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Hearing Loss Can't Stop Musicians' Beat

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Hearing loss didn't stop Wendy Cheng from pursuing piano, violin and eventually, viola.
Wendy Cheng
Hearing loss didn't stop Wendy Cheng from pursuing piano, violin and eventually, viola.

A new book by members of a local non-profit combines two things you might not normally pair up: making music and hearing loss. For these musicians, there were ways to keep the music playing even after losing their hearing.

Classical guitarist Charles Mokotoff, now in his mid-50s, boasts quite the impressive resume. The Potomac, Md. resident has bachelor's and master's degrees in music, international performing experience in locales as far-flung as Singapore and Hong Kong.

He also has hearing loss.

A hard-rocking teenager's life is changed

Mokotoff lost his hearing abruptly when he was 15.

"It was an overnight bilateral loss: a loss in both ears. And we don't really know what the issue was," he says. "It was either a viral infection or possibly a reaction to the very antibiotics that they were using to fight the viral infection."

The doctors gave Mokotoff one of those old-school analog hearing aids and he went on his way, just sort of "dealing with it," he says

From an early age Mokotoff was passionate about music, especially the guitar. "I was in a really bad rock band. Most of my friends were in one bad rock band or another," he says.

Hiding the truth of hearing loss

After the "bad rock band" phase, he decided he was going to keep playing -- only he'd do it solo, and he wouldn't tell people about his hearing loss.

"There was a concern that they were not gonna wanna hire me," he says. "You know, it wasn't the sort of thing I was gonna put on my promotional literature."

So Mokotoff would practice, perform, travel, and teach, all the while pretending he could hear. "It's a famous hearing loss thing to do; you just bluff," he says. "You say 'what' once or twice, or 'excuse me' or 'I'm sorry.' And then you go with the bluff mode."

Throw in the fact that he had long hair, so no one could see his hearing aid, and he did "pretty well," he says. "Because they would never fathom that somebody who plays like this is gonna have hearing loss."

But around 1990, Mokotoff decided enough was enough. He stopped performing, and got a new job working at the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Massachusetts. Then came a post at D.C.'s Gallaudet University. He became fluent in American Sign Language, and when he started playing guitar again -- this time, sporting a much shorter haircut -- his hearing loss wasn't a secret.

Mokotoff joined a national group: the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, founded by Wendy Cheng.

One woman's call to organize musicians with hearing loss

Cheng, who lives in Gaithersburg, was diagnosed with hearing loss when she was in third grade, two years after her family emigrated from Taiwan.

"But, hearing loss or not, my mom decided that all her daughters were gonna learn to play classical piano, so I took piano lessons for quite a while," she says.

In 1997, she got cochlear implants. A few years later, she was attending a workshop about teaching music to hearing-impaired children.

"While it was interesting to hear how to teach children, I was just very disappointed that there was not a lot of attention being paid on how to teach adults," she says.

Thus, the Association of Adult Musicians With Hearing Loss was born. With 200-plus members nationwide, the group recently published a book: Making Music With a Hearing Loss: Strategies and Stories.

In Cheng's chapter, she talks about her own strategies: like relying on her sense of touch: "Some notes on the viola resonate, you can know right away that, 'Ah! I heard that note through my fingertip and I know I'm right on tune,'" she says.

Another strategy -- because, after all, there is an app for everything -- involves whipping out her iPhone.

"Right now you have applications on iPhones to help with tuning, and it's also used like a metronome," Cheng says.

Musicians stop at nothing to play their hearts out

But why go to such lengths to keep making music? Cheng says the answer is simple. She has to.

"A lot of people think hearing loss and bow strings aren't a good mix because the intonation requirements are so high," she says. "But you just have to heed to the call of your inner soul and try anyway. Music is on the inside."

Mokotoff picks up where she leaves off: "And the hearing loss thing is on the outside. The stuff on the inside is the most important thing," he says.

Being able to express that "stuff on the inside," says Mokotoff, is priceless. He's back on the recital circuit these days, and recently played a gig at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center.

"It's a fabulous place to play. I mean, to be in New York and on the way there I had my guitar with me, and I was in my black, and I got in the cab and I said, 'Lincoln Center,'" he says. "Kind of a cool feeling, ya know! When's the last time you did that?"

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