My Rehearsal Room: Samantha Cardwell

My Rehearsal Room: Samantha Cardwell

Hearing loss is not a barrier to making music. 

Samantha Cardwell
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Samantha Cardwell

Hearing loss is not a barrier to making music. 

My name is Samantha and I identify as hearing impaired. I was born with a bilateral sensory-neural hearing loss and I wear hearing aids full time. I am also a musician. I started learning the clarinet when I was in Grade 5 and chose the instrument because my mother used to play it so we already had one in the house. I had been begging my parents to allow me to learn the keyboard for a few years before that, so I was super excited to be given the opportunity to learn the clarinet and took it in my stride. I am currently studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary) with one of my teaching areas being music. I am very focused on creating an inclusive classroom for any students interested in learning an instrument.

Initially, when learning the clarinet, I did not think about how I heard other musical instruments or other sounds - I certainly wasn’t as self-aware as I have grown to be. Therefore, it did not really affect my choice of instrument, as it never crossed my mind. Luckily for me, I can hear every note on the clarinet. As I developed my options for career paths, I taught myself the saxophone and flute as being able to play other woodwind instruments is an asset when you want to become an instrumentalist of any kind or a music tutor. Other instruments that I have been learning, or have taught myself, include violin, ukulele, bagpipes, piano, guitar, bassoon, oboe, trombone, and I also sing.

At the moment I play in many community ensembles and I have also played for school productions. I play the clarinet and bass clarinet in Grainger Wind Symphony. I also play the clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone in two different CLASAX Ensembles (The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Victoria) and I am a member of the Victorian Region Scout Band and Whitehorse Showtime Band on flute and clarinet. Apart from those regular ensembles, I also help out with bands that want or need more instrumentalists for competitions and also help to tutor high school students for large statewide concerts and music camps.

To me, music sounds like music. It sounds no different to what anyone else can hear, except sometimes it’s a little soft. The comparison I like to make is to imagine that my level of hearing is similar to a candle in the middle of a dark space; that light doesn’t reach the corners of the room. Meaning, that I cannot hear absolutely everything in those corners, but with my hearing aids I can hear the vast majority. But also, as with candlelight, you can’t always read well by it, hence, I will be able to hear anything ‘in the light’, but sometimes it may not be as clear as it could be. To play music as well as the next musician, I do have to work more than twice as hard, as I'm not able to hear absolutely every little nuance and sound that comes out of my instrument.

To help with my hearing loss, I visit an audiologist regularly who fits me with the most up to date hearing aids available to me a the time. Also, my friends are very accustomed to looking at me now when they speak as I rely heavily on lip reading to fill in any gaps that my hearing does not pick up.

Everyone’s hearing loss is different so one person’s hearing loss could be more in the high range, some more in the low range. I very much enjoy the mellow, lower sounds of low instruments such as a bass clarinet, a tuba, and listening to a bass voice. However, to hear these instruments, they do have to be louder than if I was to listen to a higher instrument such as a violin or flute. However, other musicians with a hearing loss may be the complete opposite!

The best thing about playing an instrument is the sheer joy of being able to do something that sounds so fantastic and keeps me meeting new people in different walks of life. Music is universal and to be able to actually make something that can be understood by everyone is a fantastic feeling.

How I interact with other musicians in a band setting might be a little different than with someone without a hearing loss, but it is not that big of a difference. People I play with just know that I need to be looked at when I am talked to, and if I am playing, I will not hear anything being said. Having said that, everyone in a band setting is very professional and there are no issues with hearing or not hearing.

Some teachers will talk to their students whilst they’re playing; for example, make a remark, like, “good job!” or “make sure you phrase this properly”. This has happened to me, but I do not hear speech if I am playing. When this happens, I would stop playing to ask what was said, just in case it needed to be applied later on in the piece. My teachers soon learned to leave any comments to when I have finished because making any comments during playing was not going to be beneficial. Otherwise, I do not think I had any trouble hearing my teacher during my lesson. 

