Cultivating a Musical Bionic Ear: Teaching Wendy Cheng – Part 1

Cultivating a Musical Bionic Ear: Teaching Wendy Cheng – Part 1

by Dorée Huneven

Editor: We’ve met Wendy Cheng on these pages a few times, most recently when she described her experiences playing her viola at the Hearing Loss Association of America national convention. She shared a bit about what it’s like for a person who can’t hear pitch to play a musical instrument. It almost makes you wonder what it would be like to teach a person who can’t hear pitch to play a musical instrument!

Well wonder no longer! Here’s Dorée Huneven, Wendy’s viola teacher, with a few thoughts on teaching Wendy.

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Wendy Cheng is an adult viola student who has been studying with me for a year and a half. During that time, she has taken the ASTA CP Viola Level 4 Exam twice, greatly advancing the second year. The first time, she performed Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine, and the second time she performed the first and second movements of the Concerto in G by Telemann, as well as all of the required scales, etudes and sight reading. She received a “V” (for “very good”) in most categories including “overall impression” in both exams. Neither of her examiners, Jim Batts nor Linda Smith, realized that Wendy is 100% deaf.
From the age of two, she suffered profound hearing loss in the right ear, and moderate loss in the left ear as the result of having been administered an ototoxic drug to treat a high fever. This hadn’t stopped her from taking up the violin in college, or from studying privately and playing in orchestras and chamber groups as an adult. In 1996, she wrote an article for Stringendo detailing her musical life as a hearing-impaired person. But one morning, shortly after submitting the article, she awoke and realized that the remaining hearing was muffled even when she had her hearing aid on. It soon became horrifyingly obvious that overnight the rest of her hearing had gone. As in her previous loss, she was suffering from a viral infection, and it caused all remaining hearing to be wiped out.

Total deafness came just before Wendy was about to go to a string quartet workshop. She decided to stop lessons for awhile to research options of what she could possibly do. She decided to get a cochlear implant, and by December 1996 the surgery was completed. Simply stated, this consists of two parts: an internal implant surgically placed near the skull bone behind the ear, and a speech processor. The internal implant has a tiny electrode array that is threaded into the snail-shaped cochlea of the ear, and artificially tries to substitute for the thousands of tiny hairs in the cochlea. It picks up the sound waves, magnifies them, and conducts them down to the sound processor, that is about the size of a text pager.The sound processor can be programmed to meet the patient’s specific needs. If the “sh” sound is too shrill, for example, it can be toned down; speech can be made very clear and intelligible when the audiologist tweaks the processor’s program. The operation to insert the device in the ear is considered outpatient surgery. It is done under general anesthesia, and the cost is high: fifty to sixty thousand dollars. It takes three weeks for the incision to heal; then the patient goes to the hospital to get the sound processor. This is sometimes called the activation, or turn-on process. Although cochlear implant developers have become skilled at designing the internal electronic component to handle speech sounds, they are only beginning to look at designing them for serious music perception. In fact, in Wendy’s words, recorded music sounded “like a garbage truck going by the house” for the first few weeks after the processor was activated.

Wendy arrives early for her lessons at The Academy of Music, Phil Hosford’s school in Gaithersburg. She waits outside the studio until I put my head out to call, “Wendy, your turn.” No response. I go out and stand directly in front of her: “Your turn, Wendy!” She smiles, greets me, comes in, unpacks her viola, and we chat a bit. I ask, “How was your week? How are the girls?” She has two daughters who both take music lessons. It’s normal teacher-student friendly talk before the lesson gets under way. She can hear me fairly well if I look directly at her and speak clearly.

At her lesson, Wendy hands me her viola, which I take to tune. It’s already in tune. She has obviously been practicing at home before her lesson. We do an open-string bowing warm-up, and then proceed to her three-octave scales. Our difficulties begin immediately, and they center on intonation. Wendy tuned her viola at home using an electronic tuning device which registers a green light when the string is in tune, but at the lesson, she is aurally drowning. Wendy has no pitch perception. I am pedagogically drowning. We must do whatever we can to get notes in tune and the shifts accurate and smooth.

I resort to primitive chicanery and put a tape on her viola. Why not? Doesn’t a rock climber need footholds? We decide to place a tape for 3rd finger in third position (F-natural on the A-string) because Wendy assures me that it is the most helpful for her. This is mysterious to me. And why only one tape? We go through the scale, and I put little up-or-down arrows in the music over the out-of-tune notes. Wendy groans expressively, grabs a pencil and highlights them in bright orange. I talk her through the pitch, note by note, and the scale is played three, four, five times. The real work Wendy does at home: note by note, she plays with the tuner on, and uses muscle memory to learn her distances. Sympathetic vibrations are also somewhat helpful. The reason Wendy changed from violin to viola was because she could not discriminate violin pitches located in 5th position or higher. She went to Potter’s Violin Shop and basically demanded the most resonant viola they had in her price range. She plays in a room without a carpet to detect ringing better. It’s a grueling struggle to get intonation sorted out, and going through the tuner/sympathetic vibrations process at home takes many practice hours. She doesn’t remind me, but I know that she has a full-time job, plus two daughters, a husband, and a house to care for.

Here’s Part Two