How Can I Keep From Singing?

Submitted to the DAR Women’s Issues Essay Competition. It received state honors (Louisiana). OK, Charlotte, here it is. 

I suppose I’ve come to that “wise woman” part of my life, even though I don’t feel wise. I am a wife, mother, office manager for my family business, songwriter, and vocalist. I am occasionally asked for advice by young singers.

I tell them that a vocalist can never replace their instrument. If it gets damaged or broken, we can no longer sing – or we must find a way to deal with the damage.

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This is the story of my own damaged instrument. Not my voice, but my ear. My advice to young vocalists has expanded to include: If you ever experience sudden hearing loss, it is a medical emergency.  I tell them about the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease.

I juggled singing with job and family life. I sang with my blues band, at my church, at our local Jewish temple, and with my music partner in our Gospel duo. God makes each of us an instrument, and I did my best to learn to use and care for my musical instrument. Call me “Queen of the Earplugs;” I treasure my ears.

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Earplugs don’t help with allergies, though. For years, I’d have occasional bouts of clogged ears and dizziness during high allergy seasons. One December day a few years ago, my ears clogged.

I thought it was allergies, or possibly I’d caught my husband and daughter’s virus. I had things to do at the office and two sick ones to care for. I knew what this was, took ibuprofen and antihistamines, but it got worse.

I couldn’t hear anything clearly in my left ear. While it had been several years since my last “spell,” I’d had a severe dizzy day recently, so I saw my ENT, who was familiar with my history. I expected the usual cortisone pack, but this time he looked at me with concern when I told him this had lingered for three weeks.

I knew from his expression that something was different this time. This should have run its course by now, he said. He prescribed cortisone and an antifungal.

“When will my hearing return?” I asked.

“Let’s wait and see what the medication does,” he replied.

I took what felt like a never-ending course of cortisone and Valtrex.

After a month of medication, Dr. Robert ordered an MRI. Fortunately, there was no tumor, but no answers either. I went to the audiologist for a baseline audiogram. There was nothing but noise and pain in my left ear. Results? My right ear was good, but my left ear showed a profound hearing loss. I took a copy of the report home, filed it away, and cried. I cried me a river, as the song says. How ironic.

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I told only family and closest friends. I quit scheduling band gigs; even with earplugs jammed into my ears, I was afraid to take any chances. Meanwhile, a bizarre group of sounds had moved in where my hearing used to be: Tinnitus. In different keys. All at once.

Dr. Robert had told me that we needed to wait a year, as there was a chance that my hearing would return with time. Meanwhile, I had this invisible, sudden, crippling loss that I couldn’t even talk about or escape. After asking my husband to repeat something for the third time one evening, he voiced his frustration. “Are you DEAF?” he cried.

I fell apart.

“YES, I AM.” I replied. “In one ear. Half of everything I hear is GONE.” He felt terrible. So did I.

I began telling a few people about my loss. I was shocked at some of the responses.

“Well, I guess so, all that loud music you play!” A laugh. “I could have told you THAT was going to happen!”

Really? I’m the one wearing earplugs, remember? I have the small band that is known to be considerate of noise levels.

My response was anger. Then, there was the well-meaning advice about earwax, about this doctor, that diet, this treatment, etc. No, a cochlear implant would only destroy the way I hear music.

That year was one of adjustment, resignation, and hope. In many ways, I had to relearn to sing because I had to learn how to hear again. Our brains are wired for stereo, and that was lost to me. I quit going places where a large group of people gathered because I could no longer discern voices in a conversation. I quit going to movies and concerts and any live presentation because they were hard to follow. Everything was a wash of noise, coated with a blanket of anxiety and occasional panic.

I considered hearing aids, although I had no idea how to pay for them. We had two children in college. This was hope, though: One day, I can get hearing aids. 

I longed to hear in stereo. I wanted the safety of knowing where a sound originated. If someone called my name, I had no idea of where to turn. I don’t know where a siren or horn is coming from in traffic.

