Blue O’Connell is a Certified Music Practitioner, Teacher, Presenter and Composer and Performer. She is available for workshops, performances, presentations for related to hearing loss and music. She is dedicated to helping cochlear implant recipients learn to appreciate music again. Her story of how she regained music perception was published in The Hearing Journal in March 2012. She shared with us a little about her hearing journey.
About once a month someone sends me a link to a video of a deaf person having their cochlear implant activated and hearing for the first time. There is that moment when they respond to sound and everyone is crying tears of joy. It is assumed the cochlear implant is like a “magic wand” that restores perfect hearing instantly. For some that can happen depending on the type of hearing loss.
I thought this would be my experience on my “Activation Day”. Doesn’t that sound like something out of Star Trek? “Beam me up Scotty!” I waited with such excited anticipation with all kinds of happy scenes dancing in my head. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz stepping out of the black & white and walking into a world of beautiful color. Like the “water scene” in The Miracle Worker, when Helen had an epiphany that everything had a name. But it was no happy scene for me. When that switch turned on, I was shocked. It’s a noisy world!
People don’t understand that it’s lot of work to learn to hear with a bionic device. Suppose that you were blind all of your life and suddenly you could see. Do you think your brain would instantly make sense of the world around you? It’s the same with hearing. Returning to work post activation was not easy. In the break room, conversation competed with noises of the microwave humming, refrigerator buzzing, water faucet running, coke machine clanging, coffee machine percolating and the droning heat system. Voices sounded like cartoon characters.
It was frightening as a musician because music sounded like a tangled mess of disembodied pitches in a fevered dream. I play for hospital patients and at nursing homes. One day a woman shouted at me “You can’t play and you can’t sing!” I was stunned because I thought, “maybe she is right?”
I struggled for months. Eventually I got help from my Rehab counselor. She showed me “Listening Gym” websites to do auditory exercises. Each morning I worked to regain speech recognition by listening to consonant and vowel sounds appearing in common words. Then I graduated to sentences and stories. I failed most of the quizzes in my early attempts. For my music, I did ear training studies with a music teacher to regain my pitch perception.
Gradually signs of progress came with sounds of birds singing, the soft whooshing wind blowing in the trees, the trickling river flowing nearby and a street musician playing the flute (heard from 3 blocks away!). Music came back too. In fact, for the last four years I’ve worked full time as a Certified Music Practitioner playing for hospital patients, elderly and people with special needs.
So there was a happy ending but it wasn’t easy. I only miss the humorous encounters that mishearing things caused. My favorite one was when “Fridays’ Moon” became a “Fried Egg Boon.” I still laugh about that.
Here is a video of her playing with Peter Markush:
Here is a video with Blue’s song created by Cochlear Implant Online founder Rachel Chaikof: