Updated: Oct 3
Benjamin Sawrey is a Seattle-based pianist and teacher who has over 15 years of musical experience in various genres, including: Classical, Jazz and Musical Theatre. He has performed in both the U.S and Europe and has received awards for his participation in competitions on both continents. Notable Seattle venues played include The 5th Avenue Theatre and Classical King FM’s “Northwest Focus Live''. Benjamin has also participated in lessons and masterclasses with renowned instructors throughout the world, including Boris Berman, Seymour Lipkin and Lily Dorfman. Benjamin holds a BA in Piano Performance.
While writing this brief biography I have decided to take a more personal approach than what is common for a music teacher’s website.
My aim in doing so is to share the process through which I have come to a deeper understanding of music; a process which involved years of striving against the challenging problem of being a pianist with a bi-lateral hearing loss. Although the understanding I have come to may not be unique to myself, insomuch as the ability to discover the truth is common to all men, I have nevertheless arrived at it by passing through a kind of difficult experience and resulting application of thought which I am certain is individual. What follows is an abridged account of the journey I have been on since I was four years old.
This is the story of how, being deaf, my ears were opened.
When I was a toddler, close family friends began to notice that I would not always answer when spoken to. I was responsive when I could see the person speaking to me, yet any time that I did not have a direct line of sight it was as though I could not hear anything.
My parents began to notice this pattern themselves when they started paying closer attention to how I interacted with them at home. They initially thought I was being a defiant toddler and testing boundaries, as is common for that age, but came to realize that there might be a deeper issue involved. Concerned by the pattern that was unfolding, they scheduled an audiology appointment for me.
It was Christmas Eve, 2002 when my parents took me to my first audiology appointment at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I was four years old.
At the end of the appointment we learned that I had a hearing-loss, though it was still unclear exactly what kind it was. In light of this, the audiologist ordered me to return for more testing so that the root of the issue could be identified. With any luck the resulting diagnosis would help us to discover what kind of hearing-aids I needed in order to improve my situation.
Over the next several months I went to many more appointments, including visits to audiologists, otolaryngologists and time spent in an MRI machine. Once I had been fully evaluated I was diagnosed with Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct Syndrome, also known as EVA.
Analysis and Implications of EVA:
EVA is a disorder which affects the shape of the vestibular aqueduct, an organ of the inner ear.
It is considered to be an “orphan disease'' because it affects a small number of people, roughly 200,000 across the United States. While EVA does not cause hearing loss in itself, it is thought to be a symptom of an underlying genetic condition which is the root cause of related hearing deficiencies. This underlying condition can also affect other organs of the inner ear. In my case, both the vestibular aqueduct and the cochlea are misshaped.
Examining the position and shape of both organs is useful to understand how their malformation can affect hearing. The vestibular aqueduct and the cochlea are embedded in the temporal bone, the part of the skull just above the inner ear. Vestibular aqueducts are narrow, bony canals that travel from the inner ear to deep inside of the skull. They connect and transmit fluid between the vestibule, endolymphatic sac and the cochlea. Think of them as a highway which connects those organs together. When vestibular aqueducts are larger than 1 mm they are considered to be enlarged. Adjacent to the vestibule, the cochlea is the last organ of the inner ear - connecting directly to the auditory nerve. Healthy cochleae are formed into a snail shell pattern that has two and a half spirals. It has been theorized that the spirals of the cochlea extend the octave range of hearing for the mammals that have them. My cochleae only have two spirals.
While the vestibular aqueduct is responsible for detecting movement and gravity, cochleae detect sound waves and transmit them into the nerve signals which are then sent to the brain. As such, the cochlea can be considered as the ambassador between the external and internal world. Both organs work together to create normal balance and hearing.
Although my vestibular aqueduct and cochlea are malformed in comparison to the standard, their structure is symmetrical between both of my ears. Mysteriously, my hearing is asymmetrical even though the affected organs are the same on each side. The hearing loss in my right ear is far greater than that in my left. In order to compare the difference between both sides, as well as to illustrate how I interact with sound in the world, it is necessary to take the frequency and volume of sound into account.
Audiologists use a method known as the “Pure Tone Test'' to diagnose hearing loss. Its purpose is to discover the lowest volume of sound at which a particular frequency is perceived, also known as the “hearing threshold”.
