Playing in a Festival Orchestra: A Hearing Loss Story

Playing in a Festival Orchestra: A Hearing Loss Story

By Wendy Cheng

Editor: Some of you may have enjoyed reports and stories sent by Wendy Cheng, the founder and president of AAMHL, the Association of Adults Musicians with Hearing Loss. We’ve read in the past her teacher’s account of teaching her. She’s just written another wonderful story about playing in a festival orchestra and has graciously given permission for me to share it here.


May 6, 2007, 12:30 pm
Tuscarora High School Auditorium
Frederick, Maryland

In a few hours, the festival orchestra I’m playing in will be performing a work we have been rehearsing only for the last week. All around me, my fellow musicians are tuning up for our last rehearsal, running through excerpts of the music we will play. With my cheeks flushing a bright red, I walked determinedly from my seat in the last row of the viola section toward Elizabeth Schulze, the conductor, and handed her a transmitter unit from my Companion Mic system. No matter what happened today, I wanted to hear what I needed to hear if at all possible.


Back in March of this year, Mark Pfannschmidt (my daughter Abby’s violin teacher), received the following letter from a colleague, Phyllis Freeman.

“Dear Parents…..I need your help to raise funds for the Monocacy Valley Montessori School’s string program. We are going to have a string festival concert to raise funds for the program, and our guest conductor for this concert is Elizabeth Schulze, the conductor of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Schulze is a strong advocate of music education and it would a great opportunity for your child to work under her. Please let us know if your child can participate in the festival orchestra preparing for this concert….”

The letter went on to say that rehearsals would take place on Sunday April 29; Wednesday, May 2, dress rehearsal from 12:30-2:30 on May 6, and performance at 3:30 later on May 6. Were adult amateur musicians be allowed to play? Yes.

This is all well and good, I thought. Between working full-time, taking private viola lessons, helping my kids with their homework and music practice in the evening, planning for AAMHL events, I didn’t think I had time to participate in a community orchestra which had 12-14 weekly rehearsals. But rehearsals lasting only one week might work.

But I paused as my eyes fell on the title of the work we were to perform: Concerto Grosso for Four String Orchestras by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Each section (first violin, second violin, viola, cello and bass) would have different players playing 4 different parts. The more difficult parts would be seated in the front rows and the easier parts would be in the back rows. The good news about this musical selection was that there was a viola part at the early intermediate level I could play without having to spend too much time learning it. The bad news: how in heaven’s name would I hear my part in that cacophony of glorious music?

I told Mark I would dearly love to participate in the festival orchestra, but only under the following conditions:: first, I need Ms. Schulze to use the Companion Mic transmitter, and second, I needed a very understanding stand partner. (Ideally, I wanted the stand partner to wear the Companion Mic transmitter unit as well.) Mark had been wearing the Companion Mic transmitter so I could hear him during Abby’s violin lessons. He was able to explain to Phyllis easily how the system worked for me, a mother and amateur musician with a hearing loss.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to try out the Companion Mic system in the orchestra environment until the Wednesday night rehearsal. The previous rehearsal, I realized I brought the wrong kind of cable to connect the Companion Mic to my CI and I had a devil of a time trying to hear Ms. Schulze sitting in the back row of the viola section. I found a young girl to sit with. This girl was in middle school and was playing the same viola part as I was—so I sat next to her. But I still could not hear the measure numbers of the section we were rehearsing and constantly asked my stand partner to confirm. And without the Companion Mic system and only my CI, Ms. Schulze’s voice sounded very far away. It was all I could do to not give in to the temptation to pack up and go home in the middle of rehearsal.

At this point, I have to say I really, really hate calling attention to myself. This is why I am embarrassed to have to give the Companion Mic to Ms. Schulze in full view of the entire orchestra. In retrospect, I should have talked to the stand partner Sunday night and explained that I had a hearing loss and I would need her to wear the Companion Mic system instead having to leave it on the music stand. But I did not talk to her because I was told that a teacher-friend of Phyllis would be my stand partner for Sunday’s performance.

On Wednesday night, I did remember to bring the right patch cable. During a break in rehearsal, I gave Ms. Schulze a Companion Mic transmitter. When the rehearsal started again, I could hear Ms. Schulze clearly now, even thought I was probably sitting about 40 feet away.

“Let’s hear the violas at measure 63.”

“This Sarabande is supposed to be very sad and mournful. Put feeling into your music.”

“This March needs to be played with military precision and rhythm…like a soldier’s march. Let’s try the opening bars again.”

I was close to tears of happiness. No more straining to hear or trying to lipread anyone 40 feet away. I could concentrate on what we were supposed rehearse! This is what I always wanted orchestra conductors to do! Yaay!!!!

I did debate within myself whether I should have Phyllis (who was playing in the first violin section) wear another Companion Mic transmitter. Occasionally she would be talking to the violin section on how to play specific passages during rehearsal, or explaining the dress code for the performance late on Wednesday night. In the end, I decided it wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t need to hear her violin as much I did to hear my viola part. I did ask her after the rehearsal for the dress code so that issue was resolved without too much problems.


For me, the final performance wasn’t as good as it could have been. I mean, I didn’t make any noticeable mistakes, and I arranged to have Mark tune my viola before we went on stage. But because the stand partner I was supposed to be paired with was sick and did not attend the dress rehearsal, and the young girl I had been paired with never really understood my listening needs, I never heard my part really well and occasionally didn’t know where we were.. Ms. Schulze did say she did not plan to say anything during the actual performance so she didn’t use the transmitter during the performance.

Despite the missteps, I am very glad I did participate in this event. Whenever I hear this music now, I have a good idea how the lower strings should sound even though my CI doesn’t transmit the lower alto lines as well as it does the violin section. This experience helped to make my knowledge of the music more complete.