Teaching Music to Students with Hearing Loss
By Nancy M. Williams
In the early years of my adult piano lessons, whenever I played forte chords in my piano teacher’s soundproofed practice room, my hearing aids squealed with feedback. I cringed. I was afraid that if my teacher discovered I had a hearing loss, he would decide I was hopeless as a pianist. So I tried to hide my condition, from my teacher and, at some level, even from myself.
Six years later, I debuted in a master class recital in Carnegie Hall wearing my hearing aids. That appearance precipitated my career as a national speaker and pianist. When I deliver my workshop on claiming passion despite hearing loss, I frequently perform my classical repertoire on the piano.
How did I make what may seem to be a chasmic transition? Through practice, practice, practice, of course, but also through a personal quest to understand the process of hearing and the impact of hearing loss.
I have distilled my experience into five key steps for music teachers guiding students of any age with hearing loss.
The first step for a teacher is to recognize the societal stigma against hearing loss, a stigma seemingly invisible yet powerful. Assure your student that her hearing loss does not define her.
Step 1: Appreciate the stigma.
When I finally confessed to my first adult piano teacher that I wore hearing aids, he said, “I noticed. But it doesn’t seem to affect your playing.” He told me that he found my playing very musical. To me, his opinion felt like a blessing.
Many people with hearing loss will try to hide their condition, because they are afraid it will keep them from pursuing their desires. The first step for a teacher is to recognize the societal stigma against hearing loss, a stigma seemingly invisible yet powerful. Assure your student that her hearing loss does not define her. Praise her for her strong points on the piano, such as her musicality or her technique.
Step 2: Understand the profile of your student’s loss.
Hearing losses come in all shapes and sizes. The severity of a hearing loss can vary from so-called “mild,” more than 25 decibels—which is really not mild but a significant quieting of the world—through moderate to severe to profound, at greater than 90 decibels. A music student with a severe loss will face more challenges than one with a mild loss.
Inquire about the profile of your student’s loss: is the loss more pronounced in the low or high frequencies, or flat across the board? Does your student treat the loss with hearing aids? Recognize that the default setting on hearing aids are maximized for conversation. Music students ought to take advantage of a “music setting” on their hearing aids so that tones outside of conversational range are not compressed. As an additional step, I recommend students work with their audiologists to dampen the volume of the music setting, which manufacturers usually configure for listening to rather than playing music.
My audiologist has created three customized versions of the manufacturer’s music setting, reducing it by 3, 6, and 8 decibels. I find that I use the music setting minus 8 decibels the most, because it removes a pinging quality from the music.
Step 3: Map the loss to the student’s musical instrument.
For years, I thought that my loss was severe in the top two octaves of the piano. But as it turns out, the piano only goes to 4,000 hertz, a region where my loss is still moderate. Those notes in the top two octaves sound clipped to me because I’m not hearing their high-pitched overtones. Comprehending my situation has helped me to imagine these notes’ full sound.
An understanding of how your student’s loss relates to the span of his musical instrument can be illuminating. Ask your student to bring his audiogram to the lesson. Together you can compare his loss to the frequencies on his instrument. Pianists may use this handy chart designed by the deaf composer and pianist Jay Alan Zimmerman.
Step 4: Select appropriate repertoire.
With your student’s loss properly mapped, you are now able to assign repertoire with your student’s hearing challenges in mind. For example, if she has a low-frequency loss, she may struggle with Beethoven’s throaty chords deep in the bass. Or if she has a high-frequency loss, she may wrestle with the shimmering chords that float through the high octaves in the closing to Debussy’s Claire de Lune. Even if your student still decides to study a selection that challenges her, you will understand ahead of time where the difficulties may lie.
Step 5: Create practice strategies.
For passages of music squarely in the region of your student’s hearing loss, I recommend practicing them in a different octave on his instrument. For example, I recently performed Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 3 from Opus 128. The high-pitched 32nd notes cascading down the keyboard were difficult for me to absorb stripped of their overtones.
So I practiced the entire sequence in a lower octave, singing the melody out loud and also consciously ringing the notes in my mind. Ultimately, I memorized the melody so I could sing it away from the piano. After I performed the music, I felt gratified when audience members told me that my music had put them in a trance.
Many musicians with hearing loss have told me they would have quit if not for their teachers’ steady belief and buttressing encouragement. I hope that the approach I’ve outlined will help you and your student flourish.
About the author
Nancy M. Williams is a speaker, writer, pianist, and hearing health advocate. She is also the founding editor of the online magazine, Grand Piano Passion™. She has spoken throughout North America on claiming one’s passion. To learn more about her speaking engagements, visit her at nancymwilliams.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NWilliamsPiano and @GrandPianoP and use the hashtag, #MyGrandPassion. On Facebook, you can follow Nancy Williams here, and Grand Piano Passion here.