Overcoming Hearing Loss to Make Music Again

On Oct. 25, 2015, I did something I hadn’t done for more than 34 years. I performed my music in front of a live audience.

I had a successful music career in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it ended when, by 1982, I had lost my hearing. This year, however, I made the decision to return to the recording studio and follow my musical passions again.

Here’s my account of the event:

THE GOAL: Test three decades of waiting, years of brain research and hearing aid advances, two years of ear training and vocal work, and countless audiologist visits. I was ready to test my muscle memory, new and older compositions, musical talents and confidence. I wanted to achieve my unbridled passion to play and sing in a public venue again.

THE EVENT: A “house concert,” hosted by friends at their home, with 30 people in attendance. It would be supported by sales of my CD’s and other merchandise.

THE CHALLENGES: My bi-lateral sensorineural hearing loss. I have hearing in one ear with a hearing aid,  and tinnitus in both ears at a steady A or B flat, (with accompanying hissing, trains, whistles and assorted out-of-the-blue sounds.) All that as well as poor room acoustics, humidity, musical instrument sounds, and my voice with no amplification.

THE EQUIPMENT: My Phonak Audeo V hearing aids with noise reduction and music programs, a Yamaha P115-88 key digital piano, two harmonicas and a pitch pipe.

THE PERFORMANCE: Songs from my 1973 album, older material recorded but never released, new unrecorded material, and national advertising jingles composed during the ‘70s, including a popular parade theme for Disney from 1978.  I also planned to include some humor and storytelling about my musical past, and my musical journey since losing my hearing in 1981. Juggling and plate spinning not included.

stu2
photo credit: Thomas Marshall

THE RESULTS: A musical and entertaining display, but an imperfect vocal performance. It was a challenging effort to say the least, with very mixed results. I found difficulty in negotiating multiple sounds at once, as well as intermittent and longer gaps in vocal pitch.

ANOTHER ATTEMPT: A second house concert was held Nov. 7, with the same set up as the first, which produced similar results.

PERSONAL ASSESSMENT: With past successes, it was difficult to be exposed in that manner, but this is clearly a work in progress. Voice is strong, piano playing is entertaining, segments of the performance work well. A step forward and a friendly and appropriate testing ground to identify remaining pitch issues.

STRATEGY FORWARD: Keep going. I’ll do another performance this month in Stockbridge, MA, where my music career began in 1971. These concerts are giving me the information and guidance I need to move forward. I’ll reshape the show to stress what is working, and spend time with my team to address pitch, sound and tech issues. These people include my Hearing Rehabilitation team, audiologist, vocal coach, audiologist and technician.

In the end, it wasn’t perfect, which is why I’ll make other adjustments as well, such as:

  • Experiment with different music programs on my hearing aid.
  • Rehearse with the ear monitors from a hearing research and development company in Chicago, dedicated to assisting musicians to protect their hearing.
    • I have noticed that more musicians now wear ear monitors while performing rather than rely on external speakers that burn out hair cells.
    • I’ve worked with the company and doctors to develop a set of ear monitors with a mixing board that I could use on stage and in the studio.
    • In my good ear is an analog (not digital) hearing aid and a microphone. In the non-hearing left ear is a microphone that allows me to pick up sound on the left side and wirelessly transmits it to the good ear.
    • A short test in the studio and during live performances has shown that I can hear the feed from my instrument and voice at the same time. While more refinements are needed, I’ve found this to be a very positive development.
  • Employ a small amplifier and a microphone to put my voice and piano together into the monitors.
  • If performing with the aid alone, employ a CROS II microphone for my left ear to gain the lower end of the keyboard (musical spectrum) where much of the damage to my hearing occurred.
  • Rehearse with all equipment and make adjustments as needed.
  • Focus on correct breathing while singing, and sing along with recorded music for pitch.
  • Tape all rehearsals to hear, then close gaps between voice and piano.
  • Repeat.

CODA: Whatever I was able to do in taking these first steps could not have been done just six months ago. My progress is clear to me and my team and I trust it will be to my audiences again.

Inspiration and Encouragement: I had two wonderful audiences who were enthusiastic and respectful of my efforts and continuing journey.

Inspiration and encouragement are also coming from many others, besides my audiences. I also participate in the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss – a wonderful forum for musicians that elevates the conversation about musicians and hearing loss to an exceptional level. The number of people with hearing loss and even deafness continuing their musical journeys is simply amazing.

