Acclaimed Baroque Flutist Stephen Schultz on Hearing Loss, Hearing Aids and the Importance of Musician Hearing Health

stephen schultz flutist hearing loss
January 24, 2024

Shari Eberts sits down with Stephen Schultz, a globally acclaimed baroque flutist, to discuss his remarkable career and journey with hearing loss. Schultz, recognized for his flawless artistry on the Baroque flute, reveals his struggle with otosclerosis, a middle ear condition that led to a progressive hearing loss.

Overcoming initial apprehensions regarding stigma and professional consequences, Schultz embraced discreet hearing aids, ultimately finding an ideal match with his audiologist and the latest hearing technology, set to his individual needs. His positive experience recently led him to become a Widex Brand Ambassador.

Schultz aims to destigmatize hearing loss by sharing his positive experience, advocating for early solutions among musicians, and emphasizing the transformative impact of advanced hearing aid technology in preserving and enhancing musical journeys.

Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to This Week in Hearing. I’m Shari Eberts, co author of Hear & Beyond Live skillfully with Hearing Loss, and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today we have a very interesting guest, Stephen Schultz. Stephen has been called one of the most flawless artists on the baroque flute, with his talent taking him everywhere from Royal Albert Hall to Carnegie Hall to even the Library of Congress. But what’s perhaps most impressive about Stephen is that he’s been able to build such a magnificent career while at the same time grappling with hearing loss. So thank you, Stephen, for being here to talk about your music and your hearing loss journey and really just to share what you’ve learned with our community. My pleasure to be here. Thank you. Excellent. So, as you know, I’m sure every person with hearing loss has a story, and so I was hoping you could share a little bit about yours when it started, how it’s progressed. Sure. I’m a teacher at Carnegie Mellon University. I teach classical music history classes, but I have one large class called The Beatles, history of the Beatles, Fun! and it has 200 students. And back in 2004, I was noticing that it was more and more difficult for me to hear questions from students who were way back in the hall because most of these halls are very large. And so I had to kind of creep up to them and walk towards them, and then I would understand it. But I noticed that my hearing was getting a little wonky. So I went to my audiologist, who then recommended a doctor. And we took what’s called an audiogram, which is just basically a graph of what your hearing is like. And they came back and they said, I have the classical symptoms of otosclerosis. would you like me to explain what that is? Yeah, please. Okay. So I’m not a doctor. I say this up front. I’m just a flute player. But basically the three small bones in your ear, the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. The stirrup is the smallest bone in your body, and it’s connected to the cochlea which is that shell shaped thing which has all the hairs that sends the electronic signals to your auditory nerve, to your brain, so you can hear. And what happens with otosclerosis is there’s an abnormal bone growth that happens. Calcium deposit and the stapes doesn’t vibrate the way it’s supposed to. And it is hearing loss. It’s a genetic inherited disease. And I knew that my maternal grandmother had it, and most of my aunts had it. And one of my uncles. It’s usually a female passed disease. Pass from female to female. so I knew that existed. And it’s not unusual that men have it, but I was told I had the classic symptoms of it. of course, I went into immediate denial. Oh, my God, I’m losing my hearing. I can’t do that. Hearing is my life. I teach and I perform. And the lady told me my audiologist said, I need hearing aids. And I said, absolutely not. I can’t wear hearing aids. People won’t hire me anymore. They’ll think I’m disabled, blah, blah, blah. So this went on for about four years of me being in total denial until it came to a point that I really was not hearing what my students were saying way in the back of the room. So I finally bit the bullet and got a pair of hearing aids in 2008, and it made all the difference. I could hear again as well as possible. the issue with hearing aids is that most of them are built with speaking in mind. That’s my experience. They want you to be able to hear conversation, and music is kind of a secondary thought. So the difficulty was trying to get a sound on the hearing aids via the computer and the apps on your phone that made my flute sound natural. It didn’t feedback, but also let me hear my colleagues that were around me in the orchestra and also hear what the conductor had to say. So it was a bit of a challenge. So my early hearing aids were good, but it was never, like, a perfect solution for me until I discovered Widex hearing aids last year. Excellent. No, thank you for sharing that. I discovered my hearing loss. I was in my mid 20s. I was in graduate school as well, and so I was having trouble hearing the teacher at the front of the room. So it was sort of the opposite situation, and I was very stigmatized by it. It sounds like you faced a little bit of that as well. Can you talk more about that? Sort of What were you worried about, and how did you overcome that finally? Well, I think I was worried about how people would perceive me, that I wasn’t 100% full complete or something, and I didn’t want them to know anything about it. And I know that there