Hearing threshold is measured by using a graph where the vertical axis accounts for the volume of sound and the horizontal axis accounts for the frequency of tone. Volume is measured in decibels (dB), whereas frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). This graph provides a map of reference for audiologists, as the places where both factors intersect show how loud a certain frequency has to be for the patient to hear it. An accurate measurement of an individual patient’s hearing ability, or lack thereof, is provided after a machine called an audiometer has taken its reading.
A normal hearing threshold is considered to be anywhere from -10 to 20 dB in the range of 250-8000 Hz. Anything that is above 20 dB is considered to be a hearing loss. Severity of hearing loss is measured according to the following ranges:
Normal (-10 to 20 dB)
Mild (20 to 40 dB)
Moderate (40 to 70 dB)
Severe (70 to 90 dB)
Profound (90 to 120 dB)
According to these categories, my left ear functions in the range of mild-moderate hearing loss and my right ear functions in the range of mild-profound.
My hearing threshold fluctuates according to frequency of sound and which ear is listening. My left ear’s threshold is stable at 30 dB, just outside of the healthy range, from 250 to 500 Hz. It improves to a normal level of 10 dB between 3000-5000 Hz. After that peak is reached it plummets to 60 dB at 8000 Hz. My right ear is in far worse condition. Its threshold is stable at 35 dB between 250 to 500 Hz before plummeting to a low of 100 dB at 6000 Hz. This is followed by a slight increase back to 90 dB at 8000 Hz.
Because I also aim to discuss my journey as a pianist, it would be useful to use the range of frequencies found on the piano to show how my hearing fluctuates based on pitch.
The fundamental frequencies of a modern piano range from a low of 27.5 Hz at A0 to a high of 4186 Hz at C8. Comparatively, pure tone tests examine the range of 250-8000 Hz. It is unclear how my hearing affects my ability to perceive the lower half of the piano (A0-C4) because the pure tone testing range starts just before middle C (261.63 Hz).
My threshold is stable at 30-35 dB in the range of C4-C5. After C5, the hearing capabilities of each ear splits off in opposite directions. My left ear’s threshold improves between C5-C8 and reaches its height of 10 dB right before the last note on the keyboard. My right ear’s threshold plummets and reaches a low of 90 dB at the same place. This creates an 80 dB discrepancy between the hearing threshold of each ear at the upper end of the piano. For context, 80 dB is roughly equivalent to the din of traffic during rush hour in downtown Seattle. While my left ear can hear notes in the range of C7-C8 at the volume of quietly rustling leaves, those very same notes would have to be as loud as the average chainsaw for my right ear to perceive them. Such a discrepancy makes it incredibly difficult to listen for nuance of sound in the keyboard’s upper register, let alone to hear the notes themselves without amplification.
This also affects my ability to perceive several kinds of sounds in everyday experience. Words lose their clarity, it is difficult to find where sound is coming from and talking to friends in a busy restaurant becomes a near-impossibility. Sounds that should be easily audible require great strain to understand.
Although I can recognize the presence of sound, I often lack the clarity to decipher it - rather like seeing a distant sign while driving down the highway. The sign can be seen, perhaps the number of words can be counted, but distance prevents from seeing the letters clearly. Its message cannot be understood even though the sign can be recognized for its purpose.
Such is how I would experience sound in the world without amplification.
To counteract this, I was given a pair of hearing-aids that amplified sound to both ears – a system known as “binaural amplification''. Though my ears were still not completely balanced, even with the extra help, wearing binaural hearing aids made it so that my hearing loss hardly presented any real problems. In this manner, my ears were able to work together and bring me to a near-normal level of hearing.
I was able to function like any regular kid while wearing them.
My journey as a pianist began when I was seven years old after I started taking lessons with a teacher who lived in an adjacent neighborhood.
She was an encouraging teacher because of her enthusiastic approach and willingness to teach students the music they loved most. My early years as a pianist were spent playing music from my favorite movies, TV shows and videogames. One memorable piece that I learned after several years of study was One Final Effort from the video game Halo 3. While classical music was always a part of what I played, it was not the main focus.
