My Musical Self
A short story by Helen about her passion for music.
‘That is middle C’, said Gran, pointing to the note on the page. ‘What comes after C?’ she asked.
‘D’, I quickly answered and pressed the white key between two black keys. I was seated at Gran’s piano as she brushed and plaited my hair. It was her way of keeping me still. I was not quite 5 years old and living with my grandparents, in Hurstville, so I could attend an opportunity deaf class for deaf children in nearby Penshurst Public School.
It was only about two years since Mum and Dad received confirmation of my moderate to severe hearing loss. They had made the difficult decision to have me leave home and stay with my grandparents so I had the best chance of living a ‘normal’ life. Home was in Bathurst.
Gran continued to use the piano and a piano tutorial book as a way of keeping me still while she tamed my wild hair into two plaits, but what no one could anticipate was how I began to use my newly attained knowledge to play simple tunes on the piano. The piano became a source of great pleasure and comfort. Sometimes I would pretend I was a great musician, at other times I carefully picked out the notes written on the page before me.
It was no surprise to anyone in my family that I would play music. Gran had been a music teacher and church organist, my other grandmother often played piano and organ for gatherings and church services. Papa was Welsh and had a beautiful Welsh contrabass voice. My uncles sang in church choirs, and one was often a soloist in his younger days. Today, now in his nineties, my uncle doesn’t sing so much but participated in a men’s choir well into his eighties.
Mum and her sister both played piano, and Mum also learnt the violin and organ. Mum played at different churches in Lithgow, Newcastle, Sydney and Bathurst. Both sisters sang in church choirs. Dad could pick up any stringed instrument and play tunes and his favourite instrument was a spoon-backed mandolin. My sister sang with an opera group in her younger days while my brother can play a variety of instruments.
After I returned home to Bathurst, aged about six, I was enrolled in mainstream education. I was treated exactly the same as the other children in the class. If I missed hearing something, I would have to guess what was said. This often led to being scolded for doing the wrong thing. There was no support in the classroom as there is today.
Mum and Dad did not have a piano so I had no outlet for my music. My brother, who is two years older than me, had just started learning to play recorder. If he left his recorder and book lying around, and I didn’t think Mum or my brother were around, I would open the book and work out how to play the recorder. By the time my turn came to learn recorder at school, I was already well ahead of my classmates. The lessons only went for a term, and at the end, the teachers asked for volunteers to be part of a school recorder group.
‘Mrs Pitcher, this is Miss Jones. We have a small problem. Helen wants to be part of our recorder group, and we would rather she did not join.’
‘Why not?’, Mum asked. ‘Helen can play the recorder as well as anyone else in her class .’
‘We don’t think it is a good idea. Helen’s deafness would be a stumbling block. She would not keep time, and put the others off.’
‘In other words, you think Helen would give the school a poor reputation’. Mum calmly commented.
‘Something along those lines’, the headmistress admitted candidly.
It would be many years before I found out about this conversation. At the time, I was just told they didn’t think it was a good idea, and it was left at that. Deep down, I was bewildered as I knew I could play as well as anyone in my class, if not better.
I continued to play my recorder at home, and it was a great moment if my brother agreed to play along with me. He, of course, was in the recorder group and had graduated to the longer and deeper recorders.
During school holidays, and weekends, we would make the trip to Hurstville to stay with our grandparents. Not only was this a time to continue working my way through the tutorial, it was also a time to look through Gran’s music. I found a copy of ‘Fur Elise’ by Beethoven and began to learn it. At home, Dad had permitted me to go through his mother’s music, and I found plenty to try!
Dad had some classical records he would allow me to play. It was here I began to hear other major composers, Strauss, Mozart and Bach.
Mum encouraged me to find out about Ludwig van Beethoven at the local library. Beethoven became, and is still, one of my favourite composers. The fact that Beethoven kept playing and composing music after he became deaf, was positive proof there was no reason why I couldn’t be a musician too. I identified with the frustration he felt when he could not hear the world around him.
When I was about ten, Gran and Papa gave me their piano. I was so thrilled as it gave me access to a piano. I began to ask my parents to let me have music lessons.
When I started secondary school, Mum and Dad finally relented and allowed me to have piano lessons. Miss Crofts had a very old fashioned way of teaching and insisted I start all over again. I didn’t mind as it meant I was at last doing what I really loved. With Miss Crofts’ encouragement, and later that of Mrs Barnes, I sat AMEB exams and did well in them. For the School Certificate, I received a Credit in music much to my family’s pleasure and my delight.
Mum’s help was crucial while I was learning piano. She would cook the evening meal while I practised. ‘You are playing the wrong note’, she would call out, as she walked into the dining room. Once Mum was satisfied I’d corrected the error, she would return to her cooking. However, there were also times when she would come in and just listen. She never praised me though. Dad, on the other hand, would often asked me to play some of the many tunes he knew, such as ‘Grandfather’s Clock’, ‘Old Brown Jug’ and ‘Clementine’. ‘Swing Low, Swing Chariot’ was another favourite. He would sometimes accompany me on his spoon-backed mandolin and Mum would come in, sit and listen.
Because my father was unwell, I made the difficult decision not to do the High School Certificate. Instead, I continued to play music for pleasure both on the piano and recorder. I put all thoughts of continuing any music education away.
