Musical Memory: A Church Organist’s Experience with Hearing Loss

How a church organist returned to music after hearing loss nearly drove him to give it up

Musical Memory: A Church Organist’s Experience with Hearing Loss

Brian Henderson at the console of the organ at his church in Bromsgrove, U.K.

 

“I just thoroughly enjoyed playing the organ.” Brian Henderson told me, “until the hearing losses came.” 

While attending church in primary school, Brian found himself counting the pipes of the church organ instead of listening to the sermons. He enjoyed the vast variety of sound an organ can produce in a range of warmth and brightness he could only describe as the “sublime delicacy and awesome power” of the organ. By age eighteen, he was filling in for the regular church organist, and played happily for many years. 

But by 2011, at age sixty-four, he experienced sudden hearing loss in his left ear, and then in 2016, sudden hearing loss in his right ear as well. The left ear was classified as moderate to severe hearing loss with significant loss from 1 kHz upwards and the right was classified as moderate, with loss from 2 kHz upwards. In the United Kingdom, where Brian lives, the National Health Service (NHS) provides hearing aids for free, with the option of going outside the public healthcare system to pay for private audiological care. Brian started out with the NHS aids, but they were optimized for speech, and he suddenly found music to be “totally overwhelming,” with “all sorts of silly distortions.” 

He struggled, not only with his own organ playing, but with hearing other performances as well. Concert-going, a favorite activity for years, became difficult. Unless he could see the band or orchestra, Brian had trouble identifying which instruments were being played, whether an oboe, clarinet, or trombone. As a former physics teacher, he was dismayed to discover that even a flute, which he knew from his profession produces the simplest sine wave in the air, came through the hearing aids with repetitive ticking noises rather than a clear stream of music.

With the organ, the wide range of volume and frequency which had been so enjoyable was now incredibly difficult. Hearing aids were unfortunately “dreadful for playing the organ,” unable to properly amplify the highest pitches or softest notes. Therefore, “there was a great tendency for the majesty, the brilliance of the organ just to get lost.” Playing the organ had changed completely. “I really hated it,” he said, “and I ended up just stopping playing. It was just too distressing.” 

While the story could have ended there, it thankfully does not. A few years later, Brian had a breakthrough with the help of a new audiologist found through a chain of recommendations. A member of his church was friends with a woman at a different church who sought an audiologist’s help after hearing loss left her struggling to sing with the church choir, and the audiologist was able to help her enjoy singing with the choir again. Brian began working with this new audiologist, who “prescribed an expensive pair of aids featuring automatic selection of programmes according to the characteristics of the incident sound.” Again, the hearing aids “worked well for speech but proved overwhelming for organ sounds.” 

The audiologist realized he needed to work directly with the source sound to optimize Brian’s aids for music and went to Brian’s church where he “spent an hour  tweaking various settings while [Brian] played and described the effects, and together [they] effectively created the balance that felt familiar and comfortable for [Brian].” Within the process, Brian’s audiologist employed Dr. Chasin’s methods for hearing aid adjustment (which you can find in a previous Grand Piano Passion article: “Dr. Chasin’s Checklist for Optimizing Your Hearing Aids for Music”). Finally, Brian was able to find a balance that allowed him to fix the previous distortions. 

Despite the help from his customized music program on his new hearing aids, much of his playing now relies on musical memory. For Brian, “remembering what things used to sound like, and then seeing them in dots of music on the stave” allows him to hear the music. When I asked what advice he would give to other musicians adjusting to hearing loss, he said: “Don’t panic.” He recommends “small beginnings― start quietly, start gently, and just get used to the sounds and be persistent enough. Try it all as often as you can.” In his own practice routine, he begins by playing something familiar, which grounds him and helps him get back into a place of concentration for his practice and play.

Now, Brian’s hearing aids have optimized programs for speech as well as music,, and the real trick becomes remembering to switch from one program to the other in order to hear the preacher well enough. Despite the challenges, Brian continues to pursue his passion, playing the organ for about four services a month at his local church. “The feeling of having a congregation with you,” he says, “the congregation singing, responding to how loudly [you] decide to play, you get the big last verse and you hear the congregation pick itself up and wrap itself around [you] and sing as loud as they can, it’s an enormous joy.”

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

2 Comments

  1. Your success with your hearing aids gives me hope. I had hearing loss and was doing pretty well for several years teaching piano and adjudicating festivals with my hearing aids. A sudden additional loss in my “good” ear suddenly made teaching more difficult. My audiologist has tried small adjustments and they sort of work. I find myself doing mental pep talks with myself saying “this is a scale”, or “listen to melody here or harmony there”. Sometimes, it takes several measures to start hearing a piece; changing pieces and keys can be challenging for several measures. Your advice about settling in and starting slow and being patient is helpful to remember. Do you have problems matching pitches? I find as I am listening to something, if I try to hum or sing along, it is difficult to match or be in tune. Last question, do you have problems with ear pain or fluid on your ears?

    • Dear Carol,
      Thank you for your question, our managing editor will put you in touch with Mr. Henderson to answer your comment more fully.

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