The Sound of Metal and Me

I watched Sound of Metal last night, guessing I might see parts of myself in it. It had a number of interesting angles for me. First, the main character, Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, is the drummer in a loud, intense and thrashing band, and then of course the fact that he goes almost deaf literally overnight and then completely deaf when he has cochlear implants surgically inserted. I have profound hearing loss but I’m not deaf and it didn’t happen overnight. Nor do I have implants, but the question of how to cope with hearing loss as a musician is a serious one.  There are personal and professional aspects. Who wants to work with a record producer who wears hearing aids, after all? I’ve made light of this by saying that Beethoven was deaf and if he could do it, I can do it. Ha ha. 

There were two powerful lines in the film for me, both delivered by Paul Raci’s character, Joe (oddly enough), the head of a school for the deaf. The first is when he assigns chores to the students, and for Ruben, the now-deaf drummer he writes on the white board, “Learn how to be deaf.” That’s Ruben’s work, his chore, to learn how to be deaf. I never really thought of it that way, even though it is work to learn how to navigate the world and life and music when you can’t hear. It’s not something you can read about in a book and then have the skill set.  

The second was when Joe refuses to consider deafness a disability and says that he doesn’t consider deafness something that needs to be fixed, that this idea is central to the philosophy of his school. I never thought of myself as disabled and still don’t. But it is a serious condition that impacts every aspect of my life. 

I first found out something was wrong when I was about 14 or 15 years old.  Our school gave us hearing tests.  They told me and my parents that I had hearing loss and that it was nerve deafness, likely hereditary and that nothing could be done to fix it – no surgery or meds. Nothing became of it, but at least now I knew I had hearing loss and it showed up more and more over time.  I had to ask people to repeat themselves and got teased for it. Jim used to call me “deaf-head” (it was endearing – we all had “head” nicknames in the band – blockhead, chowderhead, knucklehead, and I was deaf-head sometimes). I had to turn the television up more and more over time and struggled in movie theaters. My life was loud though so I suppose that masked it too to some degree.

It didn’t help that I was in a loud, intense and thrashing band myself. I wonder how many hours we spent rehearsing in small rooms as loud as we could, often just to get over Gary’s cymbals and snare, the guitar also really loud, a bass amplifier with an 18” JBL speaker powered by a Trace Elliott amplifier literally right next to me, and then the keyboards, for which I had Uncle Dave Hackarth build me a headphone amplifier to run them through. It’s kind of like mainlining the keyboards right to your eardrums.  But at least it blocked out some of the other noise. I was told somewhere along the line that people with hearing loss actually have a lower threshold for pain from loud noises, and whether that’s true or not, it was true for me. 

When people find out that I can’t hear (and it’s not hard to find out), most assume it was from being in the band and prolonged exposure to loud music.  It wasn’t, of course, although being in a band surely made it worse. Explaining over and over that that wasn’t the main cause was too tedious so I just kind of smiled and nodded when all the deaf-rock-guy jokes came, and they came.  Ha ha.

It seems I was doomed genetically.  My father was hard of hearing and eventually had to get hearing aids.  Both of my grandfathers had profound hearing loss, and some of their brothers were very nearly deaf. They became my crystal ball in a sense – what things might look like for me down the road. I knew I’d have to do something about it eventually when I was running out of headroom on all the volume controls, when people started saying everything was just so loud and when I was eventually asked by my family to consider hearing aids.  This was maybe around 1990, but we weren’t done making loud records yet, at least for a few more years. 

Sometime in the mid-1980s I had decided to go back to school.  Both of my parents and one of my brothers had advanced degrees and I always knew it’d be in my future sometime.  I didn’t need a degree, but there were lots of classes that looked so interesting to me just from a personal growth point of view and I could schedule my time between tours and records to attend classes. I chipped away at it 6 or 9 units per semester until I finally finished my B.A. in 1994.  Hearing loss meant I had to sit in the front row, as close as I could get to the professors, and hope they spoke clearly, and they often didn’t (professors and teachers – please speak clearly and consider that some of your students may not be able to hear you well).  I also realized then that I relied heavily on reading lips to help fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t hear.  If I couldn’t hear a word clearly, I had to look for other clues. Sometimes you have to piece together what is being said without hearing some of the words, and this is guesswork and not always accurate.

