When I was sixteen I started having dizzy spells and fainting. My ears rang and rang. I already wore hearing aids, but something was wrong. Seventeen; I’ve been in an arts magnet program for music for three years and wanted to be a performer badly. But then I was diagnosed with a degenerative hearing loss on top of being born hearing impaired. I was told I would likely be deaf by the time I’m forty. I was devastated, but after reading Beethoven’s letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament I decided to try my best to keep going.
Well, it was my thirty-ninth birthday this week, much of which I’ve been lucky to spend in my first concert series back with Master Chorale of Tampa Bay since the pandemic started. While I am legally deaf I am lucky: I have hearing aids that greatly help me continue to communicate, to hear and sing. What were we singing? I’m glad you asked: A concert all about Beethoven.
First, we performed a peice about Beethoven’s famous aforementioned letter to his brothers where he laments his hearing loss, set to an entirely perceptive and emotional work “A Silence Haunts Me” by Jake Runestad. He talks about the church bells he can’t hear, and I remember the first time I sat on the beach and realized I couldn’t hear the waves anymore. The desperate clamoring on the keys isn’t the accompianist Dr. Rodney Shores having a bad I-forgot-how-to-piano day but sounds rather similar to when I want to sight-read on my keyboard before I’ve had my coffee and put my hearing aids in. The pleading, the trembling and asking of why, not dissimilar to the one I certainly asked as well. And I’m not anywhere cloooooooose to the scope of what Beethoven’s abilities were and if I was devastated, I cannot even imagine how absolutely crushed he must’ve been.
Hearing loss is an invisible disability in that we are often ridiculed or misunderstood. Especially in Beethoven’s time. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it is easy. So to see people leap up to their feet tonight as soon as Beethoven’s Ninth ended, applauding and cheering with such enthusiasm for a piece written by someone who was deaf… I started crying, and I’m crying as I write this. Because even if you don’t know much about Beethoven, everyone knows he couldn’t hear but still wrote such powerful and passionate (not for you, Napoleon) music. It’s just really wonderful to see hundreds of people appreciate that. Even if it was just for a moment before they go back to the parking garage to be stuck for twenty minutes and then return to their homes and lives - this guy wrote this piece two hundred years ago that people are still talking about.
I wish I could tell them what he might’ve heard, if he was there. If he heard anything at all at the conclusion of this premiere back in his time, it would sound something like a distant rumble of hums of percussion above water and he was in it. Maybe just the vibrations from the applause with no actual pitch to it, which would explain why he had to be notified of the audience’s reaction. But as I said (in my goofy manner, but with every bit of truth to it), my favorite part of the concert would be the end of “A Silence Haunts Me”. For a minute, the audience gets to hear like Beethoven. Like me. Like the entire deaf and hard of hearing community. The notes fade away but the choir is still singing - but there’s nothing to be heard. In a time where we live in social distancing, covered faces, isolation and more it’s important to find the times we are all united. In that moment everyone in the room was together, experiencing firsthand a small miracle. For one minute, Jake Runestad, Master Chorale, Brett Karlin and the opportunity granted by The Florida Orchestra all made the invisible disability, -visible-.
I think back to the time I went to Vienna, Austria in my twenties and visited Beethoven’s grave. It was quiet, and his prominent site was among many of the greats in a spot dubbed “Musician’s Row”. There, I wrote a single word on a bit of paper and tucked it into the flowers I laid on his grave.