Have we really come so far? Part 2

Tony Laviola is a well respected hard of hearing bass player who sees no problems wearing hearing aids… as long as they work!

Italian born Toronto bass player Tony Laviola has played almost all styles of music since 1966 . R&B, rock , blues, country, jazz, showbands, tribute artists and singer-song-writers including Marc Jordan and Ron Nigrini. Debbie Bechamp, “Stix and Stones” “The Show Toppers” “The SoulSetters” “Zeke” “Terry Dee and More” to name a few. Recently with the Folk revival group “Where Have All the Folk Songs Gone” now in its 4th year @ the Free Times Café.

And Tony is … well, just read on …

I have been a musician for more than 50 years and I’ve come to realize that I may have had a hearing problem since I was young boy. In retrospect there was much I could not understand especially when the teacher was writing on the blackboard. There were many “can do better” comments on my report cards and I wanted to do better but somehow it never came together.

But then, when I began singing in school choirs I began to find something I could immediately understand and at the same time love for the sheer joy of it. In choir learning melody or the second or third harmony part was easy compared to hearing the lyrics without the sheet music. When the Beatles came out it was all over! We had to form a band so we could play the best pop music ever written.

Straight out of college I went on the road with a few loud show bands , then a couple of singer songwriters duo situations that were more conducive to lower SPL levels but I’ve also played with many loud bands from Folk to Country to R&B and Jazz. And that has taken its toll on my hearing.

My wife, among others, gets very annoyed when she has to repeat herself . I couldn’t help but notice that she was getting fed up with the repetition. I went for a hearing test that showed I did have significant loss in the region of speech where consonants usually reside. They said that my hearing curve was typical of a congenital condition probably exacerbated by my regular exposure to loud sounds.

I’ve been lucky in that I learned how to cope with hearing loss along the way by lip reading and positioning my self in front of the person speaking but eventually as my hearing deteriorated that didn’t work anymore. So I went looking for something to help me. Some of the first bits of research lead me straight to Dr. Mead Killion who had developed analogue “musicians” hearing aids called K-Amps. Sounded good! Trouble was I didn’t know who was actually manufacturing them and when I finally tracked down a manufacturer I found, because of politics, I couldn’t buy them in Canada. That was frustrating to say the least. These wonderful, affordable (about $800 US a pair in 2001) tools that were used by symphony musicians to help them do their job were not offered here in Canada. Inside the industry these K-amps were received with great respect, admiration and I suspect a little envy.

I was determined. So with a little help I tracked down one of the only retailers still selling these analogue HA’s (Walmart of all places! but only American Walmarts) and procured a pair in Buffalo N.Y. The K-amps were very nice and they worked for me for about a year or so but then my hearing got worse so I decided to get some proper HA’s. The new digital HA’s were being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread and analogue was on its way out. Affordability had always been a concern for musicians and even when I could afford them, my first pair of HA’s were returned within the same hour as I received them and then several years after that I tried a second pair which I also promptly returned.

I simply could not have John Coltrane’s beautiful saxophone sound like Buffy St. Marie’s vibrato…all the time! These first digital HA’s were a big disappointment for me so I did without. Until my present HA’s I couldn’t use HA’s onstage because the best older digital HA’s had a threshold limit of maybe 105 dB before they would totally distort and could easily be deemed to be in contravention of the Geneva convention and other moral codes that condemn torture. Like the original audio cassette tapes they were made for speech not for music.

Perhaps I simply haven’t noticed but I have not felt discriminated against when it comes to getting gigs. I still get call-backs and new gigs. Everyone knows I’m hearing impaired and apparently I can still cope. In my musical community and with most of the great leaders that I work with it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, female etc. as long as you can cut the gig. Discrimination is born of ignorance and fear. One of the things I appreciate most in being a musician is that in most cases ability trumps prejudice.

For those conductors who are wary of any members of their orchestras who wear HA’s and would throw away a talent based on prejudice deserve what they get.  Dr. Killion supplied K-amps to members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and many still use them.

The Musicians’ Association that functioned more like a union setting fees and tariffs for their members did precious little in return. Promotion of the awareness of hearing problems could have been a great boon to their membership back in the day. As in most other things, musicians have had to rely on themselves and each other for information and guidance.

I would consul all musicians to get a hearing test if for no other reason than to have a base line for future reference. Don’t be afraid to try hearing aids if they are needed. Hearing loss is insidious and over a long period of time you may lose more and more of your hearing. Like the proverbial frog who is put into a pot of cold water, as the heat is gradually raised he doesn’t realize the pickle he’s in until his goose is cooked to mix metaphors. There are now some excellent hearing aids for musicians that will let you hear 10 kHz again (YAY!) and will support SPLs of up to 120 dB without distortion (helleujah!). That’s what’s new in musicians’ hearing aid technology. Talk to an audiologist. If you don’t like the first one go on until you find one you like. Don’t give up.

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.