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Faces Behind the Screen: Stu

Faces Behind the Screen: Stu

Imagine that a famous musician like Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, or John Lennon had suddenly lost their hearing early in their careers. How would they be able to make music if they couldn’t hear themselves or their band playing or singing? Would they ever play music again or would we just live in a world without the Beatles?

These are the questions one might ponder after meeting someone like Stu, a successful musician who suddenly lost his hearing in the late 1970s and had to abandon his musical pursuits:

    I had two records in the top 100 on the charts, and I had a number one record in Brazil.

    And I was singing radio and television jingles in New York City, did some writing for Disney, and then, boom, boom… over the course of a year and a half. No music for 35 years.

What Stu meant by “boom, boom” is that he lost hearing in both ears, one after the other.

Stu, who we met during the New England ‘Walk4Hearing’ in the fall of 2016, experienced a condition called “sudden sensorineural hearing loss” while just starting what seemed like a promising career in the music business during the 1970s.

Sensorineural hearing loss, or SNHL, is generally permanent and is the most commonly reported form of hearing loss. SNHL can result from a genetic anomaly, or an outside factor like noise trauma, a virus or several other factors.

In Stu’s case, his hearing loss was sudden and rapidly worsened, eventually affecting both ears. Unfortunately, the treatment regimen and associated technology of the time were what today we would consider relatively primitive:

    I was in the recording studio doing a jingle for a commercial with a vocal group, and I suddenly could not hear very well on one side. And when you’re in the studio, you’re wearing headphones and you’ve got your own voice in one side and the music and ensemble [on the other side]. I was losing touch with that side and people were beginning to notice I was losing pitch.

    I went home that day or soon after and woke from a nap and stood up off the bed, and suddenly an air horn, like on a boat, went off in the left ear. While there was no diagnosis at the time, it was probably a blood vessel bursting.

…They gave me steroids and that was it. Got into a hearing aid and I lived like that for the last 35 years. Different technology [back then].

A year and a half later, the same thing occurred in Stu’s right ear and he went in for treatment:

    …They gave me steroids and that was it. Got into a hearing aid and I lived like that for the last 35 years. Different technology [back then].

But as technology advanced and medical science began to approach hearing loss differently, things began to turn around for Stu:

    What was discovered is that the brain hears and essentially the ears are the conduit and contain all the hearing mechanisms. Not hearing is more complex than the ears alone. Today, in fact, my hearing audiogram is identical to what it was 40 years ago but my brain has enabled me to have a better hearing experience, so I’m able to make more sense out of sound, especially speech. And because of that, I’m better able to sing and play and perform again, so it’s quite amazing but still very challenging.

Three years ago, Stu discovered a way to improve his hearing. He started working with Geoff Plant, speech specialist and president of the Hearing Rehabilitation Foundation in Somerville, MA. Through a series of focused listening exercises, Geoff helped Stu to better comprehend speech and that in turn helps Stu “hear” music more complete than he had for decades.

At the same time, hearing aid technology has come a long way:

    Hearing aid technology has started to open up the frequencies, so I’m able to hear a broader range of tones than I could with earlier hearing aids that were focused only on speech. So, now I was suddenly able to hear musical tones I hadn’t heard in a very long period of time.

Equipped with better hearing technology and speech comprehension, Stu was determined to revive his musical ambitions and decided to take voice lessons:

    The [other] critical thing was vocal lessons– going back to take voice lessons and understanding how hearing was very much physical and internal.

    …Doing vocal and breathing exercises has really helped to coordinate my hearing with my voice and my body in ways that I had forgotten and never expected.

A year ago this weekend, I started performing live again for the first time in 35 years.

Incredibly, Stu is now picking up where he left off 40 years ago:

    A year ago this weekend, I started performing live again for the first time in 35 years. And since mid February I have been in the studio recording new music for the first time in 40 years with a plan to re-emerge musically in that world.

On the side, Stu works as a speaker, talking in front of audiences interested in his powerful life-story of living with and gradually learning to overcome hearing loss. Stu also works as a blog writer for both a travel company and a hearing aid company. Emerging hearing aid technology is one of his stronger interests, especially since developments in that industry have had a direct and positive impact on his life. Stu says he’s always trying new things when it comes to balancing the hearing aid technology with conventional studio recording techniques:

    The digital technology has come in …and in many ways it’s terrific. But, there are experts in music who are saying that the old analog hearing aids might in some circumstances be better for music than some of the new digital hearing aids. So, I’m experimenting with a series of tech adjustments.

