Suddenly there is no place to hide. Everyone has been seated as is customary around the periphery of the classroom so that every person is in full view. Professor X is at the board, marker poised to stack four whole notes into a minor seventh chord on the pre-fabricated staff.
“Could someone please name the notes in the ‘ ? ’ minor seventh chord?”
This has been happening with terrifying regularity recently. Of course I know the theory. It’s the theory that more often than not is getting me through the course. Root, minor third, fifth, minor seventh… The source of the nauseating adrenaline rush that surges from the base of my stomach is the fear of not having heard correctly which minor seventh chord was asked for. I know it was an “ee” sound; was that “B minor seventh”, or “D minor seventh”?
All eyes are on me; there is no help in sight.
“David? Can you help us out here?”
The hesitation accelerates my heart. I can literally feel the blood rushing to my brain. Being wrong is no big deal. Being wrong can be rectified. The true terror stems from the struggle of being perceived as not knowing something; having not studied, when in fact the knowledge is firmly in place. The true terror stems from the humiliation in front of classmates that rudimentary knowledge would be perceived as being lacking when in fact it is a hearing problem that is interfering.
Heads or tails? D… it must have been D minor seventh.
“Yes, sorry; I’m still here. The notes would be D, F, A, C.”
Professor X lifts the marker away from the board and turns to meet my eyes. A quick gaze around the room confirms my fear. Several have crossed their arms; squirming. Everyone averts their eyes from my gaze.
“Is that your final answer?”
Nervous laughter releases some of the tension for the observers. My heart is pounding. I sense that Professor X sees my growing panic. In fact I have been suspicious for a number of weeks that with each test, he is inching closer to discovering my problem.
“Well you have successfully spelled out a minor seventh chord. Let’s try the one I asked for this time.”
At this point I know that he knows. Further, I know that he is offering a helping hand. Slowly, Professor X turns to the board and with patient deliberation writes a B in the root of the chord.
“I’m sorry, I thought you meant D minor seventh.”
“B, D, F#, A”.
Professor X fills in the remainder of the chord.
“David could you please see me after class?”
While the remainder of that class was agony, it stands out in my memory as a turning point in my life. When I met with Professor X after class he confirmed my suspicion that he knew about my hearing problem. He also, to my immense relief, told me that he understood that it was not musical knowledge that was posing problems for me in class. Professor X advised me to have my hearing tested.
Prior to having my hearing tested, I was aware of my hearing disability to a certain extent. As a child, my hearing had been tested at school and based upon the result of tests, it was deemed the best course that I rely upon my residual hearing to cope. Apparently during the 1970s, the pervading thought among audiologists was that children with hearing disabilities would fare better in the classroom if they relied upon a combination of residual hearing and visual cues. I knew that my hearing was less than perfect but this knowledge was vague and in no way prepared me for the news that I was about to receive.
From the moment I walked into the audiologist’s office I was petrified. During our brief consultation, I explained to the audiologist that although my hearing problem was not affecting my ability to function as a musician, I was having a difficult time distinguishing between some consonant sounds. I told her that this problem seemed to be acerbated by extraneous sound such as when many people were talking at the same time. The audiologist listened to my account quietly, writing on my file occasionally as I made my confession.
Eventually she looked up over her wire-rimmed glasses.
“Well, let’s find out what’s really happening.”
With that, I was invited into a sound proof chamber with two-way glass. Not surprisingly, the drill was familiar to me from tests taken years before as a school boy. The inquisitor closed the door behind me, and walked around to the other side of the two-way glass where she sat at an intimidating panel of knobs dials, buttons and switches. As I sat waiting, she busied herself at the control panel. My heart began to pace furiously. There was no escaping now. I was the lab rat. My condition was within seconds to be quantified.
“Right, I think we’re ready. Are you comfortable?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“You’re going to hear a variety of sounds; some in your left ear, some in your right. When you hear a particular sound in your right ear, I want you to raise your right hand, when you hear a sound in your left ear, I want you to raise your left hand. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” My pulse was racing.
The test began well. With each identified sound I began to gain confidence. I began to relax. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Many of the initial sounds were low frequency sounds which were very easy for me to identify. As the test progressed, the inquisitor began to expose my ears to high frequency sounds. Suddenly my confidence vanished. There were confusing seconds of silence followed by gradually emerging high pitched sounds which barely audibly became apparent to me. The manner in which these sounds emerged coupled with the increasing volume with which the subsequent sounds of similar timbre emerged made me begin to question whether or not I had heard the higher instances of the same sound. Frantic, I searched with eyes closed for the presence of the oncoming high-pitched barrage. Again and again the pattern repeated. The manner through which the sounds were presented increased my anxiety that I was missing content on the high ends.
The verdict confirmed my suspicions. Entering the consulting office, the inquisitor returned to her perch.