Little emphasis was placed on cultivating technical understanding or following a disciplined methodology that could lead to incremental progress over time. As such, I was lacking in knowledge about the foundational elements of music. Most of what I learned under her tutelage was through rote instruction and memorization. Because I lacked the ability to recognize notes, rhythms and other important markings I could not parse out the density of information that is contained in the average piano score. As the years passed I began to play advanced pieces of music long before I was ready for them.
In 5th grade, I started learning Edvard Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor, a piece written for well-seasoned pianists much older than I was. I scrapped and memorized my way through the first eight pages of the concerto, mostly relying on my teacher to interpret the score for me. It did not help that my ability to read music was limited to a few notes of the treble clef. What resulted was a stripped-down version that was lacking in beauty. It was far beyond my abilities and that became evident in the sound that I produced.
There is a temptation for teachers to give their students the answers rather than walking them through the process of thought that leads to genuine understanding. While this can yield faster progress in the short term, it does not provide the sure foundation that leads to long-term flourishing.
Although my first teacher did not give me a good technical understanding, she did offer the opportunity to have hands-on experiences which allowed me to discover music for myself. Her willingness to teach me the pieces I loved without holding me to a strict technical standard made me unafraid to attempt music beyond my skill level and therefore gave me the courage to come to my own conclusions. Both of these proved to be invaluable to me in the years that followed.
As I grew older it became apparent that I needed to find a new music teacher. It had been years since I had progressed with my first instructor and I was entering the time of my life when I would benefit from a strong male role-model outside of my family. We eventually found a young man who had moved from Salt Lake City to Seattle in order to become a pianist at a dueling piano bar. He was twenty-four years old when I first started learning from him, only one year younger than I am as I write this today.
My first year with him was difficult because his strict methodology was the exact opposite of the laissez-faire approach I had grown accustomed to. Suddenly I was expected to read music fluently, master rhythm and know how to use the metronome. Instead of playing whatever I wanted I had to study method books, primarily: Suzuki, John Thompson and Hanon. I was used to choosing my own music and found these to be uninteresting to practice, particularly after working on Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor. He demanded a level of musical responsibility which caused me to seriously doubt my commitment to the instrument. There were several times during that first year when I felt like quitting piano altogether. Things turned around once we worked out a compromise – I could choose my own songs as long as he approved that I was ready for them and I continued to work on method books. Once I was playing music that I genuinely cared for, I began to grow under his method.
By the time I entered high-school he had become someone that I deeply admired as an individual. There were many aspects of his personality that I sought to emulate.
As my freshman year progressed, I ventured out of my comfort-zone by becoming an accompanist for several of the school’s musical ensembles. My teacher had been a high-school accompanist himself and he encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity. Playing for these ensembles allowed me to learn new music and collaborate with other musicians in a way that I had never done before. Increased pressure to meet practice and performance deadlines helped me to find an efficient path to learning music. At the end of my freshman year my ability to read and learn piano scores had greatly improved. My teacher’s method had given me the capacity to learn far more music than I could have anticipated.
I was armed with the courage to explore difficult music and a method I might wield to learn it efficiently.
One of the most influential people in my budding love for music was my great-grandfather, Joseph Schubert.
When I was growing up he and I were very close, so much so that I considered him to be a second father even though he was eighty years my senior. He was a colorful character who had many stories to share from his long life, particularly about his experiences in WWII. Joseph Schubert was a decorated combat veteran who had seen action in the European Theater – ultimately earning his purple heart in the Champagne-Ardennes forest when he was struck by mortar shrapnel. He had a deep appreciation for classical music, particularly for Johann Strauss and the romantic piano repertoire. This appreciation led him to be very encouraging of my early pianistic endeavors. Although I was nothing special at the time, he valued my effort in such a way that it gave me greater confidence in myself as a musician. The Schubert home was a place where I felt proud to share my musical abilities and where I had the freedom to discover new music for myself. I fondly remember listening to various piano concertos at his house, chosen from his impressive selection of classical music CD’s. His favorite piece, as he told me many times, was Liebesträume No. 3 by Franz Liszt.