    Dr. Brian Fligor in Mansfield, MA had a set of ear monitors customized for me from Sensaphonics in Chicago. The right ear monitor is a hearing aid and the left is called the CROS, which picks up sounds and wirelessly sends it to the right ear, my hearing ear.

    …I can’t wear a set of headphones in the studio because my hearing is too dull. With the monitors, it boosts the volume like a hearing aid does. I’m able to hear, sing into the microphone, and record as well.

    Dave Matthews and other artists are starting to use that on stage because they’re no longer using loud monitors and speakers — that’s what blew everybody’s hearing out. When you’ve got ear monitors, you’re able to control what it is you’re hearing.

    So, Dave Matthews might say, give me a little guitar, give me a little piano and drum. That’s all I want. I don’t want anything else in there.

He adds that although hearing aid technology is better today than it ever has been, his experience with hearing rehabilitation has had the most profound impact on his hearing and his ability to make music. It has allowed the brain to hear more through simply “listening more,” and by using visual cues as well through speech and facial reading. This process can effectively retrain the brain to experience hearing with the aid of one’s vision and cognition. Hearing rehabilitation can also be used to help adults avoid dementia, as hearing loss and the isolation it can cause can quiet certain parts of the brain that impact healthy functioning.

Being visible again is really a wonderful thing…

Talking with Stu, it’s very evident how big of an impact hearing aid technology and medical advances in the understanding of hearing have had to make him such a passionate expert on those subjects. Stu also used to be an actor, and it seems his renewed relationship with hearing and music has motivated him to revisit another part of his old life, too:

    I’m also an actor. And I’ve been in studio and independent films, videos and commercials and voice recordings, commentaries and live stage performances. I let much of that go many years ago, and I may pick that back up again and start getting at it.

Stu’s a big advocate of keeping one’s head up when dealing with hearing loss, and embracing the many resources and great people in the thriving hearing loss (HL) community, which is evidenced by the hundreds of people who turned up at HLAA’s Walk4Hearing:

    I think that it’s very important, too, for us with hearing loss, that we all learn eventually that many people endure our challenges. Some 1 in 7 worldwide — it’s not just us.There is strength in solidarity in the hearing loss community…

    We’re not just another “disabled” group that’s off in the corner somewhere trying to survive. We all have lives like anyone else… And it’s wonderful to be here today at the Walk4Hearing to see and hear everything that’s going on the many people that are supporting that.

    Some of the toughest situations are actually for people who live with (and love) those with hearing loss — couples and families, parents that have children that are born with hearing loss, or adults that suddenly lose their hearing and can no longer communicate with their own children well. So, I’m grateful for whatever we have right now.

We’re not just some disabled group that’s off in the corner here. We all have lives.

We finished our conversation with a common, open-ended question we ask interviewees: Do you have any advice?

First, he explained, if you experience a sudden hearing loss, seek immediate medical attention. Like a stroke, get it treated right away. If the condition isn’t treated quickly, you will lose more of your hearing until it’s gone.

He also added that people must remember: hearing loss is not “the end of the story.” Hearing and aural rehabilitation works. (He personally recommends Geoff Plant for people in the Greater Boston area, but suggests looking for a rehab specialist wherever you live).

But here’s some advice you may not have heard before:

    I also tell people with hearing loss to sing. One of the things that often happens to us is we lose music. It’s gone or it’s discombobulated, and we can’t understand it. Or we can only understand the music that we remember. Or there are certain tones and frequencies we get, but we don’t get the others.

    What I’ve learned through aural rehab is that the brain can help you get some of that back if not a considerable amount. Not because your hearing is going to improve, but because the brain is going to be able to help you fill in some of the gaps. It’s almost kind of like virtual hearing that the brain allows you to negotiate.

    Maybe even get a vocal coach — because singing gets music back into your body. We know that music has emotional and psychological resonance as well. I didn’t listen to music for years. I just started in the last year or so listening to music again, even music that I didn’t know. And it’s given me back many things in return.

    Singing also stimulates the parts of the face, jaw, mouth, and palette that seem to open things up for hearing and vocalizing. Yes, sing in the shower without your hearing aid and let ‘er rip!

    …For people with hearing loss, that dullness when you take your hearing aid out can be tough. Sing with your hearing aid out. Listen with your hearing aid out. And just listen to what you can.

Stu told us to keep in touch, left to change his hearing aid battery, and then got up on stage to sing the national anthem in front of the crowd.

Thank you to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) for hosting this series of interviews at the New England Walk4Hearing.

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