Work, teenage pursuits and sport filled my late teenage and early adult years. I married and a family quickly followed. Music took a back seat once more. I still played my piano but had little time to practise.
In my early 30’s disaster struck. I was starting to lose my residual hearing. Life became a struggle especially as my youngest had started to have epileptic seizures. My husband was little help as he hated being present when the seizures occurred.
A hearing dog was given to me, by the Tahmoor Lions Club, who was a great companion and support at this time, especially as he was specifically trained to alert me to David’s seizures. Andy also would ‘tell’ me when someone was at the door, or the oven timer went off. He also quickly learnt to take me to anyone calling my name and pick my keys up if I dropped them.
I slowly parted with my piano, music, recorders and records. I saw no point in holding onto them when I couldn’t hear to enjoy music.
By the time I was 40, I’d lost nearly all the hearing in my left ear. There was just enough residual hearing in my right ear to continue wearing a powerful hearing aid. The decision was made to insert a cochlear implant in my left ear.
At this time, too, my marriage had broken down, and I had moved back to Bathurst with my three children. My confidence was shattered and I became socially isolated and depressed. I wasn’t sure I could handle learning to use the cochlear implant with everything else that was happening in my life.
While I now realise we had made the right decision, at the time I had very mixed feelings. All the research I had done showed that cochlear implant recipients could not enjoy music. It seemed certain my musical self was doomed.
It took me six months to be comfortable with the implant, and another ten years to reach a point where I could say my hearing had ‘normalised’. In other words, what I heard matched what I remembered in my twenties.
As technology advanced, and new processors were developed, I began to hear music as music. Parts were, and still are, garbled. But I could distinguish enough to fill the gaps in my head.
About six years ago, I took my first tentative, but exciting steps towards playing music again. With a new soprano recorder, I started to learn to play recorder again. Most importantly I had to relearn what each tone sounded like to me. Within a year, I’d added treble, tenor and bass recorders to my collection and recently have added a great bass. Each time I picked up a new instrument, I would check that I knew what each tone sounded like and then I was ready to play ensemble, or so I thought.
I quickly discovered two things. I needed someone to give the exact tempo, and secondly, something was not right. High tones were causing me pain, and some lower tones were disappearing. The first was easily fixed provided someone agreed to do this, but the second was a little more difficult.
My audiologist at SCIC in Penrith quickly discovered it was the aged processor I’d been wearing that was the cause of my problems. She arranged for me to borrow a more up to date processor until she could organise a new one. Shortly afterwards, I was so very fortunate that Cochlear invited me to become part of a trial and as a result I now had an amazing, state of the art processor. There was one glitch, however.
‘Whats the matter, Helen?’.
‘I can’t hear anyone playing!’, I replied.
The processor had deciphered recorders as background noises and so softened (or ratcheted) them to a level that was almost inaudible. Programs in the newer processors are designed to recognise unwanted background noise, and to reduce them. Recorder music, it turned out, is ‘unwanted’! I took this problem to my audiologists. Some eight months later, the amazing computer engineers at Cochlear came up with a new program simply called ‘Music.’
Since I first wrote these words, I have taken another major step on my hearing journey.
Over two years ago, one of my audiologists mentioned there was an opportunity for me to have my second ear implanted. I readily agreed because I knew I would not progress in music if I couldn’t hear with both ears. I hoped my ability to the direction of sounds would improve, as well as my speech and music. Unlike the first time, twenty-five years ago, I knew what to expect and the work that would be required to obtain the best result possible.
The second surgery took place in November, 2018, it and was not as traumatic as my first. Ten days later I was ‘switched on’. Within days, I started experimenting with different sounds and started using a special computer program, ‘Angel Sounds’, to kick-start hearing in my newly implanted ear. Within weeks, I started playing music again, just one on one, with Samantha Schoeler Jones who is a music therapist. She started by encouraging me to listen as she played simple pieces, and I would attempt to replicate the tune. Doing these activities help creates new neural pathways which allows me to hear more clearly and precisely.
The staff at the Mitchell Conservatorium of Music are very supportive of my endeavours, and gives help and guidance when I need it. I now play in two amazing and supportive recorder groups, and continue to work one on one with Sam. These sessions are proving crucial to improving my speech and listening skills as well.
As I write this, I am back playing with both groups and preparing solo pieces. I continue to hear new sounds as well as ones I used to hear but now sound different. I have to work out just what it is I am hearing which can be challenging and interesting. I’m particularly enjoying the sound of magpies carolling as well as hearing other birds sing. This is something I have not been able to hear before.
If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that I am so very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful family, friends and professionals who care. They are willing to help when asked and give honest feedback.
My musical self is beginning to grow in confidence again as I now don what I have always known I should be doing. I realise I will always need help and support from those around me. Music has once again taken its proper place in my life and I couldn’t be happier.
My place in the community is evolving as well. I am actively involved in ‘Orange Lacemakers’ and a photography group here in Bathurst. In the University of the Third Age, I play with two different recorder groups in Bathurst and Orange and a writing group Participation in these groups has allowed me to improve both communication skills and social interaction. As my ability to hear more clearly and precisely grows, so my ability to engage with those around me improves. And as I improve my ability to engage with others so my sense of isolation and loneliness decreases.