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The Hard Of Hearing Musician – One Woman’s Journey: Part One

October 2011 4 Comments
Wendy Chang, the subject of this article

Wendy Chang, the subject of this article

Interview conducted by Willa Horowitz, Au.D. on Tues. Feb. 1, 2011

I wanted learn how a fiddler/violin player who has been diagnosed as having some hearing impairment as a result of playing his/her instrument dealt with the disability.  My search turned up the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL) and I approached its founder, Wendy Cheng because, as an audiologist, I was intrigued by the determination of someone with such a significant hearing loss to play music. 

Wendy Cheng started piano at 7, violin at age 19, and viola in her mid-thirties. She has lived with her hearing problems since childhood and founded the AAMHL in 2001.   She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters.

Wendy started AAMHL because she felt there were very few resources for adult musicians with hearing loss who wanted to continue to play music.  AAMHL holds occasional web chats featuring guest speakers who have something to share regarding music and hearing loss. The Association now has a collaboration site and has published a book entitled: Making Music with a Hearing Loss: Strategies and Stories edited by Cherisse Miller DMA . The book can be purchased at:


Wendy Cheng (C): Hi Willa!  Wendy here

Willa Horowitz (H): Happy to meet you.

C: Just wondering about your interest in music and hearing loss

H: I took fiddle lessons for about 9 years.  

C: Aah! that explains it

H: I’m an audiologist and I learned to play by ear

C: I’ve played a little fiddle music: So what questions do you have for me?

H: Well, I’d like to start with your history, the type of hearing loss you have, when you were diagnosed . . .

C: I was born with normal hearing . . . I came down with a high fever when I was two and my mom took me to the doctor. The doctor gave me an ototoxic medication but he shouldn’t have . . . We didn’t know that ototoxicity runs in my father’s side of the family
I emigrated to the US from Taiwan when I turned seven and my hearing loss was diagnosed when I was nine during a school screening. (My) right ear had a profound hearing loss and left ear a moderate flat loss, no sloping loss.  ["Flat" indicates a, more or less, even amount of loss, across all hearing frequencies.  "Sloping" indicates a loss that shows gradual or steep decline across frequencies- W.H.]
I have a sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. So first loss in right ear happened as a child and second loss in left ear happened when I was about 35 or 36.  The second loss took the remainder of the hearing in my left ear and I received a cochlear implant six-seven months later
That’s my audiological history in a nutshell

H: The medication was an antibiotic?

C: I think it belongs to the class of antibiotics known as aminoglycosides – the mycins family like kanamycin

H: Yes.  Most are highly ototoxic

C: I now have two CIs (cochlear implants). My first implant was on the right ear which had not heard sound for a long time

H: There was a sensitivity to such meds on your father’s side of the family?

C: Yes . . . because my cousin on my father’s side is profoundly deaf. This doctor was my uncle and they didn’t have genetic testing back then and my uncle gave the same antibiotic to his own son because son was sick.
This happens a lot in China and Taiwan . . . becoming deaf via ototoxicity.

H: Antibiotics are often available over the counter in Asia

C: Yes, unfortunately.

H: How was your hearing loss treated before the cochlear implant?

C: They gave me prednisone but it did not bring the hearing back. I was on my way to a string quartet workshop when I lost it the second time. 

H: Do you know what caused the additional hearing loss?

C: The additional hearing loss was probably due to a viral infection.

H: Another common cause of sensorineural hearing loss.

Did you wear hearing aids at any point between the first hearing loss and the onset of the additional hearing loss?

C: Oh yes. I had Phonic Behind-the-Ear’s in my left ear for a long time.  I wore them throughout childhood and college. I think the loss in the left ear was mild to moderate at first and progressed to severe by the time I was in college but hearing aid technology kept up with the loss so I heard really well with the left ear.

H: Before I ask about music and playing the violin, you were young enough to still be acquiring language.  Were you delayed in acquiring your native language?

C: No. From the age of 2-9, no one really noticed my hearing loss. Sometimes I didn’t seem to pay attention, but the loss in the left ear was so mild it did not prevent me from learning Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese.
My mom thought my not paying attention was part of normal childhood. My mom was more worried about the fact I was a late walker

H: Chinese languages are based on a tonal system.  I’m amazed that you could acquire language with some hearing loss.

