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I Think Beethoven Encoded His Deafness in His Music

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I often wonder how Beethoven would react to modern hearing aids, given his great frustration with the ear trumpets of his time. Personally, I miss the old analogues of my childhood for their simplicity. Nowadays it is an effort not to roll my eyes as a technician provides me with the ubiquitous digital tools that, along with all sorts of dazzling bells and whistles, use the Bionic Lady standard of correction that is desired by people who became deaf late – namely high frequencies and spatial reorientation to support speech recognition. This is completely understandable, as losing the ability to communicate with loved ones is a terrible and discouraging experience.

Still, those of us born with hearing loss are often lip-reading advocates (like me) or use sign language. Regardless of whether we are musical or not, we want musicians with hearing loss (at any point in time) hearing aids that focus on sound beauty, unchanged pitch, unchanged wood and naturalness – restoring the right weight for medium and low frequencies as well as the Spatiality. We don’t want hearing aids that add overt craftsmanship to our sound world, like a supposedly “acoustic” album that has been reworked by a manic sound engineer.

With that in mind, I don’t think Beethoven would like how many modern digital hearing aids massage all kinds of processes into what the wearer hears. It helps to have an resourceful and empathetic technician, preferably with experience with performers and composers. A good fit is an art so that the music can easily breathe.

I usually start practicing on the piano without my hearing aids and enter a world of deep silence that I knew from my earliest years when I was not yet fit. At first I still hear the music in my head, but after a while I’m more aware of the choreography, how it feels like I’m dancing in my hands. By focusing on a physical experience that feels good and healthy, you can counteract bad habits that occur just by hearing the sound.

For example, when playing a large chord of say eight notes, the tendency is to highlight the lowest and highest notes – the bass and melody – to give them more audibility and meaning. Because of the structure of the hands, this means that the weakest little fingers produce the most important notes. To help the poor fingers, the hands might be tempted to bend, with the left hand pointing at the bass and the right hand pointing at the melody.

This is a very unnatural position for your hands, and in fact, it mimics the karate wrist-breaking locks taught in dojos that cause injuries. Imagine a series of these chords on the keyboard in such an unnatural position. But because you’re chasing a full-bodied sound from that eight-note chord and not paying attention to its physicality, you start doing dangerous things. With the ability to take the sound out of the equation, I focus on the feeling. I first solidify a good technique and know it. If I know, once I’ve put my hearing aids back in, I can hold on to it and then work on the sound.

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