Monday, May 15, 2017

Singers with hearing loss: how choir leaders can help

More and more older singers are in choirs these days. Many of those singers will have some kind of hearing loss.

Self-Portrait_as_a_Deaf_Man
Joshua Reynolds "Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man"

How can you, as a choir leader, help them? Here is a guest post by Bettina Gellinek Turner*.

You probably know this scenario:

You announce a page or measure number and a rustling and whispering and shuffling of sheet music begins that seems endless until everyone has finally got it. There may still be a false start with some choir members starting at the wrong place. You may be a little annoyed at the time this takes. People don’t seem to listen to you the first time!

In fact, they may be listening but don’t understand you the first time – or the second time – because of hearing loss.

Many older singers, and increasingly, younger ones too, have hearing loss. Most commonly, people experience a loss of hearing in the higher frequencies first. This leads to an inability to distinguish many of the common consonants from each other.

Imagine speech without consonants. It will sound like a foreign language that you don’t speak very well. You hear someone speaking and may catch or guess some words within a sentence but miss many others, so that comprehension is easily lost. Like with any foreign language, if the speaker starts yelling at you this does nothing to increase your comprehension!

Unfortunately, I know exactly what I speak of. I am a long-time choir singer and musician with fairly early hearing loss of unclear origin. I used to hear perfectly, but over the past decade my hearing has declined and I wear two hearing aids. I jokingly say that my hearing is roughly that of a hundred-year-old!

Most hearing aids, as my audiologist tells me, are geared toward improving speech comprehension, not musical activity (other than passive listening). This presents special problems for musicians and singers. Your hearing aids may not (yet) have a digital or automated setting to quickly adjust your hearing to a comfortable level when you are singing in the middle of a group, singing with instrumental accompaniment, or taking verbal directions from the conductor – all within the same timeframe! Technology helps, but is imperfect and does not restore normal hearing, the way that glasses can correct vision.

I have shared my hearing problems with my choir directors and with my neighbouring singers, so that they may assist me if I do not hear or understand quickly enough. Often there is a lag while my brain tries to make sense of something imperfectly heard. I also experiment with where to be positioned in the section or relative to the accompanist, and with the different settings of my hearing aids.

What can you, the choir director, do to help a singer like me? Here are some suggestions which may help:

  • Use a microphone – I belong to a large choral group that has the conductor wearing a small mic during rehearsals. We have many older members, and when seating has to be spread out, this makes a big difference in our ability to follow his direction.
  • Speak slowly – develop a habit of speaking more slowly and deliberately during rehearsals. If you are at a keyboard, do not look down and speak into your keyboard! This is more important than speaking loudly.
  • Face everyone – be careful not to face only to one side or section when speaking. You may have to make the same announcement twice, facing the other way, if your group is large.
  • Use consistent wording – and consider using whole sentences, which prepares your singers for what you are about to say: Not “Measure 56!” but rather “We will start at measure 56.” Again, speak slowly. It may actually save you time.
  • Less chit chat – encourage a culture with less chatter and background talk by members during rehearsals. It benefits all, but especially the members with hearing loss. If people can understand you the first time, members do not have to constantly consult with each other what the direction was and chatter may actually decrease.
  • Mind your consonants – be aware that singers with hearing loss cannot distinguish consonants easily. Your warm-ups with  “FFF – SSS – SHH - PP” although known to your long-time singers, could be written out on a whiteboard for quicker comprehension. Modelling vowels and consonants by mouth shape helps, but may not be enough. This applies especially for introducing new vocal exercises. Write them down.
  • Many numbers and letters sound alike – many rehearsal and measure numbers with letters sound alike when you have hearing loss. For example, numbers 56 and 66 are indistinguishable to me, as are rehearsal letters like E, D, T, V, C, Z and more! How can the director help? Consider using the text of the piece, (Let’s start at “All Creatures”), or add information such as the page number or system on the page. A shortcut is only useful if everybody gets it!
  • Include the whole choir when making a point – when having a ‘side conversation’ with a soprano who asked a question and your answer applies to the whole chorus, restate the question and answer for all. Do not assume that everybody has been able to follow the original conversation.
  • Don’t talk and play – do not give verbal directions while playing the accompaniment. Any background sound makes speech comprehension more difficult. It does not save time if people don’t understand you.
  • Don’t use block chords to give starting notes – when giving beginning pitches, consider always giving them as arpeggios. High frequency hearing loss means not hearing as many overtones that create the pitch and determine the octave, so picking your note out of a blocked chord quickly becomes harder with hearing loss.
  • Have a private word – if a singer shows marked pitch insecurities because of their hearing loss, speak to them privately to determine how to help.
  • Be patient! – hearing loss is common, and you may have more singers affected by it than you know.

I do hope you find these hints from Bettina helpful. Do leave a comment to let us know of your own experiences.

Next time I’ll be writing about how singers with hearing loss can best help themselves: Are you a singer with hearing loss? Steps you can take to make life easier in your choir.

* Bettina Gellinek Turner is a German-born American, residing in a small town north of Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a degree in music education from the Folkwang Universit√§t der K√ľnste in Essen, Germany, and a Master of Arts in Expressive Therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is a lifelong enthusiastic choral singer, and the founder and leader of a local hospice/ bedside volunteer singing cooperative called Gentle Voices. She is experiencing a progressive hearing loss that has made participation in choirs and other musical activities difficult. Nevertheless she persists ...

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Chris Rowbury


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