The Cochlear Implant Musician
My hearing loss began at five years old. I had a day of hearing robotic sounds and voices in my left ear. The next morning, I woke up with barely any residual hearing in that ear. My first audiologist told me that it was a congenital disorder. Known as an enlarged vestibular aqueduct, she said to me that it was extremely probable the right ear would decline similarly.
Life went on. Throughout elementary school (ages 6-11), I noticed small difficulties hearing, but I didn't overly struggle. Around middle school (age 12), the right ear began to decline, and I used a hearing aid to compensate. The hearing aid helped less as my hearing worsened,
The decline of my right ear was more substantial than the left because I was older with more to miss. Fortunately, my friends would help. When it was difficult to hear conversations, they would fill me in. At band practice, when I didn't understand instructions, they would update me.
My parents and I started talking to audiologists about options. Eventually, a Cochlear Implant on the left-side made the most sense. If it worked, it would be a new world! If not, it was already useless, so there was little to lose!
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The surgery was performed by Dr Jeffrey Harris at UCSD (University of California, San Diego) when I was thirteen years old. A month later, after recovery, the audiologists activated the Implant! It was a resurrection of my life. I felt more independent the moment we left the office. In High School, I participated in my school's marching band, concert band, and the regional All-Southern Honor Band. I required less help than previously. If I think about it, that was when I became thirsty to hear more.
My mentors, friends, and family all had a significant influence on me, and I feel grateful for the supportive things they told me. The people who told me I was misplaying the trombone gave me an incredible tool: the ability to hear reality. The truth was that I loved music, but I was not producing what I heard in my head. When people who had "good ears" gave me feedback that they liked what I did, I tried to remember the feelings and vibrations of the trombone for the next time. Eventually, things got more manageable, but I still wasn't hearing everything.
At some point during sophomore year, I decided I wanted to major in music in college. It was a simple decision. I wanted to hear better, and this was something that would help train my ears to the highest level. However, the hearing aid that I had in my right ear was not trustworthy in a musical environment. It would often emit high pitched sounds during solos from instruments like flutes and high strings.
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After accepting a place with the University of Delaware's music program, my family and I began discussing a second Cochlear Implant with my audiologist. The summer before college was when the surgery took place with Dr Ritvik Mehta at California Head and Neck Specialists in Carlsbad. It was overwhelming because I had to be ready for my freshman year of college just three months after getting implanted. I had two months to train my new bionic right ear after a month-long recovery.
During this period, having friends who were dedicated musicians was vital. The amount of time they devoted to practice rubbed off on me. I learned that one of the reasons they were excellent musicians was because of how much sound they could hear and analyse at once. My goal from that point on has been to familiarise myself with as much sound as I can.
I imagine a Cochlear Implant user's mind like a hard drive of sounds that can be accessed once recognised. By the time I entered college, using both Implants, I could hear voices and brass instruments with confidence. In hindsight, being a music major was not a smart choice. I felt very thrown in and unskilled. Realistically, I was.
The amount of time "gifted" people practice is immense, and I was new to this hearing thing. If it were not for colleagues in my program, my girlfriend, and my professors, I would not have been able to train my ears finely. Some of my friends and I would play games with our instruments to mimic the same note. My girlfriend and I would spend hours at a piano practising, and my professor and fellow trombonists pushed me to perform in public a lot. Again, I am grateful beyond words for all these experiences.
As an undergraduate musician, I freelanced in churches, orchestras, big bands, and chamber ensembles. There were opportunities to demonstrate my abilities, and some days were more successful than others. I treated every day like it was a day to hear something new, and I usually did! Between sophomore and junior year, I did a lot of ear training to pass various classes. I found myself hearing sound, but if I wanted more clarity, I had to work for it.
When talking about hearing "better," I think of hearing clearer because that is what most of us want: clarity of sound. Two strategies I used to hear clearer included sleeping with my processors on and listening to music or ambient noise at night while sleeping. The combination of the two helped reduce the fog time in the morning, and my Cochlear Implants felt like an extension of me because of how frequently I used them during this time.
I am always open to hearing what other Cochlear Implant users have done to hear clearly, as well. Currently, I am a student at Boston University, completing my Master of Music in Trombone Performance. I have begun to involve myself with Cochlear Implant research and festivals to help improve rehabilitation methods and increase Cochlear Implant user ability awareness.
In 2018, I was invited to Montreal to participate in a panel made up of Cochlear Implant users. We answered questions and participated in events held by the Second Annual Music and Cochlear Implant Symposium. It was inspiring to learn about the work in progress for the Cochlear Implant community.
This year, I had the privilege of going to Warsaw, Poland, for the 5th Beats of Cochlea Festival. This festival focused on the performing capabilities of hearing-impaired people. After auditioning, I was accepted to perform in the final gala concert with other musicians for an unforgettable experience!
My final thoughts include listening for the sake of listening. I do not hear everything, and I am not sure if I ever will. Listening is a skill we all must practice, and it is not easy to do. Sometimes, I feel very down about my hearing challenges, but other times, I feel lucky that I have had to work to listen clearly. It makes conversations, music, and silence all feel special. Communicating and listening in any form is a beautiful way to show we care.
Implanted in left ear 2009
Implanted in right ear 2014
Alek has released two YouTube videos which focus on learning to listen to music with a Cochlear Implant at:-
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