Making Music Despite Hearing Loss (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Musicians Defy Hearing Loss To Make Sweet Sounds (Re-broadcast)

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we're honoring St. Valentine a few days late with a show all about relationships. Coming up in just a bit, we're going to talk with a same sex couple in Maryland that's been watching the back and forth in Annapolis surrounding gay marriage. We'll also board a massive ship in Baltimore Harbor to explore the link between international trade and invasive species.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:32
And we'll meet the founders of the new start-up trying to change the culinary relationship between chefs and diners. But first, we pull a favorite story from the archives as we turn to the world of music, a world that some people, once they've entered, have no intention of ever leaving, even if it seems fate might be working against them.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:58
The nimble fingers plucking and strumming this Costa Rican tune belong to classical guitarist, Charles Mokotoff. Now in his mid-50s, the Potomac, Maryland resident boasts quite the impressive resume. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in music, he has international performing experience in locales as far flung as Singapore and Hong Kong. And he also has hearing loss.

MR. CHARLES MOKOTOFF

00:01:27
I was around 15 and I think it was overnight bilateral loss and a loss in both ears. I was prone to some ear infections, as most children are and we don't really know what the issue was. It was either a viral infection or possibly a reaction to the very antibiotics that they were using to fight the viral infection.

SHEIR

00:01:45
Whatever the case, the doctors gave Mokotoff one of those old school analog hearing aids.

MOKOTOFF

00:01:49
I went on my way that way and I just sort of dealt with it.

SHEIR

00:01:52
Sort of being the operative word here. See, from an early age, Mokotoff was passionate about music, especially the guitar.

MOKOTOFF

00:01:59
I was in a really bad rock band. Most of my friends were in one bad rock band or another. Everybody played where I grew up.

SHEIR

00:02:05
And he decided he was going to keep playing only, A, he'd do it solo and, B, he wouldn't tell people about his hearing loss.

MOKOTOFF

00:02:12
Because there was a concern that they were not going to want to hire me. That wasn't the sort of thing I was going to put on my promotional literature.

SHEIR

00:02:18
So instead, Mokotoff would practice, perform, travel, teach, all while pretending he could hear.

MOKOTOFF

00:02:24
It's a famous hearing loss thing to do. You just -- you bluff. You say what once or twice or excuse me or I'm sorry, and then you go into bluff mode.

SHEIR

00:02:31
Throw in the fact that he had long hair.

MOKOTOFF

00:02:33
You know, that was cool back then.

SHEIR

00:02:34
So no one could see his hearing aid.

MOKOTOFF

00:02:36
And I did, you know, pretty well. Because they would never fathom that somebody plays like this is going to have hearing loss.

SHEIR

00:02:43
But around 1990, Mokotoff decided enough was enough. He stopped performing and got a new job.

MOKOTOFF

00:02:49
Or as we say in the music business, a real job.

SHEIR

00:02:51
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, as far as his hearing loss was concerned...

MOKOTOFF

00:03:05
I let everybody know about it.

SHEIR

00:03:06
He got new digital hearing aids, which his audiologist specially tuned to help with playing guitar. Mokotoff also joined a national group, the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss. Founded by a woman...

MS. WENDY CHENG

00:03:18
My name is Wendy Cheng.

SHEIR

00:03:19
...right here in the D.C. region.

CHENG

00:03:21
And I live in Davisburg, Maryland.

SHEIR

00:03:23
Doctors diagnosed Cheng's hearing loss when she was in third grade, two years after her family emigrated from Taiwan.

CHENG

00:03:29
But hearing loss or not, my mom decided that all her daughters were going to learn to play the classical piano so I took piano lessons for quite a while.

SHEIR

00:03:38
With her new hearing aids, Cheng could differentiate notes.

CHENG

00:03:41
But I had trouble with dynamics, you know, how loud, how soft each note should be in. And I'm going to admit right now I still have problems with dynamics.

SHEIR

00:03:51
At age 16, Cheng quit piano.

CHENG

00:03:53
Because it was my mom's instrument.

SHEIR

00:03:56
And took up something that would be hers, strings. First, violin, which was fine for a while, but then one day in the spring of 1996, Cheng woke up with all this distortion in her left ear. Two weeks later, she couldn’t hear a thing. In 1997, she got cochlear implants and once she acclimated to them, she realized the higher register of the violin was giving her trouble. So...

CHENG

00:04:17
I had to learn a new clef. I had to learn a whole new string.

SHEIR

00:04:20
She switched to the viola, a deeper stringed instrument and still takes lessons today. Now, a few years after getting the cochlear implants, Cheng was attending a workshop about teaching music to hearing impaired children.

CHENG

00:04:31
And 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.

SHEIR

00:04:43
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.

CHENG

00:04:58
Thumbnails on the viola resonate and you can know right away if, ah, I heard that note through my fingertip and I know I'm right on tier.

SHEIR

00:05:06
She also uses an assisted listening device. She wears a receiver, her teacher wears one transmitter and a second transmitter goes on the music stand.

CHENG

00:05:14
Because I want to hear the resonances of the instrument as much as possible.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Another strategy, because after all, there is an app for everything, involves whipping out her Iphone.

CHENG

00:05:25
Right now, you have applications of Iphones to help with tuning and it's also used like the metronome.

SHEIR

00:05:32
But why go to such lengths to keep making music? Well, says Wendy Cheng, the answer is simple, she has to.

CHENG

00:05:38
A lot of people think hearing loss and bowstrings aren't a good mix because the intonation requirements are so high. But you just have to heed to the call of your inner soul and try anyway. Music is on my inside.

MOKOTOFF

00:05:51
And the hearing loss thing's on the outside. The stuff on the inside is the most important thing.

SHEIR

00:05:55
And being able to express that stuff on the inside, says Charles Mokotoff, is priceless.

SHEIR

00:06:03
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.

MOKOTOFF

00:06:10
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 black and I got in the cab and I said, Lincoln Center. Kind of a cool feeling, you know. When was the last time you did that?

SHEIR

00:06:22
Not a question a whole lot of people can answer. But, hey, when you have a deep-seated passion and, like Charles Mokotoff and Wendy Cheng, you're able to follow it and succeed against any and all odds, well, that should be music to anyone's ears.

SHEIR

00:06:38
For more on the Association of Adult Musicians With Hearing Loss and its new book, "Making Music With A Hearing Loss: Strategies and Stories," visit our website, metroconnection.org. You also can find a list of famous musicians with hearing loss, from Beethoven to Pete Townsend to Foxy Brown.
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