I loved my great-grandfather dearly, so it became a dream of mine to play his favorite piece for him before he died. However, the difficulty of Liebesträume far exceeded my abilities at the time. When I brought it to my teacher, he said that I needed to mature as a pianist before attempting it. At first I followed his advice, but I eventually realized that I did not have that much time to wait. My great-grandfather was at the age when his life could end at any moment. I could not bear the thought of him passing before I had the chance to perform his favorite piece. Once I understood this, I ignored my teacher’s advice and started learning Liebesträume anyways. He was correct that it was far beyond my skill level, but I did at least succeed in learning the first page-and-a-half.
In October 2013 my great-grandfather’s health began to fail and it soon became evident that his time had come.
One night in the middle of November my mother and I decided to pay him a visit at his home. At this point he was bed-ridden, though lucid and still fully himself. I took advantage of the opportunity to play what little part of Liebesträume that I could for him. Luckily, there was an upright piano on the side of the wall opposite to his headboard. As I played the first page-and-a-half he raised his hands and conducted to the music. My playing was not particularly good, but it did not have to be - the meaning of the moment transcended the quality of the performance.
When he later fell into a coma and drew close to death, I fervently practiced Liebesträume on the piano adjacent to his bed. I hoped to learn the whole piece so that he could hear it before he died, even if he was not fully conscious. Because it was too difficult, I ended up playing the same page-and-a-half for many hours. Once, while I was playing, my aunt decided to check on him to see if he was still alive. When she walked in, she found him on his back with his hands stretched in the air – just like a conductor leading his orchestra. I know he heard the music.
Joseph Schubert died at the age of ninety-five on November 18th, 2013. I was fifteen years old.
My great-grandfather’s disposition taught me that a man could face death bravely. Because he accepted his own mortality in the hurricane of war, it stood to reason that I could do the same if I worked to face my fears and take responsibility for my life. I realized that I was the only one who had the power to put my life in order and that I was the only one who was preventing myself from doing so. Embracing this way of thinking changed my approach to work and hardship.
Through Liebesträume my great-grandfather and I shared a powerful experience, one that was made more beautiful because of the darkness that surrounded it. I learned that music could be a means through which deep truths were revealed, that if one could learn to pay attention in that proper way he might encounter God through the beauty and goodness of its forms.
It gradually became apparent to me that I was supposed to pursue music seriously and that somehow my hearing was an integral part of the journey. As time went on I began to view my hearing-loss as something that was given to me for a higher purpose. For years it had seemed to be a curse without reason for its cruelty, yet I came to realize that through truthful searching and the grace of God it could become a blessing.
I learned to bear that cross without bitterness and I came to accept my hearing-loss for the first time in my life.
During the following summer I became obsessed with finishing Liebesträume. My great-grandfather had died eight months before, yet I was still bothered that I had not performed the entire piece for him. I resolved to finish what I had started.
The days blurred together as I practiced from morning until past dark. Progress was slow, hotly contested and brutal to achieve. It soon became apparent that I was wrestling with old demons even as I was struggling to learn the music. All of my willpower was required to continue onward through the effort of battling these twin difficulties; it was the greatest challenge I had yet faced. I was willing to die if it meant I would succeed. After several months of strife I achieved my goal - exhausted, but grateful to have persevered.
Having slain the dragon that menaced me, I took its gold as my own.
This victory in learning Liebesträume greatly increased my abilities as a pianist. During my last two years of high school I was able to take advantage of musical opportunities that I could not have imagined prior to passing through that trial. An explosion of growth that culminated during my Senior year when I returned to Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor. Though I had been woefully unprepared when I first attempted it seven years prior, time and experience had made me ready for its challenges. Entering university I was full of the hope that more battles could be won and that I could continue to grow at a similar rate.
Such were my first eleven years as a pianist.
In early 2014 my audiologist recommended that I transition from the binaural hearing-aids I had worn for ten years to a monaural system known as BiCROS. Instead of amplifying sounds into both ears, the BiCROS system would send signals from my weaker right side to my stronger left.
She argued that it would be beneficial to use a BiCROS system because my right ear was so damaged it would be just as well for my left ear to do all of the processing. Such a system is useful for individuals who are completely deaf in one ear. However, my right ear, though damaged, still had some ability to hear.
Her advice was ultimately against the best interest of my hearing.
