt that way at times. I’m constantly learning and growing. I lead a full and busy life. I’m a voiceover artist and use my studio to record voices for audiobooks, commercials, and corporate videos. It’s unique, fun, and fulfilling work. My speech hasn’t been affected much yet, so my hearing loss hasn’t been a factor.
Voiceover acting is my side hustle. Being a mom is my full-time hustle. All of my boys (now ages 20, 16, and 14) are percussionists — we like to jam together, with me on the banjo or guitar. But I can tell you with three drummers in the house, having a hearing loss isn’t necessarily a negative all the time!
This story originally appeared on Hearing Health Foundation.
Getty image by Seb Ra.