Reconnecting with Music After Hearing Loss

Shih-wen (“Angela”) Chen working on her app, Shine. (Photo courtesy of Angela)

Through technology and medical expertise, those with hearing loss are finding new ways to reconnect with the music they love.

By Andrew Stiefel

Hearing loss usually comes on gradually, silently stealing the sounds we love and muting the world around us. And for music lovers — performers and listeners alike — it can be especially challenging.

But through today’s technology and medical expertise, people are finding new ways to reconnect with music they love despite experiencing hearing loss.

In recognition of Better Hearing and Speech Month, we spoke with two patients from the Listen for Life Center at Virginia Mason Medical Center.

Helping Singers Retrain Their Voices

Shih-wen (“Angela”) Chen has devoted her life to helping people with hearing loss discover ways to once again enjoy music. It’s a problem she is intimately familiar with — she has struggled with hearing loss from an early age.

“I was diagnosed with a mild hearing loss in my right ear and a profound hearing loss in my left ear when I was 3 years old,” she explains.

But, despite the challenges, music has always captivated her. With the help of hearing aids, she started piano lessons at age 6 and immediately fell in love with the instrument.

But by age 11, her hearing deteriorated further. Angela could still rely on the musical score to guide her, but without it, “a symphony sounded like a mess to me,” she explains. “If I did not have access to the music score, music would sound indistinguishable — like you’re watching a movie in a foreign language without subtitles.”

Her love for music was so strong that she purchased a large quantity of sheet music so she could follow the score while listening, like reading closed captions on television. But she was also having trouble singing: she could no longer tell if she was singing in tune.

It wasn’t until she went to college that Angela discovered a strategy to guide her singing. She joined an amateur mixed chorus, the Ching-Yun Chorus in Taiwan, and the ensemble’s members would coach her singing through hand signals indicating if she should adjust her voice up or down. Through long weekly practices, Angela learned how certain sounds and pitches felt.

“Harmonies no longer sounded like an entangled muddle,” she says.

The experience motivated her to search for ways to help other singers with hearing loss retrain their voices. After completing a degree in computer science, she went to study user experience design at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

For her graduate thesis, Angela designed an app she calls Shine. Based on her experiences in choir, the app provides a visual training environment that guides singers, indicating if they are sharp or flat.

She created Shine in collaboration with members of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL), a group dedicated to helping amateur and professional musicians navigate the challenges of playing and enjoying music when experiencing hearing loss.

Their feedback helped her shape the interface and test her own techniques for learning to control her voice with other musicians. Although the app is not yet commercially available, it’s an example of what could be available in the future.

Today Angela enjoys music even more thanks to cochlear implants. “They turn the implants on slowly, but the experience is magical,” smiles Angela. “There are so many different sounds that I never heard before, like the sound of an elevator closing. I have to relearn them all.”

Dr. Daniel Zeitler from the Listen for Life Center is working with Angela to fine-tune her implants. “The adjustments help me hear the music more clearly,” explains Angela. “With the cochlear implants, I can listen to music in a large hall again and it sounds clear and beautiful.”

Angela wants to inspire other children with hearing loss to continue pursuing their love for music. Today she is working on a children’s book about a girl with hearing loss.

Drawing from her unique background, the book describes sounds through metaphors of sight, touch and smell. In one stanza, she describes the sound of a violin as “the feeling when you see a butterfly fluttering around.”

“My goal is to help people with hearing loss live a happier life — to feel their power, instead of feeling limited,” Angela comments. “I believe that there's something special that only people with hearing loss can do, in a unique way.”

Reconnecting with Music

For most people hearing loss takes a milder form than Angela’s. It comes on gradually and dulls the experiences of listening. Angela’s doctor at Virginia Mason Medical Center encourages everyone to consider testing as they get older.

“By age 65, hearing loss impacts approximately one out of three people,” says Dr. Zeitler. “A simple test can help us diagnose hearing loss before it disrupts your everyday life, and there is so much we can do to help our patients continue to enjoy the music and activities they love.”

Gary Johnson, a longtime Seattle Symphony subscriber and patient at the Listen for Life Center, says that he didn’t notice his hearing loss until after he tried on his new hearing aids. “It was all a new experience. Everything sounded more sparkly. I could hear with better clarity,” recalls Gary. “Hearing loss sneaks up on you and you don’t realize what you’re missing.”

An infrared hearing system is available at Benaroya Hall for audience members who are hard of hearing, regardless of whether they use hearing aids. Headsets are available at the coat check in The Boeing Company Gallery or at the Head Usher stations in the lobby.

And with advance notice, other accommodations can be provided.

Hearing loss can dramatically alter the way you interact with the world. To learn more about solutions, schedule a hearing appointment today.

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Special thanks to the Virginia Mason Medical Center for sponsoring the Seattle Symphony’s May concerts in recognition of Better Hearing and Speech Month.

Posted on May 18, 2018

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