C: It DID affect my ability to learn English:  I think the loss in the left ear might have started deteriorating very slowly beginning at age 7. Remember, my loss is a flat one; same across all frequencies.

H: A flat loss would be somewhat of an advantage

C: Sometimes I have problems with the tones in Mandarin Chinese, but not much.
I participated in a research study at UC-Irvine a few years ago with my first cochlear implant. They gave me both English AND Chinese audiometry. (gasp!)  I had problems with some of the tones and some of the consonants.

C: I still don’t know how badly I did on the Mandarin audiometry. I had speech therapy in second and third grade.
My American husband likes to joke I pronounce every English syllable the way I read them and sometimes the stress is on the wrong syllable which it makes it funny at times.

H: What made you decide that you wanted to play music?  And when?

C: Mom loved piano.  She insisted all three girls in our family study classical piano. It wasn’t as if I had a choice. Anyway, Mom taught me some piano and I took lessons from Emmanuel’s Ax’s mother-in- law when I was in junior high school.  But I know by the time I started in high school I was only taking piano because Mom wanted me to and I went looking for an instrument to call my own.
Somehow I fell in love with bowed string instruments. My mom was horrified that I quit piano when I turned 16. Normally, I’m a nice girl, but by then I was tired of piano. I wanted to take violin lessons but all I heard from Mom was it was too difficult an instrument for me so I really didn’t start violin lessons until I was a college sophomore.

H: Because of your hearing loss?  Or for another reason?

C: Yes, Mom was concerned I couldn’t tune the violin by myself. Everywhere I heard was that intonation requirements were SO much higher for orchestral instruments. She didn’t want me to experience failure.

H: She’s a good mom.

C: I know, but I was just tired of piano then.
My first semester on violin was quite an experience as it turned out. I borrowed my sister’s violin and it turned out to be a very resonant violin. Resonance to me means that octaves of the open string ring so at least for those notes I could tell when I was playing in tune and I learned about whole steps and half steps. So I learned to play my fingers properly for the whole steps, had to develop spatial memory for how the far apart the whole steps are in each position.

H: That takes a great deal of dedication and concentration.

C: Yes, and sometimes I cheat a little and put black duct tapes in the higher positions on my viola. I switched from violin to viola because I discovered I couldn’t discriminate the violin notes on the E string if I tried playing the highest notes in third position.
The American String Teacher’s Association has something called the Certificate Program for Strings which are a series of graded exams for each level of mastery and I thought it would be nicer if I could play up to fifth position instead of third position.  I suppose I could try doing it on the lower three strings, but I thought it would be nice to do it on all four strings.
So that is why I switched to viola.  Plus there’s always a demand for good violists. I’m terribly ambitious and some people think I’m crazy.

H: How long did you play the violin before you made the switch?

C: About 5-6 years.

H: Indeed you are ambitious

C: Here’s a YouTube link of me playing

You can determine how out of tune it is.
I use my vision a lot. I sometimes think I shouldn’t rely on the vision so much and depend more on touch.

H:  Were there initial difficulties in starting to play viola? 

C:  Well, yes. I wasn’t used to hearing the low notes on the C string, and sometimes the D on the C string in first position isn’t very resonant.

Right now I play using Etymotic’s Companion Mic system to bring out the resonance so that helps.


H:  Do you read music?

C:  Yes, I had to learn the viola clef too. Because I have the piano background, I can read treble bass and alto clef. That said, I have tried playing simple melodies by ear
My daughter (I have two girls) plays cello in a youth symphony and last semester they did a nice piece which I liked.  It started simply with quarter notes, so occasionally I’ve tried playing the melody myself without sheet music

H:  How’s that going?

C:  Pretty well.  Eileen (my cellist daughter) heard me play it and tried to help me along by writing out the letter names, however, since getting both implants, I’m not confident about my ability to play by ear or to take melodic dictation. That is a challenge I have to figure out how to resolve.  I think I have what’s called “cochlear amusia/pitch distortion”. It’s mild but causes enough havoc so that my attempts at playing by ear means I’m going to be one whole step off.