People with deep, powerful voices are easiest to hear.  There was one engineer at the studio we used to work at who didn’t have such a voice and he also had a bushy moustache and beard which made it very, very difficult to hear him or to read his lips.  I had to ask him more than almost anyone to repeat himself and sometimes (as others did too) he dramatized literally yelling what he had said, hands cupped around his mouth.  He didn’t mean anything by it but I’m sure it was frustrating for him to always repeat himself. It was frustrating for me too.  You learn pretty early on to avoid asking people to do that as much as possible, and as a result you miss things that are said, or try to guess at what was said and then listen to people laugh and laugh because what you just pieced together, or the question you thought you were answering, was not only NOT what was said but made no sense in the context of the conversation. So we sit it out sometimes, and the sense of social isolation increases. No, actually we sit it out often rather than burden a conversation or make fools of ourselves. I watched my father sit off by himself at family gatherings, purposely removing himself from conversation simply because he couldn’t follow along or participate. We also make liars of ourselves when, not wanting to ask people to repeat themselves, we just nod as if we heard and understood what was said. It’s really a nod of surrender, of relinquishing our role in dialog.

School was tough that way, but I sure did love it and grew from it. I’ve often said that therapy and my education have made all the difference in re-socializing myself after a rough and abusive childhood. A couple professors strongly advised me to go to grad school and to reach high.  I’ll be forever grateful to them for believing in me more than I believed in myself, even though I had the grades and the test scores. I had the good sense to heed their advice, and because I had five kids, I had to stay local. I ended up at UCLA at the Anderson Graduate School of Management and began studying there in 1994 immediately after finishing my undergrad.  

This was going to be a different proposition than attending a regular state university, especially in the amount of tuition I was going to have to pay for two years. I was 38 when I started grad school and was on the back end of my time as a touring and recording artist and record label owner. That’s another story, but my objective was to prepare myself to take my art and experience to another level, beyond CCM, at least. I was long-over it. I figured that if I was going to pay that kind of money for an education, and to sit in front of world-class professors, guest speakers and students, I might as well hear what they’re saying. I broke down and got over all the psychological barriers (“Hearing aids are butt-ugly and they’re for old people!”) and called the audiologists at CSU Fullerton. They fitted me with my first pair. 

There are videos on social media of babies and other folks who put on glasses or wake up from a corrective surgery and see or hear for the first time and we can see their reactions. It’s like the moment in Wizard of Oz when the film switches over to color. There’s a lot to that, but this is also where the “learning to be deaf” idea shows up again, except in this case, it’s also learning to hear. I clearly remember walking to my car from the audiologist’s office once my hearing aids (ear trumpets as I call them) were ready. You pop those things in and all of sudden the world is full of sound!  And not just sound, but sounds I had never heard – routine, workaday, unremarkable sounds. This was such a strange experience because I had no context for the sounds now intruding on my brain for the first time. They’re not all good sounds either. The world is a noisy place and if there is any upside at all to hearing loss, it’s that we can silence everything by taking them out. But there were two sounds in particular before I even got home from that appointment that I had no idea existed. The first was the sound of change in my pocket, the coins making the jingly sound they make when I fiddle around with them. I’d never heard that but it was easy to trace the sound to my actions.  

The second one stumped me. On my drive home I kept hearing a knocking sound, steady but periodic, and I wondered if something was wrong with my car. But it wasn’t that kind of knock and I finally figured out that it was the keys hanging from the ignition bumping up against the steering column as I drove. I’d never heard that either. Even today I have to ask people what certain sounds are because I have no context for identifying them. It was also a challenge to know how to put my own voice in context relative to the other sounds in a room. When I was still new to hearing aids, I remember being taken aside by another student at UCLA and being told that I was speaking loudly. Calibrating output as well figuring out the input was another aspect of learning to hear. It was (and still is) a very real challenge that I had never before considered.

A few years after UCLA I had the opportunity and means to go back to school yet again, almost as an afterthought, to take a few music classes. I had no objective in mind other than that – to bring music back into my life a bit. I had sold my interest in my production company while at UCLA and the band was inactive. One thing led to another though and I eventually found myself in another graduate degree program in music theory and composition. I don’t have an undergraduate degree in music though so I had to take a bunch of classes as pre-requisites to even apply to the Masters program and most of those classes had pre-requisites too. It took five years to finish all that, but it was truly about the journey, not the destination. As Lloyd Rodgers, my mentor and composition teacher used to say, “We’re on the slow boat to Mazatlán.” But of course hearing figures in again, not only hearing in the classroom but in what I was writing. 

I had written a process piece for two pianos and remember playing a draft recording of it for Lloyd and two other professors in a classroom one day.  I was very nervous but they all really liked the piece, said it was well-written, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But then Lloyd asked me why the range of the piece was so compressed, meaning it didn’t make full use of the highs and lows of the piano. I had to think about that, and my answer was that I can’t hear the high notes! Often, when hearing starts to go, you lose the high frequencies first – the sizzle and sibilance in sound. The higher overtones are the first to go and yet it is the overtone series in sound that allows us to differentiate one kind of sound from another, a trumpet from a kazoo, and one note from another.  When the higher overtones are missing, it’s very difficult to do either. I realized I couldn’t identify notes when they were up there in those higher registers.  When I was writing, I actually had to move everything down an octave or two to hear the interplay of the parts and voicings of the chords, make sure everything worked right and made sense, make any adjustments and then move everything back up to the higher octave. But that’s why I had written that piece in a tight mid-range of pitch. I couldn’t hear it any higher. 