I wanted to hear music in stereo.

When the year was up, I went back to Dr. Robert and the audiologist. I was hopeful, as Erica, the audiologist, had successfully fit my father with hearing aids. I was determined to put up with whatever adjustment was needed. Surely no hearing aid noise could be more obnoxious than tinnitus!

The testing was similar to a routine audiogram. Erica explained that the noise and sounds and speech I would hear in the headphones would be adjusted just as it would be with a hearing aid, so we would find out whether or not a hearing aid would help me.

Whether or not? I hadn’t realized there was a chance that this wouldn’t work.

Today’s hearing aid technology is phenomenal. From what I knew about audio engineering, the ability to adjust amplification of specific frequencies in a device so tiny was nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, this miracle was not to be mine. No amount of amplification or adjustment made a difference – only physical pain. I sat in Erica’s office and sobbed as she held my hands and offered tissue, understanding, and honesty. The cilia, the microscopic hairs of the inner ear that enable us to hear, were dead. No diet, supplement, medication, procedure or technical device would restore them. I faced a life in monaural, but at least I had one functioning ear.

She also offered a tentative diagnosis: Meniere’s Disease. My decades-long history of periodic dizziness was a clue. I’d had several particularly violent dizzy periods in months preceding the hearing loss. During the worst dizzy periods, I always spun to the left. I had become so used to a dizzy period during high-allergy months that they just became a part of life, diagnosed previously as “Benign Peripheral Vertigo.”

I learned about Meniere’s Disease, and saw my history written in what I found. Dr. Robert’s suggestions to address the vertigo were basically the same as for Meniere’s, but I felt defeated as I learned that no one knows the cause of the illness, and there is no cure. My years of periodic spells, interspersed by periods of feeling normal, had a name. Interestingly, it affects more women than men, and the possible causes include infection, allergies, head injury, stress, fatigue, migraines, respiratory infection, and an autoimmune response. I wasn’t too surprised that women experience Meniere’s more than men. It usually affects one ear, but sometimes attacks both over time. I cannot dwell on that. It is critical for me to maintain my balance, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally.

balance

Balance.

It’s not always obvious that I have a hearing deficit, but an astute observer will notice. I’m getting better at lip-reading. In music, I seek the right position to hear what I need to hear in order to sing. In any group seating situations, I tell the person on my left “I’m deaf in this ear. If you say something and I don’t respond, it’s because I didn’t hear you.” I’ve learned to deflect the still-painful topic of hearing aids by saying “it’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be fixed by a hearing aid.” I’ve learned that such queries are usually out of concern.

I also tell others that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency, even if you’ve had it before and you think “oh, allergies.” I also tell them about Meniere’s Disease.

On the positive side, the dizzy spells have mostly stopped; this, too, is typical of Meniere’s. As for singing, I’ve had to hyper-focus my sense of pitch, which has strengthened my vocals. I’ve heard of other vocalists who have experienced a similar hearing loss who have quit singing.

I can’t not sing. I have found a new way of listening, and a new way to focus on the experience of singing. It is a whole-body expression, as you must feel the vibrations and melody in your body. Your mind, throat, ear, mouth, lungs must know how the notes feel as well as how they sound. Perhaps it’s similar to the heightened sense of hearing that some vision impaired people have; I am partially deaf, so I have an enhanced sense of certain facets of singing that some take for granted.

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How can I keep from singing? At a Women at the Well concert. Photo by Rev. Kemper Anderson, at St. James Church in Cedartown, Ga.

About three years into this journey, my music partner and I were preparing to go on a short tour of several churches in the mid-Atlantic states, performing our original Gospel program about Jesus’ women disciples. We had recorded several of the songs from the program, and I longed to re-record some vocals and add harmonies.

Singing overdub harmonies is a challenge when you have only one functional ear. I managed by notating the harmonies, placing the headphone behind my one good ear, and forging ahead in spite of fear deep in my soul. What if I couldn’t do it?

