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

December 2011 One Comment


(continued from the October/November 2011 issue)

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

Wendy Cheng (C): How I hear/play music. Over the years I’ve discovered that I can tell when I’m playing in tune with my teacher if we are playing in unison.
Willa Horowitz (H): On the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL) website you have mentioned your pitch recognition training.  Can you describe that for me?
C:  I’ve experimented with various ear training software.  I realized two years ago that I’m hearing pitches either a whole step higher or lower than the actual pitch.  I might be hearing an E but it’s actually a D. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that when I play a melody in unison with my viola teacher, I can tell when I’m NOT in tune with him, but I don’t know how far off I am.  I can only fix it via trial and error.  Now contrast this with my daughters. They know immediately whether I’m playing a note too high or too low (more often than not it’s too high).
I’ve been told there something called the “internal ear” which has nothing to do with how well your physical ear can discriminate pitch but I don’t have time to explore that. I use a tuner when I’m learning new music and to develop spatial memory for where the pitches are. The other aspect of tone production is producing a nice tone.  Legato bow stroke is easy but now I’m learning something called martele. Do you know what that is?
H:  I don’t know what that is.
C:  The way my viola teacher explains it martele is a bow stroke where you squeeze the bow a bit at the beginning of the bow stroke before releasing that squeeze, so it sounds like an “attacking” note, very loud in the beginning. I’m just beginning double stops now on the viola.
 I’ve been told when playing short double stops, to add vibrato to the double stops. When the note is short, I’m not sure what the benefit of vibrating on a short double stop is.  I’m going to ask my teacher this question at my next lesson. Basically, I can’t hear the difference between having vibrato or not having vibrato when playing short notes.
H:  Can you hear vibrato with longer notes?
C:  Yes. It would be nice if someone could develop ear training software for hearing-impaired musicians.
H:  So there is ear training software available.  Do you know anyone who uses it successfully?
C:  Well, I think there is at least one music major on AAMHL who has a flat hearing loss and is able to use it successfully.  He just graduated from a university in Australia with a degree in cello performance.  And there is a hearing-impaired voice major who uses a hearing aid, who can probably share her experiences with you as well. What I want is to find an ear training software that tells me what the first note of the melody in the passage is.  I think I could probably figure out the rest from that information. I think I still have a good sense of relative pitch.  And it makes sense to be able to utilize that instead of trying to train my sense of absolute pitch to come back.

Sorry for ranting, but this is a topic of great interest to me.


I want to get a music degree some day (with a focus on adult music education) but I need to figure out a way to pass the aural training classes.
H:  You have lots of plans for the future.  I hope you can achieve all of it!
C:  I think the music degree is my top dream.  The audiology part can wait ;-)
H:  It would be useful to be both.
Tell me how you usually play – solo or in ensembles.
C:  Most of the time, solo, but I am getting together with a hard of hearing friend of mine who is learning piano and we are going to try to play Canon in D Major by Pachelbel this summer.
Right now, I’m raising two daughters so I don’t have time to join ensembles .I have played in ensembles in the past.
H:  Is it challenging?
C:  Here’s a story I wrote about the experience.  http://www.hearinglossweb.com/Issues/Identity/orch.htm
And here’s a story my previous viola teacher wrote several years ago about teaching me.   http://www.hearinglossweb.com/Issues/Access/cheng.htm
I think the biggest problem I have when playing in an ensemble is attitudinal barriers.
H:  Who gives you attitude?
C:  Well, I usually experience one of two reactions when people find out I’m a hearing-impaired violist. The first one is “Ooohh . . . I admire you so much for what you are doing”.  My old teacher raved about me and I got embarrassed. Basically, I’m more of a problem-solver.  For example – I think I have a problem with this piece, how do we solve it? I mean I have a problem playing this passage, how do I solve it? The second problem is I think school age students don’t really like being my stand partner.
H:  Sorry, I don’t know what a stand partner is.
C:   In orchestras, generally two people will share one music stand so the person who shares a music stand with you is your stand partner.

 At the festival orchestra, I sat in the last row of the viola section. The high school student who was my stand partner was not very helpful.  She tried to ignore me as much as possible. The general vibe I had from her was that I had no business playing in a group like the festival orchestra. Sometimes I think perhaps I might be better off playing in a smaller ensemble, like a string quartet.  I used to take string quartet lessons before my daughters were born. That was fun. This past summer, my two daughters and I tried to learn an arrangement of one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The arrangement was written for a string trio violin, viola and cello and I made my violinist daughter wear the Companion Mic transmitter. {Companion Mics are FM system Assistive Listening Devices that offer a major increase in the signal to noise ratio because of microphone positioning. – H}

  I still haven’t figured out the best place to hang the Companion Mic transmitter on the cello. Sometimes I just place the transmitter on the floor.  In any case, we had fun playing the Brandenburg trio together.
H:  You play classical music mainly?
C:  Yes, mainly.  Sometimes I think perhaps I should do more folk music or more fiddling.
The folk music might be easier for me.  It’s just I’ll have to look around for folk music and fiddling groups in my area.
H:  There are A parts and B parts and lots of repetition in the melodies and standard timings.
C:  Yes, exactly. That is certainly something to explore. Do you know if fiddle music has been written for viola?
H:  Go to Stacy Phillips website: www.stacyphillips.com and look thru the tune books he has written.  I think there is at least one for viola.

 I do want to ask you what the challenges are when listening to others play music, either live or recorded.
C:  Well, I think when there are more than two similar instruments playing, I have a bit of a problem trying to figure out the instrumentation. For example, let’s say I hear some chamber music.  I make out the violin and piano, but don’t always hear the cello simply because I don’t hear the cello very well with symphonic music, I can probably figure out which instrument is carrying the melody, but I can’t always determine which instrument is playing the bass line.
Sometimes the bass line is played more softly so that’s another challenge right there.


H :  What keeps you motivated to keep playing?
C:  Somewhere inside me is a desire to make up for lost time since I didn’t get to study violin/viola as a child plus I just have a passion for music. I’ve given up asking why the passion is there :-) I just try to work with it.  Sorry if that doesn’t answer your question.
H:  Yes it does.
C:  It’s like asking why the butterfly can fly.
H:  One more question before we sign off.  Which do you prefer, HOH (Hard of Hearing or Hearing Impaired?


C:  I think I prefer the term hard of hearing or a person with a hearing loss.
H:  Thank you so much for your time and for sharing so much information about yourself.
C:  You’re welcome.


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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One Comment »

  • Alf Bashore said:


    Wendy Chang is one adventurous and courageous person. Great dialog. Fantastic information.

    If Will Horowitz lived closer, I’d want to visit her audiologic center.

    Hard of Hearing is the preferable term to use.

    I retired early from my regular job partly because of being HOH.
    And Telephones, ugh, even with the telecoil, and I prefer to not use that, I have difficulty. I read lips and that is impossible with a phone. I don’t go to plays or movies because I have no idea of the dialog. But any musical concert I will love whether I understand the lyrics or not. I’m talking about hearing the lyrics, rather than understanding the meaning of the lyrics. At a concert where the performer speaks between numbers or sings, I like to be positioned where I can read her or his lips. Yeah, sometimes the mic hides the mouth.

    I’ve begun violin/fiddle lessons in January. I have an excellent young violin teacher who began playing when she was 3 (three). She told me she has been playing for 25 years. Katie is classically trained but plays and teaches Bluegrass and Celtic styles, too. And after a hiatus of 45 years, hope to resume Oboe. The Oboe instructor wants to learn mandolin, so we get to trade.

    Thanks for the fantastic two part interview.

    In Harmony,