Another example of this was at a sound check we were doing before an Undercover concert in a big church somewhere. There were bells in the tower and they started chiming a musical pattern, probably announcing the hour or something. I love the sound of bells and have used them on many songs and records. They have a rich tone and at the same time are kind of wild in the sense that the overtones of metallic materials are very complex!  That’s why bell-making is an art and other metals very difficult to work with when constructing instruments. During this sound check I pulled up a bell patch on my keyboard and began playing along with the church bells; or so I thought. Gary looked over at me from behind the drums and asked what the hell I was playing. I told him I was playing along with the bells. He told me I certainly wasn’t, that the notes weren’t even close!  The other guys looked aver and agreed with Gary. But I was playing the notes I heard from the bells. The explanation is that I was missing so many of the overtones that the notes I heard were not the notes everyone else heard.  I was missing the overtones necessary to hear and play the right notes. 

I have a dear friend, Dr. Andy Vermiglio, who used to fill in for Gary on drums from time to time.  I don’t remember how this happened but he had begun his Ph.D. in an audiology concentration and was conducting research at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. He knew I had hearing loss and asked if I would like to come in to the Institute for a series of tests that would contribute to the data that would go into his research.  I agreed and the $35 for my trouble didn’t hurt. He told me I’d be there for a couple hours at least. He ran me through a battery of tests including the audiogram most of us are familiar with, where we hear tones at different frequencies and push the button when we do, but then there was also a test called HINT, the hearing in noise test. When you can’t hear, these tests are very frustrating, because well, we can’t hear and we’re trying really hard!  This particular HINT test involved trying to pick out a particular person’s voice and the words that person was saying in various noisy environments like restaurants or parties. I finished all the tests and it was indeed frustrating as usual, and exhausting. I waited while Andy tabulated and interpreted the results. 

A few minutes later he came to discuss everything with me and he told me (I’ll never forget this visual) that his data set from all the other subjects was in a certain range and he held up his hands about a foot apart from each other to signify a range of data. Then he said, your results are way out here, and reaches out his right hand about as far as he could reach. “You’re working really hard to hear,” he said.  I heard that loud and clear. I was an outlier. We talked some more and he made some recommendations about hearing aids and I thanked him. I’m still grateful to this day. 

Since then I’ve moved to Virginia to teach music at James Madison University and have updated my hearing hardware 2 or 3 times since. This is normal every 4 or 5 years. Technology changes quickly. I’m lucky that there’s an audiology clinic and department at the university and I’ve forged some good professional relationships with the staff there. I even gave a colloquium at the JMU School of Music in 2017 on Aural Health for Musicians with my audiologist, Dr. Melissa Garber. We’ve been able to track my hearing over the years which is good. It’s progressive and getting worse, which is bad. The last test I had, my word recognition in my right ear was down to 12%. That means that I was able to actually hear and repeat back to them only 12% of the words they said (there’s a scene in the film of what that test is like). I always knew my right ear was worse. I have not been able to talk on the phone using that ear for many years. I simply can’t understand what’s being said. Word recognition is not the total measure of hearing loss. It’s one aspect. It doesn’t mean that I only have 12% of my hearing left, but that my word recognition is at 12%. Music is different. Strangely, I need that right ear with its 12% word recognition to hear music and other things coherently. Music doesn’t work the same in just one ear, even when it’s the better of the two. Even as bad as that right ear is, I need that ear.

I’m often asked how music sounds to me. Does it sound muffled, out of balance, shrill, dull, anything else?  How are you able to write and produce records?  The easy answer to that is that I’ve been listening to records my whole life and I hear them the way I hear them. That’s all I know. I try to do what sounds good in the way I’m used to hearing things sound good.  As it gets worse though that’s not going to be good enough. I have started using other people to mix songs and records, sticking to the writing, performance and recording of instruments.  There are things I just can’t hear anymore and I tend to overcompensate for that.  

After I got my hearing aids, the band recorded a new record at my home studio.  I was mixing the record with my hearing aids in, and Jim and Sim were sitting behind me on the sofa. Jim told me that the hi hats were blazing loud!  Sim agreed. I leaned in and listened, and listened again, harder and harder but couldn’t hear it. In fact I could barely hear them at all. I asked if they were sure and they were flummoxed that I couldn’t hear it. Blazing loud, they said!  Well, I took out my hearing aids and all of a sudden, there were those hi hats, blazing loud as they said. The hearing aids were compressing the high frequencies so I could push them louder and louder and it wouldn’t make any difference. I had them way too loud because that’s where it sounded right to me with the hearing aids in. I took them out and from then on have never worn them again when I’m working on music because I’ve lived my whole life hearing music the way I hear it, with my own imperfect, naked ears. 