But I could, and I did. A few days later, after the vocals were mixed, we shared the tracks with a friend. Danny is a gifted pianist who tours worldwide and has done a lot of recording and harmony vocals. He knows of my hearing loss, and was floored when he heard the harmonies.

“That’s a miracle,” he said, “that you could do that.”

It is a miracle, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. I still ache over the loss, but on the other hand, I now sing more sacred music and chant. Sometimes frustration still rises to the surface. That’s when the words and music of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing sustain me:

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing

            It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?                      

Gratitude: Beethoven.

On December 17, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the Roman Catholic parish of St. Regius in Bonn.  245 years ago today. The rest, as they say, is history, and so much more.

I’ve loved his music for most of my life.  In childhood, I had a bust of Beethoven on my piano (who didn’t?).  I remember when my grandmother came across this picture of Beethoven in front of his house, framed it and gave it to me.  Beethoven house

My cousin, an artist, created a Beethoven teeshirt for me. What I knew of Beethoven as a child fascinated and frightened me – it was said he had a temper (and he certainly had wild hair) – but oh, his music.  OH, his music!!

Part of the delight and wonder of it was that a budding piano student could play what the Great Man wrote. No waiting years and years for the musical payoff. Who hasn’t tackled Fur Elise with a sense of delight and accomplishment when the notes finally flowed smoothly? And who, knowing of his deafness, hasn’t been awed by the sheer fact that he wrote so much glorious, soul stirring music in silence?

Then again, it wasn’t silent inside of his head, and thank God for that.

There are countless articles, books, histories, etc. written about Beethoven.  A wonderful read, published about 15 years ago, is Russell Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair.  This book weaves together three true and fascinating stories: The story of a lock of Beethoven’s hair, snipped by a student after his death and encased in a locket, the story of two men who purchased it in 1994 and their subsequent testing and investigation of the lock, and the story of Beethoven himself.  It’s a riveting read which sheds scientific information on the centuries-long mystery of what caused his deafness.

Beethoven hair book

It’s not exactly a spoiler alert – the news has been around for a while, although I still see articles online that say “no one knows exactly what caused his deafness.”  The beauty of molecular testing on hair is that you don’t just get a picture in time, you get a picture of what was going on in the body over the period of time that the hair grew.  You see what was ingested; poisons, drugs, etc.

Testing revealed massive levels of lead.  It’s probable that Beethoven had somehow ingested large amounts of lead over the decades prior to his death.

Perhaps even more surprising is what was not found:  No evidence of painkillers for his ever-increasing pain.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  How could a soul so much in touch with the most incredible subtleties of expression bear to dull himself so?  I am more in awe of him than ever.

Who else could introduce such stories in so few notes?  And then, he took those notes and gave us all the details, all the joy, the pain, the yearning.  A man in such pain (for many reasons) wrote the most incredibly healing, magnificent music. One of his great lessons is that there is always beauty, no matter what life gives you.  One work that came out of his deafness was his 9th symphony with its magnificent 4th movement.  It’s music that takes a soul straight to heaven.

I cannot play any of his works masterfully (or even close), yet I play them for myself.  It gives me joy to do so, and sometimes it just gives me solace.

Today, and every day, I am grateful for the music and the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.

– – – – – – –

The Guevara lock of hair is permanently housed in the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose University.

Filling in the Gaps

Our church has a small but dedicated choir, but we often  compliments such as “it sounds like the loft is FULL! It sounds like there’s a lot more people singing up there than there is!” It’s a lovely comment, especially as we’re often more of a quartet than a choir.

My friend (and fellow chorister) Margaret recently observed: “I think that God comes in and fills in the empty spaces for us.”