“Please have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”
Impossible. Sweating, I grasped on to the arms of the chair and lowered myself down. I braced myself for the worst.
“Well, … how did I do?”
“I’m afraid it’s not great news.”
“You have the hearing of a seventy-year old man!”
I closed my eyes. For a moment I thought I would pass out. Deep breaths, deep breaths…
“What do you mean?”
“Well your hearing is typical of older people who have suffered deterioration of their hearing.”
“Well during the test it became apparent that you are completely missing the high-end register of the spectrum of what you are hearing.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well it means that in the same way that I have to wear glasses occasionally, you’re going to need to begin wearing hearing aids. Unfortunately there is no other way of recapturing the high frequency.”
My mind was reeling trying to think of the endless social repercussions of wearing hearing aids to University music classes. The audiologist held my gaze. She seemed to know what I was thinking.
“You know amazing progress has been made with regards to hearing aids. Some designs are almost completely transparent. They are simply little amplifiers that are held above the ear canal by clear plastic frames much like the curved part of eyeglasses frames that extend behind the ear.”
A myriad of ears, mostly of elderly people on the bus, paraded before my mind’s eye, each sporting bulging contraptions.
“Of course this transparent design is quite new and therefore there is a cost involved.”
It’s difficult to fully describe in words the shock that I experienced the first time I heard the world through my new hearing aids. I remember looking up at the technician across the desk in his office.
“Oh my God! Is this really what an average person hears?”
I was dumbfounded. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the experience was like being reborn. Suddenly, I was capable of hearing an entire world of sound that I had been completely unaware of. It was beautiful. It was frightening. It was overwhelming. I could clearly hear the voices of people in the waiting room talking which, without the use of hearing aids, would have sounded like an indecipherable murmur. The sound of a paper clip placed on the technician’s desk; the outright noise of the rustling paper; the sound of the technician’s pen scratching upon his pad of paper all had a completely novel high frequency quality. Literally everything that moved had a high-end quality of sound that I had never heard before.
“It’s as close as we can get.”
The “s” of the word “it’s” suddenly pierced into my ears with a serpentine sharpness that I had never heard before. With split-second precision I could instantly recognize consonant sounds, which I had spent so many years using other visual and contextual cues to determine. I realized in horror at that moment what it meant to have spent all of my life to that point not having had the benefit of the full clarity of the spectrum of sound.
My own home became a foreign environment filled with strange new sounds. The sharp trickling of water was startling. The sound of members of my family walking anywhere in the home was completely transformed. Each footstep on the floorboards in our Victorian home creaked and groaned with a ferocity that made me fear that they would snap and give way. Sitting in my office upstairs, I could hear conversations clearly downstairs. Trucks and cars that drove past our house on the street outside were suddenly terrifyingly loud. Planes that flew over our house in their final descent to the airport roared to an extent that I though they were going to land on our rooftop. It took me a couple of days to recognize that the indecipherable gurgling groan that was underlying all that I heard was a combination of our furnace and the spin cycle of our washing machine. Johnny-Thom, our cat suddenly meowed with a volume and intensity that made me wonder whether a Lynx had entered our home from the backdoor. The clatter and chatter of birds everywhere was outright deafening! Underneath all of these new perceptions the sound of my own breath was enormous; counterpoint to the eerily amplified thumping of my own heartbeat.
The onslaught of new auditory experiences was both mind-altering and devastating. I quickly learned that I would have to take breaks from my hearing aids. The cacophony of new sounds was very simply too much for my mind to assimilate over extended periods of time. The more I experimented with perceiving the world wearing my hearing aids, the more I discovered the nature of the gap between what I could hear naturally and what people with “normal hearing range” hear. I began to realize that from a very young age, people with perfect hearing learn to filter–out extraneous sound. This was a skill which I would have to learn. I became mystified by my family members who, when asked “how can you stand all of the noise”, would respond, “What noise?” When I would elaborate the source of the sound; traffic, industrial hum, sirens, birds chattering, etc…, each responded in a similar fashion, explaining that they simply “blocked these sounds out”; in short, they explained that they were capable of hearing the tree through the forest of sound.
My immediate experience listening to the world through my hearing aids was one of bewilderment. My depth perception had been completely altered. I would hear snippets of conversation clearly which, prior to having hearing aids, I would presume were occuring a couple of feet away from me. Turning to the source of the voices, I would realize that the voices were coming from the other side of a room! On a daily basis I was encountering new sounds for which I did not know the source. Group gatherings were an auditory storm. Whereas before I had hearing aids I would often have difficulty hearing what people were saying to me over the murmur of other voices in the room, now there was a cascading waterfall of distinct voices that filled the room. Now there was too much sound. It became a puzzle to try to attach voices to faces. I was living in a perceptual no-man’s-land.
