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A Musician Relearns Melody

O'Connell, Renee Blue

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000412713.58078.63
Article

Many years ago, my good friend who was studying composition at Northwestern University invited me over to hear his latest piece on the keyboard. After waiting in silence for a while, I finally asked, “When are you going to play me your new song?” He looked stunned and answered, “I just did — didn't you hear it?” I didn't.

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I was only 25 years old, and had severe hearing loss as a result of a series of childhood fevers and a case of mononucleosis in my early 20s. I was able to hear well enough with a hearing aid, but over the years my hearing continued to worsen. At the age of 50, my ENT suggested I undergo surgery for a cochlear implant (CI).

Initially I was resistant because I am a musician and have played the guitar (classical and fingerstyle) for more than 35 years. I read that CIs were mainly speech processors, and may not process music as well as speech. One of my audiologists even told me that I might not like the sound of music with a CI. Yet, it was clear I was having a difficult time communicating with others.

I contacted my friend David who has a CI. I have known him for more than 20 years, and he has relied on sign language as a way of communicating. As soon as I saw him, however, I was immediately struck by how his family was no longer signing to him. I asked them, “Why is no one using sign language anymore?” They answered, “Because David can hear.”

I then decided to go ahead with the surgery, which was in January 2009, and I received a Nucleus Freedom CI. I have ski-slope hearing loss, and in the first few months after activation I experienced a lot of noise. Music sounded very strange. I continued playing my guitar, but the sound was not integrated. When I struck a note on the guitar, for example, a series of sounds occurred but it did not sound anything like music. Music has always been the most important aspect of my life, so I was determined not to give up.

Some weeks after my CI was activated, I began working with a music teacher to train my ear. We used tuning forks so I could feel the vibrations of pitches and frequencies of notes. She quizzed me on interval recognition in one exercise, which is a combination of two notes or the distance between their pitches. She would play two notes in succession, and I would listen to see if I could discern what interval it was. The first measure of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a perfect fifth, and the introduction to “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a major third. There are song charts that can be found online to aid with interval recognition. This is a significant exercise because intervals make up a melody. If you are able to distinguish pitches by isolating them, you can improve your ability to discern notes in a melody.

Other exercises we did were from the book Sight Singing: Pitch, Interval, Rhythm by Samuel Adler. We worked with a piano and a guitar, playing the notes of the intervals and then singing them a cappella. The goal of these exercises was similar to the previous ones, to be able to discern intervals and to also produce them by singing. More advanced drills would start by singing a series of notes in a melody and then reading the notes silently to ourselves. We would sing the notes out loud again at the last measure of the line, and then confirm the pitch against the piano. It was a lot of fun and also challenging. I believe that these exercises helped me regain my musical perception. My music teacher explained that most musicians don't perform these exercises because many people who play an instrument hear melodies without a problem.

Six months after my activation, I received a new digital hearing aid for my right ear. It felt like a miracle because I could hear every note on my guitar. Before my CI and hearing aid, I could hear up to only the seventh fret. Now I could hear all the way to the nineteenth. I knew my guitar would sound different, and I was prepared to accept it. The difference was that my nylon string acoustic guitar now sounded electric, but I was surprised that I liked the sound. Whew, what a relief and a blessing!

I am a now a full-time musician and receive e-mails from CI users from all over the country asking how I am able to hear a melody. I hope what I described will be helpful to others.

Renee Blue O'Connell is employed at the University of Virginia Medical Center as a certified music practitioner where she plays therapeutic music at patients’ bedsides. Ms. O'Connell also plays regularly at assisted living centers, works with VSA Arts in Charlottesville, and is the director of community outreach at Music for HOPE, a nonprofit organization that provides instruments for disadvantaged kids. She is available for musical commissions for video projects, and two of her compositions have been used for soundtracks in videos for cochlearimplantonline.com. Ms. O'Connell is available to perform for conferences, banquets, and galas. She is an active cochlear implant research participant and has done work at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, Arizona State University in Phoenix, AZ, and will be traveling in May to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Please visit her Web site at http://www.blueoconnell.com/bio.htm.

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