I was personally drawn to wearing a BiCROS system because it was less visible than my binaural hearing-aids were. My old pairs were massive and conspicuous, with molds that filled my concha and bodies which spanned from helix to lobe. It was impossible to wear them discreetly. Had I chosen to upgrade to a new pair of binaural hearing-aids I would have been stuck with a similarly large, clunky model. I jumped at the opportunity to have hearing-aids that could not be easily noticed.
This decision led to consequences which changed the course of my life forever.
When I entered university I decided to focus on classical music full-time. My experience with my great-grandfather had convinced me that I needed to pursue music seriously and I sought to hone my pianistic skills at the collegiate level.
Before I could become the musician I wanted to be, I knew that I had to come to a deeper understanding of my craft. My eclectic musical education, with minimal focus on the classical repertoire, left me with serious holes in my technical knowledge of the piano. One major problem was my extreme bodily tension that prevented me from fully relaxing at the instrument. There was much for me to learn about the abstract forms of classical music and the correct physical approach to movement at the piano, both of which are essential to creating beautiful sound.
I was unaware of how little I knew until I started studying with my professor at college. He was a genius pianist who placed a level of expectation on me that was far higher than anything I had experienced in the past - expectation that I did not have the ability to meet.
Part of the reason for this was because of the limited methodology that I had learned when I was younger. The old techniques I followed were linear and powerful for learning the foundational elements of music; primarily the notes, rhythm and tempo. However, they could not account for the multi-layered nuances of the advanced piano repertoire. They covered the horizontal aspects of music without any attention to the vertical. What resulted was playing that sounded flat and directionless. While useful for shorter pieces, they were insufficient when applied to large-scale works. Holding fast to these methods repeatedly led to forearm injury from overwork and I ultimately decided to abandon them because my problems of physical tension were worsening. This was done so that I could find a better way to learn music while under fire, yet doing so left me with no real approach. I found myself confused instead of enlightened. Because I no longer had a path to follow, practicing became an intense struggle. I looked to my professors to guide me with a better method for learning advanced pieces.
Throughout all of this I began to notice a strange phenomenon: I had strong ideas about the sound I wanted to produce, yet no matter how I practiced it always seemed to escape me. This was not for lack of effort, as I spent multiple hours daily at the instrument throughout my years at university. It was rather like there was something obscuring my ability to hear what was right in front of me. Even though I understood the emotional arc of my pieces, and each note’s purpose throughout the journey, I was never able to actualize those concepts in sound. I could not tell whether or not I was progressing towards my goals.
Strain though I may, I never heard things clearly.
Worsening physical tension, a strange inability to hear and failure to meet my professor’s expectations caused frustration to become despair. I found myself spinning in circles with no clear way out. It did not help that my professors were unable to answer the technical and methodological questions I had come to university to resolve. At the end of my first year I found myself in a position that was worse than where I had started.
That following summer I had the opportunity to attend a classical music festival in Ochsenhausen, Germany. Pianists, composers and organists from around the world were coming together to practice their craft under the instruction of highly respected teachers. When I arrived I was greatly surprised by the immense talent of the other pianists. I found myself surrounded by people who had been studying classical piano for their entire lives, whereas I had only been focusing on it seriously for one year. Several of them have since become world-class performers. Seeing the distance between my international colleagues and myself convinced me that I would not bridge the gap at my then-university. Returning home, I decided to transfer.
After a promising first semester at my second university it became apparent that my problems could not be easily fixed. A strange riddle veiled the sound that I produced and no matter how hard I tried to listen, clarity always eluded me. My playing only worsened as time went on. This lack of progress gradually deteriorated my relationship with my new instructor. She began to grow impatient with me because I appeared to be slacking off, even though I was actually working myself to the bone without seeing any results for my effort. Late that winter our lessons gave way to painfully honest conversations. During one particularly difficult session she stated “I can help everyone else, but I cannot help you''. This was crushing to hear after I had transferred from my first university specifically to work with her in the hope that she could provide me with the answers I sought.
Her bluntness caused me to think about my issues in a way that I hadn’t before. What was it about me that was unteachable? What did I have that no other student did?
I was shocked to realize that my hearing was at the root of my pianistic issues.