Even in classical music where the dynamic nuance is so important, the super-soft moments are just gone to me. Gone forever actually, and that’s pretty sad if I let myself think about it. But there is Beethoven after all and I can still hear okay when I can make use of the technology we have today that Beethoven didn’t have. The worse problem for me is not music, challenging as that can be. It’s in relating, communicating and isolation, especially from people I love. 

I have had to learn to hear but I am also now having to learn how to be deaf. Technology grows by leaps and bounds, but whether it will be able to keep up with my own loss is doubtful. It’s not perfect as it is. Hearing aids do not get me back to normal hearing but they help a lot. I’ve known that I will eventually have to learn sign language (and probably already should have started), if for no other reason than to make it easier for those near me to communicate with me. That crystal ball of my ancestors’ isolation stares back at me otherwise. I probably won’t go deaf completely, but this is probably splitting hairs. It’s going to get tougher. I’m grateful for what I can hear, but learning to live each day with profound hearing loss is truly a lot of work. I have to learn the best ways to navigate it. It’s not fixing it. It’s not something that CAN be fixed, after all. There are tools though, like sign language and writing, like reading lips, like hearing aids, like headphones and amplifiers, and most of all, like the grace of those who also have to live with my hearing loss. 

And that, my friends, could include you. Even if we don’t know each other, you certainly know someone who suffers from hearing loss, some more severe, some less. Perhaps they are afraid or reluctant to bring it up or admit it. There is stigma and caricature around it as I suggested.  It’s an old-person’s problem.  It’s granddad. Get him his cane, his rocker, slippers and his cardigan sweater. “Eh? Speak up, Sonny!” We can do better. Hearing loss knows no age boundaries or barriers. I haven’t thought of my own hearing as a disability, as something to be fixed, even if it does have to be managed. There are more-kind and less-kind ways of dealing with people who have hearing loss. I’ve highlighted some of those here.  Maybe I can summarize. This won’t be a complete list, and I’m sure I’ll add to it (I’ve seen some really good articles about relating to persons with hearing loss and will keep looking), and perhaps you can add any ideas in the comments below, but so far: 

  1. Please don’t say “Never mind,” especially after having been asked once or twice to repeat.  The message there is that we’re not worth communicating with. We know we’re hard to communicate with. We want to hear important things though. We don’t like asking you to repeat yourself any more than you like repeating yourself. In fact we probably like it less and are more apprehensive. We are more likely to self-isolate to avoid this than to actually be isolated by others. But “never mind” does that.  
  2. Please don’t dramatize yelling or the hyperbole of cupping your hands around your mouth to get your message through.  Again, we know it’s hard.  Please be gracious. 
  3. Reconsider “jokes.” They’re hurtful, even if we grin or chuckle along with you.
  4. Know that we do not want to burden you and are likely to self-isolate in certain circumstances and conditions (noisy restaurants, etc.). Please work with us here. Asking for a private table in a less-crowded part of a room helps. Even more drastic is asking for a certain restaurant because it is not as noisy as others. Take the initiative to ask if your hard-of-hearing loved ones would prefer that. It can be a big relief.
  5. We know that what we respond to is what we think we heard and may not be what was actually said.  We have to fill in blanks and gaps.  It’s ok to laugh – I’ve learned to as well sometimes – it’s funny, after all, but please know it’s also really embarrassing for us.  A little grace and kindness go a long way. 
  6. If it seems like we’re ignoring you, we’re likely not. We just can’t hear you! I often tell neighbors and colleagues that if I ever don’t respond to a greeting or something, it’s probably because I didn’t hear it.   
  7. Musicians – please get your hearing checked and for the love of the gods of thunder, take care of them. I know lots of people who are afraid of what they might find out.  I can assure you, it’s better to know where you stand. 
  8. Watch the movie. It’s fantastic. And subtitles are your friend.

3 thoughts on “The Sound of Metal and Me

  1. Thank you so much, Joe, for your insights. You brought me to tears thinking about friends and family who have self-isolated because of hearing loss. I am profoundly glad that FB has brought many of us from FUHS together in ways that never would have occurred without it. My step-daughter is a Doctor of Audiology and I will share this with her.

    • Thank you so much, Jill – for reading and sharing. I agree that it is really great to be in touch with lifelong friends we otherwise probably would never hear about again. Your step-daughter is doing good work. Please thank her for me. ~Joe

  2. Nevertheless, that is not my main reason for viewing them. American Indian religous ideas are full of in depth encounters with Spirits. I can concentrate on 1 job and zone everything else out and I can get fairly mad as well.

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