One of the most difficult aspects of this brave new world, was that I had to reconceptualize every sound that I knew. I learned, with abrupt clarity, that the world is not how I had known it. Or was it? I began to mistrust my auditory perception. I began to question it in a myriad of ways. In spite of the fact that my hearing aids opened my experience to the completeness of the full spectrum of sound, at the same time there was an artificial “separateness” that came intrinsic with the sensation of having plastic contraptions stuck in my ears that blocked my natural connection to the world. This, I learned, was not surprising considering the nature of human hearing. Human hearing is after all a complicated sense of touch. We don’t really hear sound; we touch it. Sound events distribute particles of our material world into sound waves which in turn set in motion a chain of events which transfer the impact of such disturbances through our outer ear, middle ear, and into the cochlea which stimulates the auditory nerve, sending information to the auditory cortex within the brain. The manner through which the auditory cortex converts such information into the human perception of sound remains to a large extent a mystery. Because the manner in which the auditory cortex produces the miracle of human sound perception remains a mystery, I began to mistrust the extent to which hearing aids truly replicate the natural perception of the full spectrum of sound. Although my hearing aids allowed me a welcome window into the experience of the full spectrum of sound, providing me with the precious gift of entry into the world of high-frequency sound stimuli, I remained fully aware that the experience was manufactured by man.
There is a comfort which comes from naturally connecting to the natural environment. Hearing aids interrupt that comfort. This comfort stems from the primordial need to be naturally connected to what is happening around us. Our very survival as a species has been perpetuated by the hunter’s ability to manipulate what information he/she has gleaned by remaining wide open to his/her surroundings. The security, self-preservation, commerce, semantics, ontology and socialization of man, has evolved or devolved from his/her innate ability to preserve a natural connection with the world. Wearing hearing aids makes it impossible to feel sound.
The intrusion and feeling of “separateness” that my hearing aids caused, coupled with the auditory sensory overload that they conveyed, made me prefer to trust my natural residual hearing when engaged in activities that were closest to my heart. As a musician, I found them an impediment. I continue to find them an impediment. My experimentation with making music wearing hearing aids, has caused me to completely re-examine what music means to me. It has confirmed to me that my inner conviction was quantifiable truth; that making meaningful music is really about being present and completely connected to everything around you more than any standard of objective auditory experience. In a truly visceral manner, I became grounded in the understanding that I do not need hearing aids to connect in a musical context. If anything, my hearing aids interfered with my ability to do so. Like the hunter, the musician needs to trust what he/she is hearing. Hearing aids interfere with that trust.
I know that this notion of hearing aids interfering with natural music-making is mystifying to people with perfect hearing. Perhaps people with perfect hearing are not as attuned to the intensity of the vibration of sound. For people with “hearing disabilities” sound vibration is a tangible reality. (It is not some New Age adjective to describe something vaguely spiritual and mysterious). It was a source of genuine comfort and relief to me when I discovered the work and writing of the classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Here, finally, was a widely respected musician who was giving eloquent voice to what I was experiencing. Ms. Glennie describes her experience of learning to master the timpani as an a voyage of discovering the way in which different sound registers resonate and render vibratory sensation to various parts of her body. It was a source of inspiration to me to read the words of a musician with a unique ability of hearing state with audacity that she does not and never has perceived herself as being someone who has a “disability”. On the contrary, Ms. Glennie simply worked hard at mastering her ability to use her unique residual hearing and her heightened attention to sound vibration to develop her skills as a musician.
My unique way of hearing has definitely informed my thinking about how music is taught and perceived. In the same way that the standard of perceiving the continuum of sound has been informed by the ability of tested individuals to perceive auditory stimuli within the context of a standardized conceptualization of what is determined to be the “normal range of hearing”, within many educational institutions, the determining rationalization of whether or not a person has the potential to flourish as a musician is measured through their ability to demonstrate virtuosity in their renderings of what the Musical establishment has by convention agreed upon as being great work. In both these instances membership is determined by a standard inflicted upon a particular population by a governing body which makes a diagnosis. Traditionally, the industry of music education has catered exclusively to the needs of those who have been given a positive diagnosis.
In short, I have come to believe that there is a world of opportunity for people with all manners of hearing the world to express themselves creatively musically. Although there are and always should be resources dedicated to the development of the talented, the gifted, and the virtuosic, in an ironic sense the influence of Postmodernism has returned the prospective place music can have in peoples’ lives back to where it began. Suddenly, with the incredible advances of technology that have occurred in the late twentieth century extending into the twenty-first century, people are making music to share within a host of micro-communities. Suddenly, making music to make meaning of life, to celebrate, and for the uplifting of the spirit has become economically feasible again. One does not have to have the support of lucrative studios to produce, market, and distribute music. Music-making has been placed back into the hands of everyman. With access to a laptop, anyone can record, market, and distribute original music to the world. Suddenly the mainstream music industry is being bombarded; consumers are becoming artists again. I see this as a positive change.