Though difficult to confirm, Ludwig von Beethoven has been quoted as saying “To play (sing?) a wrong note is insignificant – but to play without passion is unforgivable.” If anyone understod this, it might as well have been Beethoven.

Right now I’m killin’ my audiences with passion. Soon, I hope to be killing them softly with my song, too.

Onward!

Are you a musician performing again – or hoping to – after a hearing loss? Please share your experiences with me. Thanks.


stu_profileStu 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.”


 

 

7 thoughts on “Overcoming Hearing Loss to Make Music Again”

  1. Stu is an amazing and inspiring man…for everyone…anyone..who has a dream…that’s facing a steep, vertical and rocky climb. A dream that encounters unforseen setbacks….huge challenges….loneliness…and even doubtfulness. But a dream so real…so passionate…so soulful…it cannot be abandoned. And praise God Stu is not only an extremely talented musician and songwriter…but has the spirit and character to achieve his dream. And the rest of us have the honor and privilege to listen to the results of his gifts and determination..and dream..and be greatly inspired by his journey to hold fast to our own dreams.

  2. I thank you very much for this. Any musician with a hearing loss depends to no small degree im positive feedback however small the steps may be forward. Your words give me reason to continue. Much appreciated.

  3. Hi, Stu. I wanted to thank you for writing this. I am a 35-year old Graduate Music Therapy student in NJ. Born in 1980, I was a 2lb 2oz premie, which resulted in my legal blindness and (progressive) sensorineural hearing loss. When I was a kid, I hated my hearing aids. My glasses and crossed eye were bad enough. As I went into high school, I discovered guitar and writing (poetry), and went to University as an English Major (BA). Then, with that, I also got a BS in Music Therapy, all the while hiding my hearing loss while studying music and expanding to extended-range guitars, and percussion/hand-drums. I used to love playing coffeehouses on campus and off, and a few small gigs here and there with friends. As my hearing dropped and my sight changed, I became a living-room musician, save having to play in my classes or with an occasional student or client. It’s been a couple years since I’ve had any steady music work. I miss playing out in coffeehouses. I miss my old confidence and youthful passion. I miss jamming with people. I was tested and told by my Ear Training teacher and head of the music dept, back in Uni, that I had “perfect pitch”, even if it took me a few seconds. I feel like my hearing loss has distorted that ability to a degree. Listening and identifying music can also be a process. Nothing is as it was once, and I sometimes wish it was. Much respect to you, sir, for putting yourself out there, learning, always growing, and for giving me a glimmer of inspiration and imagination. Thank you…

  4. Justin, hello and thank you for writing. I received your message on the way out the door to perform in my third work in progress concert in Stockbridge, MA where my music career as a singer songwriter began at the Red Lion, a wonderful old New England Inn. Your words stopped me in my tracks and I was taken back to those days when I had lost my dearest friend, music, and did not believe that I could ever find it again. You also reminded me that I am doing this for more than my own reasons. That people like you and me with music in our hearts and skills to match are challenged in simply trying to do what we love. I do hope that my getting up on stage again is the inspiration you mention.

    I am enjoying every moment – however imperfectly right now – singing my songs to wonderful response. The audiences get it! They are right there along with me and I have told them that all I could promise is that each song will have a beginning and an end and that whatever else happens in between is all “part of the act.” I’m the right person to stick his nose out there. My ego can take it, my self-effacing sense of humor is pronounced. With them on my side, the audiences are pushing me forward. I also know no embarrassment or shame expressing myself musically. Nor should you.

    I hear of your challenges and wish for you that whatever it takes you might get back to performing in whatever way you can… and keep singing!!! I have found that singing has been as an important pathway back to hearing and making music again as any other skill that I have and work with. Your letter touched me. Thank you. Please stay in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

  5. Stu: Brian Fitzgerald from the old days in North Adams here. I fondly remember our musical time back then and your keen sense of self-deprecating humor (l’ like to play a medley of my hit).

    I’ve been trying to reconnect for quite some time, but not being on social media limited my connections. Over the past decade I have developed similar hearing problems.

    Good to hear that you are getting back to music. Shoot me an email address and we can connect.

    Look forward to speaking.

    Brian

  6. Good to hear from you Brian – please read here for more information, have a specific question, send it along. Are you aware that I just performed again at the Red Lion Inn after 40 years? An Open Ears article will be published shortly about that. Best regards.

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