Growing up, Lipreading Mom loved to play the clarinet. For years, I practiced long and hard to be the best clarinetist in all the world…or at least at Pauline G. Hughes Junior High. I was no Benny Goodman, but I did make All-District band my sophomore year of high school. That’s not such a bad thing, considering I grew up with an undiagnosed hearing loss.
Nancy M. Williams can relate to my story. As an accomplished pianist, she knows what it is like to embrace a passion for music despite having hearing loss. With the use of digital hearing aids to help with hearing, Nancy displayed phenomenal musical ability when she performed piano at the world-famous Carnegie Hall. On her site, Grand Piano Passion™, Nancy devotes countless hours to showing people with hearing loss or deafness how to embrace the music world. Lipreading Mom is thrilled to interview Nancy M. Williams today as she shares ideas on how anyone—regardless of hearing ability—can enjoy music.
Were you exposed to a lot of music prior to developing hearing loss? What are your earliest memories of music?
Although I wasn’t diagnosed by an audiologist until age six, my parents suspect that I was essentially born with a hearing loss (and my loss is genetic). For much of my childhood, my hearing loss was confined to the high frequencies, and my hearing in the low to mid frequencies was normal. My mother enjoyed playing the piano, and one of my calmest, most centering memories from childhood is playing dolls with my sisters on the family room floor while my mother practiced Chopin preludes and waltzes. Then, when I was eleven, I enrolled in piano lessons, and I fell in love with the instrument.
In playing piano now, how would you describe the experience of hearing the music through “digital ears,” which is how I define listening through modern-day hearing aids or cochlear implants?
Digital ears is a great way to describe the experience. My loss is now classified as moderate, dipping into severe in the high frequencies. Unfortunately, digital hearing aids take our rich analog world of sound, shimmering with overtones, and flatten it. For the top two octaves of the piano, even when on the music setting, my aids compress the sound, giving it a crackling, jarring quality. Still, I’m very thankful for all that I can hear, and I think that’s an important part of my experience being a musician with hearing loss. I still can savor the music.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians in embracing a love of music if they have hearing loss?
Everybody has the right to make and enjoy music. If you have a love of music, then follow your passion. Wendy Cheng, the founder of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, recently wrote a guest article on Grand Piano Passion™. Wendy is a violist with cochlear implants in both ears. Most people claim that playing an instrument with cochlear implants is impossible, but Wendy performs in recital and attends viola camp. I agree with her that her experience in making music may be different than for a musician with normal hearing, yet Wendy’s relationship with music is still meaningful and a source of joy in her life.
What ways can musicians and music lovers protect their hearing from dangerous noise exposure?
I’m so glad you asked that question because I feel that noise protection is so important, for musicians, yes, but really for anyone with a hearing loss. I carry with me at all times a pair of Etymotic ear plugs, which are excellent at reducing the decibel level of music without destroying fidelity. I pop them in whenever I’m at a classical concert (I have a decibel app loaded on my iphone so I can tell when the noise level approaches that dangerous level of 90 decibels.) I also use my earplugs at other times: under the hair dryer at the salon, in the subway station, and on loud city streets.
Finally, when I practice the piano, I keep the top down unless I have a recital or public performance coming up. I also refrain from playing the forte chords at full force every time I practice.
Anything else you want to share?
A year ago, I joined the board of the Hearing Health Foundation, which is funding a biological cure for hearing loss. Once on the board, I was stunned to learn that only one in five people who need a hearing aid actually have one. There’s an affordability issue, true, but there’s also a tremendous stigma in our society against wearing hearing aids, and I think it’s related to a phenomenon that your wonderful campaign seeks to stop, hearing loss bullying. I designed Grand Piano Passion™ for all pianists and for any musician with a hearing loss. Mixing together these two groups helps give people with normal hearing more sensitivity to hearing loss, and I hope that our articles will encourage those musicians with a loss who need to seek treatment to see a good hearing doctor as soon as they can.
Nancy M. Williams is an award-winning writer and ardent amateur pianist. She performs despite a genetic hearing loss, and in 2012 she debuted in recital at Carnegie Hall. Follow her at Grand Piano Passion™.
Readers—Do You Enjoy Music with a Hearing Loss? Share Your Story with Lipreading Mom in the Comments.