Getting Closer to the Music: Taking Private Music Lessons with a Cochlear Implant

August 16th, 2012 by | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

By Wendy Cheng

Over 15 years ago, when I received my first cochlear implant, my CI audiologists cautioned me not to expect too much in the area of music and cochlear implants.  I was supposed to be just grateful that with time, my brain and auditory memory would work with the implant so that I was able to enjoy listening to the overture from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  But I wanted so much more. I hear music I have played before and silently mime the fingering on an imaginary violin, or see piano sheet music and mentally write out the fingering.  Personally, no experience has been more of an adventure than to resume violin lessons post-implant and eventually start a new instrument, the viola.

Growing up, I wore a hearing aid in my left ear — the right ear was already profoundly deaf and I never wore a hearing aid in that ear. In high school, I fell in love with the sound of the violin. By that time, I had four years of classical piano under my belt but to me, piano has always been Mom’s instrument and not MY instrument. Many people, including my piano teacher and some string teachers, tried to dissuade me from learning the violin because the intonation requirements for mastering the violin were so high. (More on intonation and tuning later.)    I finally began violin lessons as a college sophomore, stopped for a while to attend graduate school, and then went back to taking lessons after I was gainfully employed.   The only other times I stopped lessons were when my two daughters were born and after I lost the remainder of my hearing the second time around.  Other than that, music lessons have always been part of my life.

I resumed lessons six months after I received my first implant.  I had hopes of learning to play the higher notes on the violin but by 2001, I realized I (and my implant) could not discriminate notes that were higher than 1174 hertz (this is the D right above high C).   After some thought, I decided to switch to viola so I could learn to play in the higher positions on the fingerboard.  I’m learning fourth position on the viola now and it’s exciting and scary at the same time.

Based on my own experiences, here are some tips on how to make your own journey into music lessons go smoothly.

1. Determine what instrument(s) you want to learn to play.

If you are not well acquainted with what various musical instruments sound like, here are two titles to listen to:  Benjamin Britten’s work titled A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals

Music in its most basic form consists of two elements:  rhythm and melody.
If you like rhythm, drums and other percussive instruments are good possibilities.  This is not to say that all percussion instruments do NOT have melody—in fact, the marimba does have melody when you strike a note.  But all percussion instruments, like tambourines, snare drums and cymbals carry rhythm by having the player strike or beat the instrument.

If you like melody more than rhythm, you have more choices.  I like piano as a first instrument because you have a clear visual representation right on the keyboard for each and every note you play.  You know where A above middle C (440 hertz) starts and ends, and where A sharp (493 hertz) starts and ends.

If you have access to a piano, you may want to play all the notes of the piano and see which notes you can hear best.  You can use that information to help in instrument selection as well.

With most band instruments (flute, clarinet or trumpet) or string orchestra (violin, viola, cello and string bass) and the guitar, tuning and intonation become a major issue for prospective music students who have significant hearing loss.   Unlike a piano, which only needs to be tuned once or twice a year, band and orchestral instruments need to be tuned daily.  Traditionally, people with normal hearing use tuning forks to get their instruments in tune, but I have never been successful using them so I used a digital tuner almost from my first violin lesson.  I currently use an Iphone app called ClearTune  to tune my viola, but you can also purchase electronic tuners such as the Shar Metro Tuner if you do not have a smartphone.

I use my tuner to tune the strings before I practice, but I also use my tuner to make sure I am playing notes in pitch and to help my finger develop muscle memory, since there are no frets on the fingerboard of my viola. (I can hear when some notes are in pitch but not all.)  Unless you have an amazing ability to discriminate notes that are adjacent to each other with your cochlear implant, the chances are high that you will need a tuner to learn band and orchestral instruments so you can learn to play on pitch. This also goes for learning to sing, because you will need to learn to sing on pitch as well.

2. Talk to your CI audiologist about setting up and possibly refining your music program.  Ideally, you need to have a program that will work for playing music as well as for listening music.

My audiologist gave me a music program, but it was up to me to explain how I wanted the program to be refined for playing music.  At one point, I brought my viola into my audiologist’s office and asked him if there was any way some of the higher notes could be made louder.

Most audiologists are not familiar with musical note names.  You can use this conversion chart to note specific frequencies to your CI audiologist if needed.