When I think back upon my own experience as a musician, I can with razor sharp precision, pinpoint when music became a vital life-giving link to my entire inner life. It began when as a young undergraduate student (studying language, rather than music) I started to make music with others who were open and willing to explore the potential of improvisation and composing. My formal music education to that point had been a complete disaster. Without naming names, my high school music teacher at a prominent high school in Ottawa was a model of how not to teach music. He had transplanted hair. If anyone in the class played a “wrong note”, he would walk over to the section in question, lean forward, and scream in their faces. It was his hair that saved us. While his face turned reddish-purple with his exertion, each of the little bundles of transplanted hair would twitch and dance in a most entertaining fashion. It was the doll-hair shuffle. This experience left me with a lingering motivation to play wrong notes!
I had not really begun to grow and express myself individually until I began to abandon the idea that perfectly reproducing the sounds that someone else had created was the total determining feature of my development as a musician. I began to experiment and create my own music. When, years later, I returned to the formal study of music, I learned that wrong notes depend upon context. The entirety of my motivation to learn the language of music was derived from wanting to make music of my own. I became enthralled with the practice of fusing my conceptions with their representation in music. The formal study of all of the elements of music opened doors of expression which I was completely incapable of perceiving before.
When I began teaching, I was shocked to find the same melodies being taught in technique books that I had learned as a child twenty years previously. I could see that there was a huge disconnection between the material that my students were listening to and becoming inspired by personally, and what was being offered as course material. I began to write my own arrangements of material children seemed drawn to. I discovered Dalcroze, Kodaly, and most importantly Orff. I began encouraging students to use what they had learned about the language of music to create their own music.
Over the span of my eighteen years teaching preschool, elementary, and high school students, I have consistently found that children become passionate about learning to express themselves articulately using the elements of music if given the opportunity of creating their own. This process is natural and symbiotic; motivation to become articulate originates directly from listening, experimenting with sound, and finally making a determined attempt to make oneself understood within the medium of music in precisely the same manner that infants acquire language. They require informed guidance; a mentor to listen to what they have created and to model more sophisticated modes and forms of expression. It is precisely this fusion of remaining open to experimentation and dedication to trying to represent new ideas using the elements of music that I continue encourage in my own students.
In spite of the fact that we are fortunate enough in Quebec to have composition as a required component of the elementary school curriculum, my sense is that very little composing is actually being done. In my own school, I have made composition a vital part of our program. I am very fortunate to enjoy the support of forward-thinking professionals who support our program; who support individual creativity. I refer all who question the premise of the inclusion of composition at such an early age to the inspiring work of R. Murray Schafer who, in Ear Cleaning, had the audacity to make the observation that it would be perceived as preposterous to conceive of visual arts programs in which children were not offered the opportunity of painting or drawing their own compositions; why not in music? It continues to be my experience that in spite of the fact that teaching children to compose is labour-intensive initially; the process reaps immeasureable rewards. Not only do my students become more passionate about the world of sound and their relationship to it, they become eager to learn to master the elements of music to represent their ideas. In my experience as an educator, this form of passionate motivation rarely arises when students are taught the elements of music through Traditional methods.
Most importantly, the inclusion of composition in the curriculum offers a unique forum for those students with “unique” abilities of hearing to offer innovative expression of their musical experience. It has been my experience that my “hearing-disabled” students invariably produce rich, highly original compositions. Their works derive their originality from the fact that these students work using what they can hear. Contrary to popular perception, there are very few people with “hearing disabilities” who hear absolutely nothing. There is an entire world of expression which can be rendered through experimentation with and manipulation of sounds that are rich in vibrotactile stimuli.
While Postmodernism has stimulated innovation which many see as posing a threat to the preservation of Western Art music as we know it, it has also facilitated a diverse expression of reality. It is my strong belief that by supporting the further development and inclusion of composition in music education programs at the preschool, elementary, and high school levels, music literacy and diverse expression, inclusive of voices once marginalized can be achieved. I am personally very excited about the fact that I live and teach in an era in which there are fewer and fewer restrictions place upon the freedom of all people to achieve their ultimate ability of creative expression musically regardless of their physical, psychological, or perceptual set.
The muse can never be silenced. It has a voice that transcends sound.
Glennie, Evelyn. Touch the Sound. New Video Group, Inc. (DVD), 2006.
_____. Hearing Essay. http://www.evelyn.co.uk. Last accessed 3 May, 2007.
Schafer, R. Murray. Ear Cleaning. Toronto: BMI Canada, 1967.