An Incredibly Deaf Musical Probes Hearing Loss

In this interview, Jay Alan Zimmerman opens up about his experience with hearing loss and how it drove him to create, produce, and perform in a musical.

Here’s a sneak peak at Jay and cast in rehearsal.

Directed by Dev Bondarin and choreographed by Wayne Williams, the show features Sarah Statler, Pierce Gidez, Brittany Silver, Greg Laucella, Lisa Lamothe and Jay Alan Zimmerman as himself.

Because I have a high-frequency hearing loss, people who compose piano music without hearing the corresponding sounds in the physical world fascinate me. “Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical” is the product of one such composer who is profoundly deaf to all sounds above middle C. Now Jay Alan Zimmerman will star in his own production for a limited two-week run in Manhattan.

The musical, which the New York Times has praised as “elevated by authentic experience,” describes Jay’s struggle as the white noise from his progressive hearing loss gradually drowns out the sound of music.

Jay joined GRAND PIANO PASSION™for this exclusive interview to talk about the challenges he faces performing with a hearing loss.

Tell us how you handle performing in the musical given your hearing loss.

It’s a challenge, for sure! For rehearsing with the cast, I am using a combination of lip reading, a wireless keyboard with an iPad, scribbled comments on paper, and a few signs.

For performing, we are using a few techniques to make it appear that I’m actually hearing the other actors, like a hidden tap on my back or a physical movement that cues me that it is time to say my line. For music, I’m using some flashing colors in the projection design, so I know where the beat is. I have written any music I sing low enough so I can hear the right pitch. Part of the story is how these other characters in my mind express the music for me, and so that certainly helps that they can take over when needed.

In what way did creating and producing this musical help you to come to terms with your hearing loss?

I like that you said “come to terms” with it instead of accept it. My impression from all those feel-good talk shows is that when you have a problem like this, you’re supposed to just accept it and then move on. But how do you move on from something that follows you around all day? A typical storyline for disability is “overcoming adversity,” and my show isn’t about that. It’s about living with adversity.

This is the musical I didn’t want to write but needed to write. I wrote the first songs before I even conceived of doing a musical, and before I publicly admitted my hearing loss. By writing about this journey, I’ve been able to reconnect with my initial love of music while discovering new ways to continue creating it. At the same time, turning all those reactions to losing my hearing — anger, grief, frustration, sadness — into creative expression, gives me a way to take more control of my altered reality.

What advice do you have for others struggling to come to terms with a progressive hearing loss?

Try to comprehend every aspect of your hearing loss because it is unseen, and you may never know why you have it. It’s much easier to deal with something you can make tangible. Second, once you understand the details about your loss, you can find out what you’re going to need for each kind of interaction: will you need a hearing aid? Will you use signs or paper or lip reading or a special amplifier? Or a combination of all of these? Experiment with your friends and bring them into it. People find it fun when you make it fun and are honest about what you need. Third, force yourself into uncomfortable situations so that you are not isolated. Tell people what you need to be able to follow the conversation and don’t be afraid to butt in there and say “what subject are you talking about now?”

And lastly, go ahead and have a bit of a cry and yell and pound the table when it drives you nuts, but don’t stay in those moods for long. Having gone completely to the dark side for a while, I can tell you: don’t deny your feelings, but don’t let them pull you down either. Take risks because it really doesn’t matter if you don’t hear every word. Most people are just babbling nonsense 90% of the time anyway.


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