Crusade under way to research, educate on hearing lossBy Setarreh Massihzadegan
Nalora (Lo) Steele was a professional opera singer gracing stages nationwide when she began grappling with hearing loss 30 years ago. She preserved her livelihood by accepting her condition and adapting to life with hearing aids—a path fraught with challenges.
“I know the frustrations that people who are not in the [music] field go through, but they’re multiplied 100 times in people who are musicians,” says Lo, who teaches music education at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Mass., and directs the Linden Ponds Singers at Linden Ponds, the Erickson Living community in Hingham, where she lives.
Lo’s experiences witnessing the effects of hearing loss in herself and others prompted what has become a crusade to study and then educate both her peers and the larger music community about the perils and prevention of hearing loss, as well as to the known ways of coping with it.
Lo’s initiative began with a successful television series she produced and hosted on Linden Ponds’ TV channel, LPTV6, last year. The popular series spurred Lo’s ongoing, yearlong research program, the result of a $21,000 Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship grant Berklee awarded her to study hearing loss as it relates to musicians, music educators, and music students.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 18% of American adults ages 45 to 64, 30% of adults ages 65 to 74, and 47% of adults age 75 or older have a hearing loss. However, the institute also finds “only one out of five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one,” according to its website.
In the four-part television series What Did You Say? Lo tackled what can be a sensitive subject among her peers at Linden Ponds. With help from other residents at the community, she addressed the physiology of hearing loss and the wide range of coping mechanisms.
On the show, Lo hosted Paul R. Gross, Ph.D., a physiologist, researcher, and educator who lives at Linden Ponds and has a cochlear implant.
Seeing the popularity of the show, Paul encouraged Lo to apply for the Berklee grant, and helped with the application. “If what she started worked here, in a place where not everyone is a musician, the idea of doing something like this at a music school struck me as just plain brilliant,” Paul says.
Atmosphere of knowledge
Despite a widespread and growing need for it, hearing awareness is not a formal part of the curriculum at most music schools. Berklee, where Lo is an associate professor, is no exception. However, as part of her role of preparing music education students for their demanding licensure exams, Lo also educates her students about hearing loss, which is a heightened risk for musicians.
Lo hopes her research will help “create an atmosphere of knowledge around it,” she says. “It is my hope to foster not only prevention but protection.”
Paul, who lost his ability to play the violin with his natural hearing, will continue to consult on Lo’s work. He says the goal is to “emphasize the positive, that there are ways to protect or amplify your hearing and still be an active musician too.”
This year, Lo will interview members of the music community with hearing loss and develop case studies for coping and prevention. She will visit the two academic institutions that have hearing loss programs as a part of music education, and she will write a series of academic and general audience papers on her findings.
Lo will arrange two lectures at Berklee this year, one by otolaryngologist professor Steven Rauch, M.D., of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, who is active in music. For the other, Paul and Lo will co-present a two-part lecture in which Paul will outline the basic science of sound and hearing. Lo also hopes to speak at conferences of the Massachusetts Music Educators Association and the National Association for Music Education in the spring of 2014.
Lo plans to work with state policymakers to add a hearing health and hearing loss element to the music educator’s curriculum and licensure exam. These activities might help spark a new thoughtfulness about the architecture and design of music practice rooms, using sound engineering to make them more hearing-friendly.
Amidst her research and teaching, Lo will maintain her role as head of the Linden Ponds Singers and the Linden Ponds Repertory Company, which offer two, large-scale musical productions each year.
Five tips for coping with hearing loss
From Lo Steele and Paul Gross:
- • In conversation, get close to the sound source.
- • Look at the speaker. Lip-reading is a learned, practice-built skill.
- • Investigate and use high-quality electronic amplification (hearing aids) when needed.
- • Don’t be ashamed to ask for repetition.
- • Use hearing protection when anticipating very loud sounds or very noisy environments.