Nancy M. Williams: The moment I told the truth about my hearing loss… in front of a packed audience at a piano recital

Posted on October 2, 2014

When I went back to the piano in my early forties, I decided not to mention my hearing loss to my teacher, Stephen.

My hearing aids were the kind that audiologists refer to as half shells, the shape of two tiny apples protruding from my ears.

I hoped Stephen wouldn’t notice my aids—after all, they were flesh-colored—even on days when I wore my long hair pulled back.

_451 Version 2During one lesson, after I struck some booming, forte chords, my aids whistled in the soundproofed practice room. I cringed.

What kind of serious piano student would have to contend with colicky hearing aids?

Stephen, who had acute hearing, no doubt detected the squeaking. Part of me worried that if I admitted my hearing loss, Stephen would conclude that I was slow, out of touch, thickheaded, unlikely to realize my goal of reclaiming the piano.

Another part of me, the wise part, knew I had internalized stereotypes against hearing loss. I took a deep breath. “I should tell you I wear hearing aids.”

“I noticed. Can you hear all the notes on the piano?”

“With my hearing aids, yes. Except these high notes…” I ran my fingers down the top octave.

Stephen nodded with a thoughtful encouragement. “It doesn’t seem to affect your playing. You’re very musical.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 13.35.59His response felt like a blessing. Yet over the next few years, while I studied Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann piano works with Stephen, the stigma against hearing loss continued to mildew within.

Eventually, my self-denial would catch up with me on the piano.

Four years into my adult piano lessons, I invested in a new pair of hearing aids. While my previous aids had been shaped like small protruding apples, the new ones were miniature pears, delicate, and so petite that only their flat bottoms could be glimpsed in my outer ear canals.

On the exterior of each shell were tiny buttons, which I pressed to access different settings, one beep inside my ear for everyday conversation, two for talking on the phone, and most miraculously, three beeps for playing the piano.

Yet at my weekly piano lesson, I usually forgot to switch to the music setting. Several bars into my piece, the aids’ tiny microchips, still programmed to the main setting and therefore fixated on amplifying conversation, would decide that the piano sounds ought to remain in the background.

Inside my ears, the music would assume a flat, muffled character.

Occasionally I felt perplexed as to why I could not remember to activate the music setting.

I had received my first hearing aid in seventh grade. That aid had been banana-shaped, a behind-the-ear model, connected to an ear mold with clear plastic tubing, which I often pressed down, hoping to make less obtrusive. Given my experience wearing hearing aids, my forgetfulness about the music setting seemed odd, even flighty.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 13.35.28In the spring, Stephen held a recital for his students at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community. Stephen had coached me beforehand on the cardinal rule of performance: in the event of a mistake, hobble through a few wrong notes, jump ahead to a new section, or even repeat a passage, but do not stop.

My turn to perform came at the end of the program. A hundred people—the usual recital gaggle of parents and relatives, including my husband and two children, along with residents of the retirement community—sat in rows of folding chairs that stretched to the hall’s rear doors.

I launched into Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” The opening melody was ruminative, almost rapt. A few measures in, the music lost its shimmering quality, the tones becoming dull and smothered.

Perhaps the harsh, dry winter had done in the piano. Or could it be that during the last couple of days my hearing had worsened?

When my pinky reached for a low A-flat in the bass but twanged the wrong note, I knew with a sickening clarity that I had forgotten to toggle my aids to the music setting.

A panicky adrenaline buzzed within me. I could not fake my way through five minutes of the Prelude without hearing the piano’s full richness of sound.

Yet if I were to stop, tap my aids’ buttons, and begin the music anew, I would break the cardinal rule of performance. Even worse, people in the audience would know that I wore hearing aids.

I ploughed through the next measure, where the Prelude’s opening melody assumed a tender variation.

People in the audience would know that I wore hearing aids. Inside of the dulcet music, with one hundred people focused on me, I had to admit to myself that I continually forgot to switch to the music setting because I wanted to pretend that my aids did not exist and that my hearing was ‘normal.’

I had allowed stereotypes of people with hearing loss—slow, out of touch, thickheaded—and the stigma against hearing aids to rot within. I was ashamed of my loss.

I stopped playing. I pressed the buttons on my hearing aids, heard the three perky tones signifying the music setting, and sighed with relief.

I stood up from the bench. As I walked towards the microphone, I felt both self-conscious and brazen at the same time.

Several people in the audience looked stricken, as though personally experiencing my mortifying moment. Yet for me the humiliation already had happened, during all of the years I tried to hide an undeniable part of myself.

“I wear hearing aids,” I said into the microphone. “And I forgot to turn on the music setting. I’m going to try again.”

The audience clapped, a few people stomping their feet, in encouragement.

I sat down at the piano, inhaled a slow, deep breath, and sang the first bar in my mind, as though I were beginning the “Raindrop Prelude” for the first time.

When I touched my fingers to the keys, sound floated around me, resonant, textured, and fully heard.

Nancy M. Williams is a motivational speaker on “Claiming Your Passion…Despite a Hearing Loss.” Also an award-winning writer, she is the Founding Editor of the online magazine Grand Piano Passion™ and the recipient of the 2009 Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction. In 2012, she debuted at Carnegie Hall in a master-class piano recital. A hearing health advocate, she is a Board Member of the Hearing Health Foundation.

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