My Rehearsal Room: Carmen Robertson

My Rehearsal Room: Carmen Robertson

On why you shouldn't let hearing loss stop you from becoming a professional musician.

Carmen Robertson
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Carmen Robertson

On why you shouldn't let hearing loss stop you from becoming a professional musician.

My name is Carmen Robertson and I was born with Bilateral Sensorineural Hearing Loss. At the age of 5, I went to a local primary school with no understanding of hearing loss and for that whole first year I was excluded from classroom activity’s because “it was too hard to teach a deaf child”. At the age of 6, I attended a different school with a deaf facility in Shepparton and the staff dedicated time each day to teach me Auslan. By the end of the first year, I was communicating with my deaf friends and was speaking simple sentences.

I was raised in a hearing household and music was being played everywhere around the house. I can vividly remember the first time I understood what music was and that was when I fell in love with it: I was roughly 8 or so, and it was a Saturday morning and my siblings were watching video hits on the television. A song came on, Brittney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and I was mesmerised with the way she was making sounds with her mouth. I continued to watch music video after music video, watching people making music with their hands and I became obsessed. After that day, I begged and nagged my mother to let me learn guitar until she relented and I picked up the instrument.

During my primary years, I went through various instruments as well as being involved with the signing choir at school, but it wasn’t until I started high school that I found the instrument I really wanted to learn. We were told to write down three instruments that we were interested in and for some reason I wrote trumpet. I'm not entirely sure why, I just had a feeling that it was the instrument for me. Later, I asked my high school music teacher if he had freaked out when he found out he had a deaf student, but he said he hadn't, as the staff in the deaf facility had approached him and explained that there was a deaf student who wanted to learn music and gave suggestions as to what he could do to help. Since then, he has had two other deaf music students!

I was never excluded from anything in high school because of my hearing loss, and consequently I got to take advantage of so many musical opportunities; I was competing in solo competitions all around the state, I went to band camps, and performed regularly with the school bands and local orchestras. One of my biggest achievements was being part of the State Schools Spectacular in 2010 and 2011. I had to audition and got in, and I traveled to Melbourne for rehearsals and performed in front of thousands of people. It was honestly the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. When high school finished, I auditioned and was accepted at the Box Hill Institute. In my first few weeks, I requested interpreters in each class, then discovered that I didn’t need them as I could understand the lecturers. The only thing I requested was a note taker. One of my teachers admitted that she had panicked when she heard a deaf student was enrolling in music. She explained that she wasn't sure how she was going to teach, and was worried about having a deaf student, but when she met me she was relieved. In my first trumpet lesson, my teacher and I talked at length about my deafness and what to do, what not to do, etc.

I, of course, did encounter some harsh people who truly believed that music was not for the deaf and there were occasionally teachers who refused my entry into music lessons (I still went anyway). There have also been a few deaf people who have given me disapproving looks and have a bad attitude towards music, but nothing has stopped me from doing what I love. Now I’m completing the final year of my Masters of Music, I teach primary school kids piano and trumpet, and also play with Big Band Frequency and Grainger Wind Symphony.

To my ears, instruments that have a higher pitch are quiet in comparison to lower brass instruments and bass instruments, for example bass clarinet or bassoon. When listening to musical lyrics, I very rarely hear the clarity of the actual words, but the melody of the songs will be clear. In chordal structures, it is more difficult for me to pick out 7th, 9th and 13th chord extension notes compared to hearing chordal triads. My hearing aids do influence the sound of the trumpet and they can influence the dynamic of each note. For example, my hearing aid setting can make it sound like I am not using any dynamics at all, when in actual fact I am using crescendos and decrescendos. When I take them out, I can tell how loud or soft I'm playing. As a trumpeter, I’m always placed near the back of the band. This is possibly not the most ideal place, but I’ve learnt to talk to the people next to me, make sure they understand that I have a hearing loss and explain to them “Hey, I might sometimes miss what the conductor is saying, can I ask you if I missed what they said?” Also, I always make sure the conductor knows I have a hearing loss so they can adjust accordingly. It doesn't take much to ensure you're speaking clearly and facing the orchestra!

In terms of being deaf and a musician, one of my biggest challenges is the aural side of music. Especially listening to chords with extensions and judging the frequency changes in the white noise. I have spent hours and hours at the piano playing chords with different extensions and with time and practice I have become a little better at picking them out. I haven't, however, ever faced any challenges in terms of learning the trumpet (except for the struggles everyone faces: practice motivation included!)

Right now, I’m doing a Masters research thesis based on the question ‘can deaf musicians play music just as well as hearing people do?’. The research that I've done so far has already confirmed my suspicions: we can and we do! I don’t need hearing to know how to read music and I don’t need hearing to play the trumpet. Playing the trumpet needs your hands, your lips and air. If you love music, you should not see hearing loss as a barrier. If you’re worried about the aural side of music study, there’s always ways around it. The teachers can adjust the aural tests, whether that means allowing you to listen a few extra times to the audio, offering you headphones or simply changing the test to something more theory-based. In saying that, it's important to speak up! Teachers can't change their lesson plan if they don't know what you're dealing with. Music is about feeling, and everyone feels the same thing, hearing or no hearing.  A wise teacher once told me that if you love doing something you should be able to make it your career. Nothing else matters.

Photo by Fede Casanova.