were different types of hearing aids. So initially, the hearing aids I got were very small ones that fit right into your ear that nobody could see. my audiologist at the time warned me that they weren’t as powerful as I might need in the future, but they were fine then. So I started out that way, and also I had longer hair back then. My short hair has only been for the last few years, but I usually have much longer hair, so I didn’t worry about people seeing them. But it’s just accepting it if people know that you have a hearing disability, even though it’s being fixed by your hearing aids. I don’t know. My paranoia was, well, maybe we’re not going to hire Schultz anymore because he doesn’t have perfect hearing or something. So I was a little worried about if people discovered it that they might look at me differently, think differently about my performing, et cetera, et cetera. So that was a fear that I decided to, who cares? It’s more important that I can hear than of what people think about me. And like I said, up till about two years ago, my hair covered up the hearing aids anyway, so only my family and very, very close friends knew that I had hearing loss, so I didn’t share it. So this is a big thing, actually, for me to be public about my hearing loss now. But I thought it was time because I have a lot of colleagues in my orchestras and my performing groups that also have hearing loss but are also in kind of the denial stage, and they’re scared to go, and they don’t know very much. So one of the reasons I put myself out here was to be able to help people with hearing loss and to let them know that you could still have a really productive career if you get some great hearing aids. I love that. And thank you for doing that, because I think that stigma is out there, and the more of us that are sort of upfront about it and have success and do things with our hearing aids. Right. We show that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about and worried about. But that’s terrific. Thank you for sharing that. So it’s not every day you hear mention of the baroque flute. well, back in the 18th century, it was. so the baroque flute is what the flute used to. Well, here, I happen to have one right here. Got to put it together. It looks like this. So this is what the flute looked like in western european art music in the 18th century. Pretty primitive instrument, kind of like a recorder, but you play it this way, and it’s a much different instrument. Obviously, it’s made out of wood. It’s softer. do you want me to play a little bit? Oh, sure. Let’s see. Let’s see what it sounds like. I haven’t warmed up today, so God. Knows. {playing flute} So it’s a much kind of softer, mellow sound. This is the flute that Bach wrote for and Vivaldi and Handel. And when I got interested in baroque music I liked the regular modern orchestral flute. That’s what I grew up performing on. But it just felt like it was a little bit too metallic, a little bit too mechanical for this music. So I heard a recording of somebody playing the baroque flute, and I just fell in love with the sound, and I decided that’s really what I want to be doing. So I decided to specialize in that in the 1980s, and I’ve been performing since then on this flute. There are different organizations in America and around the world that specialize in performing music on what they call period or historically correct instruments. So the instruments that Bach knew about, the instruments of Vivaldi knew about, et cetera, et cetera. Well, it sounds beautiful. I mean, it sounds like Bach music, right? That’s kind of what it sounded like to me. That’s terrific. Thank you for playing it. I appreciate that. Sure. So I imagine know really good hearing is crucial to being able to play music with others, sort of in a group, in a concert setting. So how has your hearing loss impacted your music career in that way? well, the four years that I talked about that, I was in denial. Between my diagnosis in 2004 and my first hearing aid in 2008 my hearing loss wasn’t such that it was affecting my performing or my playing. I still could hear the flute fine. I might not have been able to hear everything the conductor told me, but that’s sometimes a good thing. just joking. so it didn’t really affect my performing, but once I got hearing aids, all of a sudden things. So with hearing aids, everything is amplified, and the problem with your voice, it gets also amplified, and that’s fine. But when you blow into a flute, things start feeding back. And that’s the first thing that happens with hearing aids. If it’s too much information, they’ll start buzzing or ringing or something whistling. And so the trick was to go into the computer programming, and to tweak all the levels to make sure that I still could hear what I needed to hear, but also to play the flute and to make it sound the most natural it could. And I went through lots of different hearing aids. I’m kind of an upgrade person to begin with. I always want the newest and the best thing, so I was always trying new things. and I have an audiologist here in California, Dr. Ray Crookston, and he said you know, why don’t you try Widex? And I said, I never heard of Widex. He said, well, they’re very well known for their musical settings. And I said, great. So we tried them out, and they have an onboard setting, a program which is called music, which is great for listening. But it was still feeding back a little bit with my flute. It wasn’t a natural sound. It was a little bit too tinny sounding. So I went to his office with my flute a few times. It took about maybe four or 5 hours. I would play music, he would