3. Finding a teacher.

One challenge will be to find a music teacher has openings in his or her studio.  If you are able to take lessons during the daytime before school ends for day, a teacher might have more slots during that time period.  (Usually, late afternoons and early evening is the time when parents schedule lessons for their young children.)

You might want to start by writing an email introducing yourself to the music teacher. Explain that you have a hearing loss, but are really excited about the possibility of learning to play a musical instrument. Suggest a time for an initial meeting.

At your initial meeting with the teacher, you need to ask some basic questions.  Find out how much the hourly or half-hour lesson rate is, and determine how often you want lessons.  Find out what the teacher’s expectations are regarding how often they would like you to practice before the next lesson.

If you have implant(s) but don’t understand spoken instructions well without visual cues I would strongly suggest getting an assistive listening device (ALD).  I have used both Comtek’s AT-216 system and Etymotic Research’s Companion Mic system.  I like the Companion Mic system better, since more than one transmitter are available.

Bring the ALD system to your interview with the teacher.  You need to explain to the teacher that you want be able to focus on the lesson without having to lipread him/her all the time, and the ALD will help you to do that.  This is critical because there will be times when the teacher wants to demonstrate a technique on the instrument or ask you to focus on a passage in the sheet music, and you cannot focus on the teacher’s face when the teacher wants you to focus on something else.

Also explain to the teacher that he or she will need to minimize any tendency to talk over music, as hearing-impaired individuals’ abilities to discriminate speech over background music are not the best.  Personally I find it to be a hairy experience when I’m playing a solo on my viola, my teacher is accompanying me on the piano, and she makes a comment while I’m playing.

Ideally, the music teacher should looks for creative ways to teach music when hearing loss is a factor.  Jennifer (our association member who has both visual and hearing loss) told me how one of her piano professors in college would describe music in terms of how it was supposed to feel under the fingers. Due to this professor,  Jennifer has a very highly developed sense of touch which she uses to perform on the piano.

4. Practicing during the week between lessons

If you are an adult music student, music lessons and practice will compete with other demands on your time, such as working or going to school full-time, caring for children, or spending time with your spouse.   When my daughters were little, I used to practice my violin after I had put them to bed. So, your progress may be slower than someone who started learning an instrument as a child . . . but progress will come if you stick to your goal of mastering an instrument.  The idea here is to set realistic goals that you can achieve in the limited practice time you have.

In the beginning, the goal might be to master a simple song and just play it all the way through. The following week, the teacher might want you to play the piece more smoothly, or specific passage needs to be played softly.  If I have 4 assignments to do in a given week but I have limited time to practice, I might do assignments #1, #2 and #3 one day and then assignments #2, #3, and #4 the next day. I find I can make progress in my lessons if I can practice for an hour at least 4 days a week.

5. Find opportunities to meet with other adult music students to help you grow musically.

When I was young, learning piano was a solitary experience.  I never had the opportunity to socialize or get together with other music students.  Today, the situation is a little brighter and I love the opportunities I have to socialize and discuss my lessons with other adult music students.  I have met fellow string students when I participated in orchestra classes or hosted musical potlucks at my home during Christmas time. I can enjoy hearing the music they are learning and they can listen to me play the pieces I’m learning. These days, I attend a monthly musical potluck hosted by one of my hard of hearing friends who is learning piano.

In some U. S. cities, there are opportunities for adult music students to get together and play for each other.  One example of such an organization is the Adult Music Student Forum for residents of Washington DC.   This group provides opportunities for music students to play at student homes (for beginning to intermediate students) and in nursing homes and other public venues if you are an advanced student or semi-professional.  They also offer a web listing of resources for amateur adult students.

I hope the above tips have been helpful!  For more information about learning to play a musical instrument, you can read the following book:  Making Music for the Joy of It by Stephanie Judy.  It offers a lot of practical advice for adults who are thinking about learning to play a musical instrument.


Wendy Cheng is the founder and president of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL).  The association’s web address is at http://www.aamhl.org.  She is also a cochlear implant recipient and has been hearing with the technology for more than 15 years.



1 Comment

August 21, 2012 at 2:42 am

I am so excited that you have written this article. I have taught many students in the past with hearing impairments and it simply stuns me how quickly they can pick up their instrument of choice by compensating around the areas they might struggle by ear.
Often their sense of intuition is heightened and they playing skills become quite distinctive very quickly.

I hope you keep encouraging others to take the leap as music has changed many a life. Including mine.