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Moved by music

Fiorillo, Ben

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000399916.92765.19

Ben Fiorillo will be entering his sophomore year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME in the fall, and plans on majoring in Biology with a minor in History. This essay is an abbreviated version of his 2005 college essay, which was honored by Clarke Mainstream Services in its newsletter, Mainstream News. Ben was also honored as one of Clarke's first “Kids with Character.”

Figure. Be

Figure. Be

I love music.

I love to listen to the relaxing piano melodies of Jim Brickman.

I love to listen to the symphonic sounds of Elton John.

I love to listen to the heavily ladened percussion refrains of Phil Collins.

I love to listen to it on my iPod while working out or studying.

I love to play music on the piano for my own pleasure and relaxation.

I love music, like most teenagers, except unlike most teenagers...

I am deaf.


I am the third of four boys, the only one with a hearing loss. For the first seven years of my life, I heard very little, and what I did hear was inconsistent due to fluctuations in my hearing.

By the time I was 2-years-old, I had undergone a number of surgeries in an attempt to stabilize my hearing. With a severe to profound hearing loss, I began my education in an oral program for hearing-impaired and deaf students. When I was 7-years-old, I had minimal hearing left, and qualified for a cochlear implant. Although I did very well with the implant, which resulted in my transfer to a mainstream school for third grade, I developed a severe infection of the implant due to a surgical error a year after its placement and a month into third grade. I not only lost this device but all of the hearing in my left ear. I spent the next three years in my mainstream school without hearing.

By age 11, my hearing was nonexistent, so my parents sought help from Dr. Daniel Lee, who implanted my other ear. Although Dr. Lee made sure that I understood the risks of surgery on my remaining ear (total deafness), he also spoke with me about the benefits of hearing sound again. With the support of my parents, I made the decision to take the risk. Happily, the procedure was successful, and with a new cochlear implant, I can now hear sound which, combined with lip-reading, allows me to access information. Most importantly, I can hear music again.

Music has always played an important role in my life. Apparently, when I was 2-years-old, my parents purchased an upright piano. When the piano tuner arrived, I was fascinated. With the top of the piano open, I watched as the lower keys were struck, produced sound, and visually vibrated the piano wires. As the upper keys were hit, the wire was visually vibrating, but there was no sound. When the piano tuner turned away, I placed my hand on the side of the piano, struck the lower key, and then the upper key. It was a “eureka” moment when I learned that I could not hear some sounds. Looking back, it also seems to me to be the first moment I bonded with the piano, and that bond would become stronger with time.

By age 5, I was driven to learn to play the piano. My two older brothers, Andy and Matt, were banging away, producing some interesting sounds, and it seemed to be fun. Most importantly, whatever Andy and Matt did, I did, too. Mr. Hillard, a piano teacher with the patience of Job, came to our house. Over the course of 13 years, he worked with me through periods where I had some hearing, no hearing, and finally a cochlear implant. When I had minimal hearing, I could hear some of the lower notes of the piano, supplemented by the vibrations I could feel through my fingers. When I lost all my hearing I was only able to feel the music through vibrations. With the second cochlear implant, I was able to hear the tunes again.

Over the years, Mr. Hillard's eternal patience moved me (and my family) from my painful melodies to enjoyable renditions of Jim Brickman and Elton John. I was finally able to find peace and relaxation from the stress of functioning in a hearing world through music. The words are not important to me—I actually cannot hear them. It is the melodies that I can hear and enjoy, and that I love to play.

Deafness is not an all or nothing phenomenon. Sound does not just get softer, and turning up the volume does not cure deafness. Because different letters are heard at different frequencies, with some frequencies easier to hear than others, some letters disappear from words, making sentences difficult to comprehend. An analogy would be to consider typing with a keyboard that is missing certain letters. There would be spaces intersperced in the text, and you would need to determine meaning using the context of what is being written.

When this concept is applied to speaking, pitch, volume, distance from the source, and context, they all affect comprehension. Because intact words are not heard, they cannot be duplicated. Babies speak because they hear their parents speak. I did not hear my parents until I received my first hearing aids at 1-year-old, and even then I did not hear them intelligibly. My ability to speak, then, was a learned process, where speech and language pathologists and as teachers of the deaf taught me words and sound production. I learned to speak over many years of working with some exceptionally patient and gifted teachers.

With my brothers acting as the carrot because they never let me think that I could not do whatever they could do, I achieved success, winning two public speaking contests in middle school, and continuing to speak at conferences in front of my classmates and friends. Interestingly, studies done in Russia have shown that music improves the clarity of speech even more than articulation by adding rhythm and rate. I know that without music and the assistance of my family and many wonderful teachers I may never have learned to speak so well.

Music has always been an important part of my life. It has allowed me to develop my speech to a high performance level and it also helps me relax when I need a break from studying and working all day. Enduring painful surgeries, working hard to learn to speak and to acquire language, focusing on the piano, and experiencing new sounds—especially music—has developed my character, making me a gentleman, a hard-worker, and a person with a dream of becoming a cochlear implant surgeon, one day developing major breakthroughs for the non-hearing community. My favorite quote, which is framed and hung on my wall, always inspires me to do my best and to venture into new areas of study or to embrace new experiences:

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.

Only through experiences of trial and suffering

Can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared,

Ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

—Helen Keller

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.