I Think Beethoven Encoded His Deafness in His Music – The New York Times

I often wonder how Beethoven would react to modern-day hearing aids considering his great frustration with the ear trumpets of his day. Personally, I miss the old analogs of my girlhood, for their simplicity. Nowadays it’s an effort not to roll my eyes as a technician fits me with the ubiquitous digital aids that, in addition to all manner of dazzling bionic-lady bells and whistles, default to the type of correction desired by late-deafened people — namely, high frequencies and spatial reorientation to help with speech recognition. That’s completely understandable as losing the ability to communicate with loved ones is an awful and dispiriting experience.

Yet those of us born with hearing loss are often champion lip-readers (as I am) or use sign language. And whether or not we are musical, we join musicians with hearing loss (at any stage) in desiring hearing aids that prioritize beauty of sound, unchanged pitch, unchanged timber and naturalness — restoring proper weight to middle and low frequencies, and spatialization. We don’t want hearing aids that ply our sound world with obvious artifice, like a supposedly “acoustic” album that’s been overworked by a manic sound engineer.

In this vein, I don’t think Beethoven would like how so many modern-day digital hearing aids massage all kinds of processes into what the wearer hears. It helps to have an imaginative and sensitive technician, preferably one with experience with performers and composers. A good fitting is an art so the music can just breathe.

At the piano, I usually start practicing without my hearing aids, entering a world of profound silence familiar from my earliest years, when I wasn’t yet fitted. At first, I’m still hearing the music in my head, but after a while, I’m more aware of the choreography, how it feels like a dance in my hands. Focusing on a physical experience that feels good and healthy can counteract bad habits which appear when you are only listening to the sound.

For instance, if one plays a large chord of, say, eight notes, the tendency will be to bring out the lowest note and the highest note — the bass and the melody — to give them more audibility and importance. Because of the structure of the hands, this means the weakest pinkie fingers are bringing out the most important notes. To help the poor fingers out, the hands may be tempted to angle out, left hand pointing to the bass, right hand to the melody.

This is a very unnatural position for your hands to be in, and in fact it mimics the wrist-breaking karate locks taught in dojos, inviting injury. Imagine a series of these chords up and down the keyboard, in such an unnatural position. But because you are chasing a full-bodied sound from this eight-note chord, and not paying attention to its physicality, you start to do dangerous things. With the ability to take the sound out of the equation, I focus on the feel. I solidify a good technique first, and know it. Knowing it, I can hang onto it once I do put my hearing aids back in, and then work on the sound.


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