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We do sing with intention. We want to give our best to God, to our church family, and to Leon (our choir director who brings out the best in us).  I think Margaret got it just right: God does fill in the spaces and magnifies our efforts. God can enlarge what we do if we allow it. Here’s an example from my own musical life:

On December 27, 2011, I lost my hearing in my left ear.  Unable to find any other explanation for this sudden change (I’m meticulous about hearing protection when performing), my doctors figured it was the result of “a virus.”  Over the next year I went through multiple tests, consultations, and listening to well-meaning folks telling me that it might just be wax in my ears, and why didn’t I just have surgery? I clung to hope of a spontaneous return of hearing (it might happen, my doctor said, we have to give it a year).  I resisted the idea of a hearing aid for a while, and then began to look forward to the one year mark when I could begin the process of being fitted for a hearing aid.

That was not to be.  The sensorineural hearing loss I have does not respond to a hearing aid.  Welcome to life in monaural. I cried a river.

I’ve had to adapt.  In the case of Epiphany’s choir, small is a blessing for me.  I’m able to hear and enjoy the other parts without being distracted or confused.  You can’t sing harmony without listening to what else is going on. While that’s not a problem with two working ears, it’s very tricky with only one. Unison singing can be challenging if we’re not all completely unison.  My fellow choir members have become used to my moving around to find just the right spot to stand in the loft so that I can hear. At least solos are easy.

Recording vocal parts requires adjustment, too.  My music partner Joshua and I recently remixed and re-recorded some demos from our Women at the Well program and released a short CD.  A main objective was to re-record vocals and add vocal harmonies on several of the tracks, and there’s where God filled in the blanks.

Adding the harmonies required overdubbing – me singing different lines over myself.  You can’t do that without hearing everything, and hearing everything with only one ear means the brain is  processing some signals differently.  I can’t exactly describe it, but I do know I had to completely re-learn how to manage this.

Since the only budget for this project was earmarked for CD replication, we were recording at Joshua’s house.  The bathroom was the vocal booth.  Contrary to what you may think, that’s not because of “bathroom acoustics” but rather because it was the quietest room in the house. Since a vocal booth needs to be “dead,” we had a lot of blankets and towels draped everywhere!

It’s a pretty funny picture.  I was standing in a tiny bathroom, blankets draped over the shower curtain rod and piled in the bathtub, a big stuffed teddy bear crammed into the closet-without-a-door, scribbled notation taped to the wall in front of me so I’d remember exactly what to sing (what line am I singing now?) and I’m holding one headphone a couple of inches away from my ear so I can hear where to come in – but not so much as to be confusing….In the middle of all of this, a daddy longlegs spider appeared in the corner to watch.

Our budget also doesn’t allow for autotune, so it had to be perfect.

When I heard the final product, I cried with joy and relief.  I’d feared I’d never be able to do this again, yet there it was, beautiful harmonies and all.

One of the first people to hear the final product was our friend Danny, who plays keyboards and sings backup in a world-touring zydeco band.  Danny knows of my hearing loss, and also understands what’s necessary in overdubbing harmony lines.  How did you do that with just one ear?  he asked.  That’s a miracle.

God stepped in to fill in the blanks inside of my head and ears.  A next-to-nothing budget, Joshua’s considerable production skills and a whole lot of Divine assistance gave us a CD we could be proud of, that we could offer to those who heard our Women at the Well program and wanted to revisit the music again and again.

God fills in the empty spaces wherever we allow God to do so.  My hearing loss makes me realize that if I’m going to keep doing what I love, I need God to fill in those empty spaces.

This morning I was fixing my tea and thinking about Margaret’s comment, our “heavenly choir” and how God fills things out for us.  My eyes fell on a mail order catalog that my husband had left open on the kitchen table.  There was a teeshirt that simply said:

God greater than

God is greater than. Can I get an AMEN? God is greater than anything and will fill in the blank spaces when we allow it.

To learn more about the Women at the Well program, visit www.women-at-the-well.com. For information about the Living Water CD, visit www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbontherock The CD page has the latest recordings.