In a band setting, hearing the conductor depends on many things; the size of the room, how many people in the space compared to the size of the room, how high the ceilings are, how far away am I to the conductor, is the conductor facing me or a different direction or whether the floor is carpeted. If I don’t hear everything the conductor says, it’s not detrimental, but generally, I will ask the people around me. Also, if it’s something serious or particularly important, everyone will be quiet so I should be able to hear him or her. Once I realized that it wasn’t going to be detrimental if I didn’t hear absolutely everything, I could relax a little and work a little less on hearing speech and more on having fun playing wonderful music as a team.

I was actually one of the lucky few people that started learning their instrument in a private lesson. That was just how it worked out because no one else in my Primary School wanted to learn Clarinet. Having one on one tuition meant I had no issues learning my instrument, at least none that I can remember. As I got into the higher levels and I had a specialist teacher, they pointed out that I had a little bit of air escaping around my embouchure, something that I couldn’t hear. As I hadn’t noticed it through feeling it, I certainly was not going to hear the air, especially whilst playing a note. That was a new challenge for my teacher and myself because I had to trust that they would tell me when the air went away and I had to remember the slightly different position my mouth was in to prevent air leakage. It’s one of the variations you have to make when teaching a hearing impaired student, and when learning as a hearing impaired student. It is very much related to feeling as well as hearing.

To other students I would say, don’t give up on learning an instrument because there might be something small that you cannot do YET. If you work at it and ask for help from your teacher, they will be more than happy to help you out. It may give them a challenge to try and explain a new concept or technique, but it will all be worth it when you can finally accomplish that goal. Music is worth it; it feels inherently good.

It is not more complicated to learn music with a hearing loss, as you just make subtle changes or allowances to how you learn, and the teacher makes changes in how they teach. Ultimately, it’s just different to how a hearing person would approach music. Just remember, different is not complicated.

Some hearing musicians use earplugs when playing in bands called ‘musicians ears’ or similar. I personally do not use them, and as a person with a hearing loss, I do not need them. If I find that environments are too loud, quite often live venues are too loud (over the safe dB reading if you’re being scientific), I will turn my hearing aids off, which turns them into fairly good ear plugs as they are molded to my ear shape and provide a barrier between my ear and the offensive sound. Being in loud music venues is fine to listen to the music, but if want to talk to me, unfortunately you will probably get an intense stare and a blank face if you’ve made a joke. I won’t be hearing much speech at all as there is simply too much background noise and I cannot differentiate between the noises around me and someone talking to me less than thirty centimeters away.

Some hearing impaired people do not like being asked questions about their hearing, but I love questions related to my hearing and especially so if it’s relating to music. Part of our life as hearing impaired musicians is educating those that want to listen. Sometimes you will get questions that you deem rather silly and wonder where and why they thought of that question, but a lot of the time, it is because the person really does not know and wants to find out the answer or more about you and your loss. Questions like “Are you tone deaf?” make me laugh as you would hope that the only reason that is a question, is because the person asking either does not know what it means to be tone deaf and actually deaf. For a good experience, you would just have to explain to them that deafness and tone deafness are completely different things and they mean different things for musicians.

For a child to get the best out of the music lesson there is no reason the parents need to contact the music teachers as the teachers should be willing to adapt their lessons to the students in the class so there should not be anything the parent needs to say. Teachers are trained to change their plans or work with a new challenge. If you are seeking private tuition for your child, you can let the new teacher know about their hearing loss if you feel it is relevant. Otherwise it should not be an issue.

To support your children learning music, treat them the same way you would treat a hearing child learning music; make sure they practice! But also, make sure they have access to the correct tools for practice. There is no use if a teacher sets a task with a metronome and your child only has access to one that just makes noises. There is obviously going to be a problem there. Do some research, find a good metronome that is very visual as well as producing audio, these are available as apps and physical devices from music stores, you just have to find what works for your child. This principle should be applied to every facet of their life; no child can excel in what they do with the incorrect tools to do it.

The main thing to remember is; enjoy music!