A Pianist Experienced with Hearing Loss

Joyce Morton on Coping, Wearing Hearing Aids, and Making Music

Nancy M. Williams interviews Joyce Morton in Washington DC. (For subtitles, set the subtitles parameter at top right of screen to “English.”)
Before I even met Joyce Morton, I knew she had a hearing loss. But in 2013, I traveled to Washington DC to interview Joyce in her capacity not as a person with hearing loss, but rather as an accomplished amateur pianist. A student of Matthew Harre, who teaches mostly adults, Joyce did not disappoint. While I watched behind the video camera, enraptured, Joyce played the Liszt Un Sospiro. Her rendition of the second movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata was similarly stirring.

In between takes, we talked about our mutual predicament of being ardent pianists who happen to suffer from hearing loss. Joyce’s loss is what audiologists call moderate to severe, although those terms hardly seem adequate to describe the quieting of the world that Joyce experiences without her Oticon hearing aids. Since her mother first noticed Joyce’s loss during her childhood, it has slowly worsened.

Yet for every decibel that Joyce has lost in hearing, she has amassed double the weight in wisdom about how to live with a hearing loss. A senior research associate at Washington DC’s Urban Institute, she has managed a successful career despite her hearing challenges. During our conversations in between takes at the piano, I was so impressed with her advice about how to live with a hearing loss that I suggested on the spot that we do a video interview.

We faced a predicament when it came to lighting. For the music videos, the window behind her piano had cast sufficient natural light. But we would need to conduct the video interview on the couch, across the room from the windows. As it so happened, Joyce’s husband is an engineer who loves to tinker, and in no time at all, Henry rigged up two floodlights on ladders.

In the resulting video here, Joyce shares her insights about coming to terms with the emotional cost of hearing loss, breaking in new hearing aids, and working with an audiologist to optimize hearing aids for making music. I hope you will enjoy Joyce’s candor and strong spirit as much as I do.

Joyce Morton is a Senior Research Associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington DC, where she works with other analysts to determine the impact of changes to government policies that affect benefits and taxes. Ms. Morton has studied piano with Matthew Harre in Washington DC for more than 20 years.
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12 Comments

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this video and talking re hearing loss at young age and piano. I am a Mom who has finally gotten hearing aids last month and having problems getting through trial period and how long it might take. Particularly with my kids playing piano!! I spend more than an hour every day helping my kids with piano practicing and the piano has been killing my ears–I will ask my audiologist tomorrow for a piano program like yours! And thank you for explaining that it takes a while to get used to the too loud problem–this is my biggest problem, and for the bit of personal history re getting hearing aids young–me too! And thank you for encouragement in video.

    • Thank you for writing and congratulations on your new hearing aids. I was so happy to read that the video was helpful to you. I’ve also found that your ears acclimate over time to hearing aids, so staying the course is a good idea.

  2. I join Nancy in saying I am so happy you have found this video helpful! As I stated in the interview, the trial period is not necessarily pleasant, but I think you will be happy you persisted. What I did not say in the video is that persistence extends beyond wearing your hearing aids long enough to get used to them. It also applies to efforts to get the very best settings you can possibly obtain, and that may require several trips to your audiologist. Tell him or her what you do not like and work together to get the settings that work for you. Your audiologist may alter the initial settings to accommodate your feedback and then gradually transition to settings recommended by the hearing aid manufacturer. Find an audiologist who will work with you and keep seeing him or her until you are satisfied. Having a separate program for the piano is the ideal, I think, but if that is not possible with the hearing aids you have chosen, then you may be able to simply adjust the volume for the piano. Best of luck to you!

  3. Hi Joyce and Nancy, Thank you both for your encouraging notes. I went to my audiologist yesterday and had him make me a Piano program like yours (but with a more lowered volume for left ear, as I always sit slightly right of piano when my children practice.) Also a Car program to accommodate small squeaky voices in back seat and loud wind noises on left side of minivan. And yes, audiologist does seem to be trying to transition to manufacturer’s settings! Thank you for encouragement to continue get settings more personalized–I will continue to work on this. Not a problem to wear aids long enough to get used to them—I love being able to hear again—definitely worth the sometimes unpleasant, “too loud!” 🙂

    Does the “too loud!” problem ever completely go away?

  4. Well, for me, too much volume is rarely a problem, though some environments are very noisy. I think the answer depends on so many factors–degree of the hearing loss, quality and adjustment of the hearing aids, environmental factors, nature and intensity of the noise, tolerance of the wearer–that I cannot really answer the question. However, I expect that in time, you will adjust and sounds that are now too loud may not always be perceived as too loud. It sounds like you are well on your way!

  5. Thank you for this helpful (and reassuring) video. As someone on the borderline of needing aids, it has been very useful. As most of my day is spent at the piano (I teach and play), trying aids has been quite alarming. Can I ask if you have experienced pitch bending on notes? For me that is the worst part, every piano sounds out of tune! So far my audiologist hasn’t been able to work out which settings to alter (if we can). I’m aware that every person is quite unique in their needs, but I wonder if this is something other pianists have experienced? Thanks. 🙂

    • Rachel, Very glad that you found this video helpful. I do experience distortion on the higher notes, because that’s where my loss is most severe. Also, some hearing aids like Phonak will take sound at higher frequency and transport it to lower frequencies, which is great for speech but absolutely unacceptable for musicians. This feature needs to be turned off in your music setting (and I believe it’s standard for their music setting, which I find puzzling). Check with your audiologist on that. Another option, since it sounds like your hearing loss is not that severe, is to investigate analog hearing aids. Again, a question for your audiologist. If you are in a large metropolitan area, it may be worth investigating whether you can find an audiologist specializing in music. Please check back in a few months; I’m planning on a post on how to find a good audiologist if you are a musician. Good luck, and don’t give up!

  6. Rachel, I have never experienced the phenomenon about which you wrote. I asked my daughter (who is an audiologist) if she knew anything about it, and she replied that she had not encountered such a complaint. She said that with the advent of frequency compression and frequency transposition in hearing aids, she could imagine that might be a contributing factor. She suggested that you talk to your audiologist about setting up a dedicated music listening/performance program with the frequency compression or transposition feature turned off. She also mentioned that Bernafon hearing aids might be worth considering. They are reputedly good for musicians because they don’t break up frequencies into channels. Though they use frequency transposition, the feature can be turned off. I hope this is helpful and that you are able to find a solution to your problem. If you do, be sure to let us know.

    • Thank you both for your ideas. I will discuss them with my audiologist and let you know how I get on!

  7. Rachel, I have a little more information for you. I also have a very close friend who is an audiologist, and I posed the same question to her. She mentioned that she has begun recommending Oticon hearing aids and believes that both the Oticon and Bernafon are manufactured by the same Denmark company. She suggested that you try a set of hearing aids made by different company like Starkey, Phonak or Widex so that will help you determine if what you are experiencing has something to do with the hearing aid technology or if there is a physiological component. My daughter responded that she agreed that trying other manufacturers for comparison is a good idea. Good luck!

    • Hello again – I just wanted to get back and let you know that we found a solution for the pitch bending; it did seem to be a feedback issue, and switching the feature off solved the issue on the music programme. The aids are Oticon ones, I had initially tried Phonak but had quarter tones on every note which was excruciating! Now we just need to sort out volume/distortion etc which is still an issue. My audiologist is very patient – I don’t think musicians are the easiest clients! Thanks again for your help. 🙂

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