Because I emotionally conquered my hearing-loss in 2014 I had stopped considering it as a negative influence in my life. As far as I could see at the time, it did not hinder me socially or musically. I only came to consider it again after all other options had been exhausted. Though it was painful to open that old scar, there was finally a tangible problem I could grapple with.
By taking my hearing-loss into consideration, I was able to find solutions that helped me hear myself more clearly. Recording and playing back everything that I practiced with my iPhone was a particularly effective method. My playing began to improve drastically in the subsequent months. When I returned to Ochsenhausen for a second time that summer I received an honorable mention for my performances at the ending competition. I was finally making forward progress after years of spinning in place. However, these solutions only offered a kind of symptomatic treatment for a disease that could not be cured.
Having finally discovered the name of the demon I was fighting, I was confronted with an impossible difficulty.
In his book titled The Master and His Emissary, Dr. Iain McGilchrist explores the different functions of the brain’s two hemispheres and how they work together to create a complete picture of the world. The right hemisphere, which controls the left side of the body, is concerned with intuition and seeing the overall picture. Its major flaw is that it lacks the definition to examine specific details. The left hemisphere, which controls the right side of the body, is concerned with fine details and explicit definitions. While it is good at understanding things within clearly defined boundaries, it can be blind to nuance. Damage to the right hemisphere often leads to the kind of inability to understand context which is symptomatic of autism, whereas damage to the left results in lack of clarity. Both hemispheres work together to create a lived experience that is both densely layered and rich with individual details.
In my case, transitioning to a BiCROS system forced my left ear, and therefore my right hemisphere, to adopt the responsibility of both sides - processing the details of sound in addition to perceiving its overall context. This ultimately led to nine years of confusion and pain.
Because I had no amplification on my right side I was essentially operating with one dysfunctional ear that was doing the work of two. Trying to master my craft as a pianist without input from both sides cost an incredible amount of energy; I could hardly practice for thirty minutes before I became completely exhausted. Anything that I achieved after this initial energy reservoir was depleted was done through force of will alone.
My left ear was not up to its task.
Such an improper distribution of work led to overstrain of my right hemisphere, which in turn radiated out to the rest of my body. Exhausting effort, compounded over many years, led me to experience chronic nerve pain and fatigue that was not cured by rest.
Everyday experiences were fraught with suffering, as even light and sound became painful.
When I walked under the bright sun, or found myself in noisy environments, my spinal cord exploded with electric fire that shot through the rest of my nervous system. Every note on the piano became a white-hot burst that sent waves of pain throughout my body. This only grew in intensity as volume of sound increased.
There were often times when my discomfort was so great that I lost my ability to properly process the world around me. I began to experience extreme vertigo, as though I were standing on the edge of a precipice even when my feet were planted on the flat earth. Sometimes when I was walking outside I found myself floating 200 ft above my body and looking down. I felt as though at any moment I was in danger of plummeting from the heights or floating away to oblivion.
Time also became fractured. Rather than manifesting itself as fluid motion through space, every instant was like an individual movie-frame. All movement became compressed into thousands of still, flat images that followed one another in quick succession. Sometimes my brain would get stuck processing an individual frame, leaving me functionally blind to my surroundings.
These experiences were made worse by an inability to rest. Because the pain was constant, I could not bear to lie still unless I was exhausted enough to ignore it - there were long periods of time when I was unable to sleep through the night. I eventually discovered that sleep did not restore me even when I did rest properly. This caused a vicious cycle of pain, leading to exhaustion, which in turn led to more pain.
I found myself as though surrounded by black waves.
The only solution that gave me relief from this suffering was to pour myself into work that I cared deeply about. I worked as much as I could; studying: languages, music and history, practicing piano, memorizing: scripture, poetry and speeches, and thinking deeply about the structure of music. Some deep part of me knew that I could find the answers I needed to get out of my situation if I could only learn to listen attentively and aim in the right direction.
Though I had become bitter and viciously angry, that whispering promise kept me moving forward in the dark.
Prayer, study and directed attention became my guides. Not knowing what I was searching for, I kept my eyes and ears open for the truth that would lead to understanding.
By the grace of God I found pearls in the mire.
I began to understand the structure of music in a way that I never had before. When I started to theorize new methods of practice, they worked. It terrified me that these methods were successful after years of blind struggle. I was at last starting to receive the musical knowledge I had been searching for in university.
