Being A Musician With Hearing Loss
In May 1994 I lost 20% of the hearing in my left ear due to a scuba diving accident on my honeymoon. I was completely deaf on that side for about a week. As soon as we got home I needed emergency surgery to save what was left of my hearing. Talk about testing our vows from the start! Needless to say, I married a pretty great guy.
Recovery took a few weeks, and thankfully most of my hearing came back on that side. But roughly 20% was permanently gone. I was also left with tinnitus, a steady ringing in the ear that never goes away. I haven't heard complete silence since.
Life After Surgery
While I was incredibly grateful to be able to hear at all on that side, life would never be the same. From that point on I really struggled in loud environments such as restaurants and concerts. It was hard to follow conversations without asking people to repeat themselves.
The tinnitus got really bad in loud places and took a while to settle down after I got home. I started wearing ear plugs to concerts since it was actually painful if I didn't.
The worst part was when I performed live. I could barely hear myself through the sound system and it was almost impossible to tune my guitar. The sound was always wonky and distorted.
I was already thinking of giving up live gigs before all this happened. Seven years on the road at 50,000 miles a year was unsustainable for one person. This only sealed the deal. But it was beyond heartbreaking. I had been a musician my entire life and a performing professional for 12 years.
About 15 years later it happened again. In March 2008 I suddenly went completely deaf in my left ear. Earlier that week I experienced some dizziness at work, and a few days later my left ear completely shut down.
I immediately called my ear surgeon. It felt like the movie Groundhog Day. He saw me right away and diagnosed me with "Sudden Hearing Loss". I had to hold myself back from replying with a snarky "Duh!", since that wasn't quite appropriate.
Since it had just happened, he offered a cutting edge procedure that might work. It was still relatively new, so he couldn't make any promises.
But we had to move quickly. Each day we waited meant my hearing loss might become permanent. So we scheduled the outpatient procedure ASAP. The surgery took about two hours and I went home shortly afterwards. About two weeks later I woke up on my left side to the lovely sounds of birds chirping. It was a true miracle!
The procedure was a success and restored my hearing back to my 20% baseline loss. I was very, very lucky.
Making Music Despite More Hearing Loss
Over the years the natural process of aging has increased my hearing loss on both sides. It's pretty bad on the left side now and moderately bad on the right. I can't hear normal conversations at all and constantly ask "what?" or "huh"? or "say again?".
So how can I possibly create and produce music? It's not easy. I've mostly lost the high end frequencies that feature voices but can still hear ok in the low and mid-range. I avoid noisy environments as much as possible and keep things pretty quiet at home.
When I'm in the studio I keep my speakers at a low level and only use headphones for recording live or checking my mixes. I also depend a lot on visual cues from my DAW software and that seems to work.
And this year I finally got hearing aids. I resisted them for ages due to the high cost and stigma of being partially deaf. But I wish I'd gotten them much sooner. They have been a total game changer for me. I can hear things now I haven't heard since I was 30!!
Adapting and Moving Forward
If you're a musician facing hearing loss, don't despair. It's a lot more common than you think, and there are lots of ways to deal with it. Musicians are at 4 times higher risk of hearing loss than the general public. Most of us are exposed to loud noises for years at a time, thinking it's cool.
But it's not. As a musician your ears are the keys to your livelihood. Take care of them and they'll take care of you. Use ear protection in loud environments, keep the volume low in your studio, and use headphones sparingly. You can also use iOS apps like decibel to make sure you keep the noise level down. And if you need hearing aids, see a qualified audiologist ASAP. You'll be glad you did.