H:  Do you know of any other musician who has a bilateral cochlear implant? 

C:  I think AAMHL has some. I’m not sure if there are any fiddlers who are bilateral, but I can ask around.

H:  You may be correct.  I’m still reviewing the list on AAMHL 

C:  I do know there is at least one violinist who has 2 CIs, but poor health (similar to mild muscular dystrophy?) is forcing her not to play any more.

H:  What a shame

C:  So I try to rejoice that I can still play although not always in tune but I keep trying

H:  You go girl!!

C:  My other daughter has my resonant violin.

H:  Also an audiologist on LinkedIn mentioned it just after I registered.

H:  What does her playing sound like to you?

C:  I don’t like her own violin.  She has her good violin at home, and my violin at school (so as not to have to carry the instrument around). Her violin isn’t as resonant as mine but it has a sweet, softer sound that she likes.
Both my girls have normal hearing, I should say excellent hearing. They tend to learn pieces by ear.
My CI has three programs, one for speech, one for music listening and playing, and the third one is 50% telecoil and 50% mic:

H:  Were your hearing aids also programmable?

C:  No, they were analog.

H:  What do you do for work now?

C:  I work as a systems librarian for the federal government. It is a fancy term for a computer specialist who works in a library environment. My masters degree is in library science with a focus on library automation however I’ve thought about becoming audiologist too. It’s just that I’m not a science-y person. I don’t do well in physics and hearing science. I’m secretly hoping one of my daughter becomes an audiologist

H:  This is the first time I can say that there is a real future in audiology.   I already specialize in geriatrics and adults and want to work with musicians.

C:  Yes, with the baby boomers retiring, you’ll probably see an explosion in patient referrals. Sometimes I wish we have something like the Musicians’ Clinic of Canada.  Marshall Chasin runs the auditory division for the Musician’s Clinic in Toronto.

{View the Musicians’ Clinic of Canada website here:  http://wwmusiciansclinics.com/home.asp}


End of Part One

Keep a look out for the next installment of this interview.

about the author

Dr. Willa Horowitz is an audiologist in the New Haven, CT area who owns Acuity Hearing Solutions LLC.  She has worked extensively with mature adults and individuals working in noisy environments.  She is looking to use her expertise currently with musicians and broaden her repertoire of diagnostic and rehabilitative procedures as they relate to noise induced hearing loss, noise abatement, ototoxicity and tinnitus treatment.  Dr. Horowitz serves on the board of directors of AAMHL, teaches and leads international folk dance and is currently president of the Branford Folk Music Society in Branford, CT.

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  • Dorothy Grimm said:

    How very interesting! A real peek into a world I’ve not been acquainted with. Happy to know about the research and solutions.

  • Steve Azzaro said:

    Fascinating. We are surrounded with noise levels that are increasing at a constant rate. Long term effects certainly will be harmful. I did not realize that some antibiotics could actually damage hearing. It is good information to know.

  • Alf Bashore said:

    Great interview.

    I am HOH (hard of hearing) knowingly since age 8. Cause unknown. Docs always said it was congenital, however, and retrospectively I believe it was viral.

    I’ve been playing music since age 9. Am retired now and wear two HA (hearing aids) that are digital, but I prefer the analog type. Though I thought hard on it many, many times thru my long life, I never pursued a musical career.

    I do teach several people on a few different instruments. Mountain Dulcimer, Mandolin, Ukulele. Speech is difficult for me to understand. And when I play in public, I really need to hear myself. Currently am thinking of getting a wireless personal monitor.

    I play in jams and find that I really must be choosy on which instrument I sit near. No LOUD players. Exceptional players will play with dynamics and feeling no matter what their instrument. If I cannot hear myself, I won’t play. Or I will watch the guitar player’s chording hand and change chords accordingly.

    I am surprised to find that there is an organization for for HOH musicians. Believe me, I’m checking that out.

    Thanks. Now to read part two.

  • Rose winslet said:

    There’s a lot of good sense in this, but as some people are board member of Hands and Voices, I was surprised that there is not one mention of the advantages of using sign language, whether ASL in the USA, or any other sign language.
    Reference: http://www.hiddenhearing.ie/
    Nice post!! :)