Meaning, it seemed, was the antidote for the chaos that enveloped me.
I gradually came to accept the pain I was enduring, yet I was still unaware of what exactly I was going through. Neither could I articulate what I was suffering. Even though I knew that I felt horrible, I figured my fatigue was a symptom of laziness rather than a sign of chronic malaise. Because it could not be spoken, much less named, no permanent solution for my pain and exhaustion was forthcoming.
When my wife and I first started dating in 2021, I finally found somebody I could trust to share my experiences with. As soon as she found out about my monaural hearing aids, she immediately expressed her concern. She could not understand why an audiologist would suggest such a system when I still had some hearing left in my right ear - arguing that because the ears are like a muscle, they need to be used in order to maintain their strength. Otherwise, they atrophy and lose whatever ability they once had. In light of this, she urged me to return to a binaural hearing-aid system as soon as I could.
Around the same time she began to help me with my physical approach to the instrument as the problem of tension and injury which had plagued me since high-school had never been resolved. Because she had been a ballet dancer for eighteen years and studied human anatomy extensively in college, her viewpoint was unique in its practicality and clarity. She was able to combine her firsthand experience as a dancer with medical knowledge in order to teach me how to properly hold and move my body while playing. With her help and patience I gradually untangled the bad physical habits I had accrued over my first seventeen years as a pianist. It was the first time anyone had taught me how to sit and move correctly at the instrument.
By combining her practical understanding of the body with my own abstract knowledge of musical structure, I developed ideas that would allow me to become more articulate as a musician. At the heart of these ideas was the realization that each body part, when moved intentionally, uniquely controls a certain aspect of sound. Further, if one could learn to control these properly he would obtain a greater mastery of the instrument, thereby increasing his capacity for musical expression.
It was a strange turn of events, and an even stranger blessing, that gave me both the technical and physical understanding of the piano that I had sought for years.
In November of 2022, I had an audiology appointment where I had the opportunity to wear binaural hearing-aids.
All of the pain left my body as soon as I put them on.
Though I could not articulate it, I had been carrying an incredible amount of tension from head to toe. My left ear had borne the primary responsibility of processing sound for many years, causing immense strain. I was not centered and my body suffered the consequence. Once I had amplification in both ears, I felt everything snap back into place; muscle, sinew and bone finally had the chance to rest. This was accompanied by a relief that I cannot describe.
Suddenly, my ears were filled with pitches and timbres of sound whose existence I had entirely forgotten. Obscurity of detail was replaced by clear words, even as the morning sun chases away the enveloping mists. I would have wept with uncontrollable joy had I been in a more private setting.
I was hearing for the first time in nine years.
On December 14th, 2022, I received my own pair of binaural hearing-aids – only ten days short of twenty years after I was first diagnosed.
Lack of amplification to my right ear made it impossible for me to hear important aspects of sound, as the meaning of music is perceived through the clarity of individual notes embedded in their proper context. I was rendered deaf to balance between voices, dynamic nuance and most of the piano’s upper range. Unsurprisingly, my playing during this period sounded excessively rhythmic, flat and was heavily balanced towards the bass.
Opening my right ear again has given me access to those elements of music which were once veiled from me. Voicing and dynamics have finally become tangible parts of my own interpretation. When I listen to my favorite pieces of music, it is as though I have never heard them before. My tension while playing has also disappeared almost entirely.
I now have a kind of energy and ability to enjoy life that I have not known for nearly a decade.
That which was old has been made new.
The understanding that I have come to was given to me in a period of great pain.
Through the grace of God I was allowed to endure it, and through the grace of God I came out the other side.
Glory to Him who delivered me from death.
I hope that I can share what I have learned with those who might benefit from it. For the ill, that hope of healing would be kindled. For those who are well, that they might come into deeper understanding of truth as it manifests itself in the world’s beauty.
As it was written in Isaiah:
Be glad, you thirsty desert, and rejoice exceedingly,
and let the desert blossom as a lily.
Be strong, you relaxed hands and feeble knees.
Be comforted, you fainthearted.
Be strong, do not fear.
Behold, our God renders judgment and will render it.
He comes and saves us.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf shall hear.