tweak his computer, and we get it, and we got this really cool setting that we named concert setting, and it’s perfect. It makes my flute sound as natural as it possibly can, and without any feedback. And again, I’ll be able to hear my colleagues. the thing about playing the flute is, in an ensemble, it’s always the highest woodwind instrument. And so if everything sounds out of tune, even though you’re playing in tune, it’s like, well, the flute’s out of tune. Got to fix that. So it’s really important that you can hear what your colleagues are doing and be able to blend with them. And so the whole thing about having a natural sound, but also being able to play with people is a crucial thing. And Widex just blew the other hearing aids out of the water that I had before. It’s a fantastic natural sound is the best way I can describe it as I remember what hearing sounded like when I had 100% good hearing. Well, it sounds like you had a terrific audiologist as well. above and beyond. I mean, that’s really tremendous client centered care. So I love hearing about that as well. Yeah, it was important. The doctor was really great, and he had worked with musicians before, but I’m not sure he worked with any wind players, and so that obviously has its own challenges and stuff. So, yeah, it was great working with him. So do you tell your other musicians about your hearing loss, and how do they react to that? And are there things that you ask them to do so that you can play with them more seamlessly, or how do you sort of communicate that? I haven’t communicated with them, except this article just came out via Widex, because I’m what’s called a brand ambassador now. And also there was a big article that just came out online in San Francisco, classical voice, which basically brought me out of the closet, if I can use that term, in this respect. and that just happened last week, so it was pretty interesting. I was a little fearful, not because at this point in my career, people are still hiring me. So it’s fine. I didn’t want people to know about my personal life that much that personal aspect of me. But like I said earlier in the interview, I decided that I wanted to help other people. So the article came out last week and the feedback I’ve gotten so far from my colleagues has been great. I’ve gotten lots of emails saying, congratulations, bravo. but more importantly, I’ve gotten a few emails saying I’m having hearing loss and I’m shy about it. I really want to talk to you about it and get your feedback and stuff. So people are wanting to get advice about hearing aids and what they can do about it and how they go about helping themselves. So that’s the most important thing. I think you’re already having an impact, which is terrific. I love that. Yeah, hopefully. So can you talk about how your hearing loss maybe has impacted your life outside of music? Is that something that you feel comfortable talking about? yeah, sure. so for those of you that don’t wear hearing aids there are different settings you can get. There’s like a normal setting if you’re talking to somebody in a room. There’s an outdoor setting. There’s a very crucial setting called restaurant settings because restaurants these days are really noisy, unless you sit outside in the patio, which I try to do anyway. And that’s always the biggest challenge when you’re in a very noisy environment to be able to hear the person that’s across from you on the table, but able to block out all the other stuff. And that’s something I’m still not comfortable with. It’s not a hearing aid thing so much as it’s just a lot of information for your brain to process with a lot of voices going on at once. So there are a few settings like social and party, that you can click to on the Widex, and it helps a lot. But being out in public, that’s the biggest challenge. there are some great advantages of wearing hearing aids in that. For example, when I go on an airplane, I don’t need noise canceling headphones anymore. I just shut my hearing aids off and it works great. So if there’s a screaming kid in the lobby or the airport or something. So there are advantages some advantages, actually, to it. But as far as impacting my regular life no, I mean, the most difficult thing is very happily married. My wife name is Tina. And what happens in the evening when you take your hearing aids out before you go to bed is like, I don’t know if you have that experience or not. but you can’t hear anything right away because you’ve been hearing these amplifications all day long, and then all of a sudden, it’s not there. So the transition from taking your hearing aids out to being able to talk to somebody is the most difficult thing in the evening. But I only do that when I go to bed, so that seems to work out. It’s like your brain has to kind of readjust to this new way of hearing. I think it’s so interesting because people think hearing is a simple process, and it’s actually so complicated. And it’s not just about your ears, right? It’s about your brain and about communication. So there’s so many things involved in it. Yeah, absolutely. So what advice do you have for other musicians, or even people who just enjoy listening to music who have hearing loss, what advice do you have for them? my advice would be, go get tested and see if you really need hearing aids. And if you do, don’t wait for four years and be in denial, like, I was get it fixed right away. Life’s short. There’s beautiful sounds and beautiful music everywhere that you want to hear. And the state of the art of hearing aids now is just phenomenal compared to what it was even ten or 20 years ago. And there are many, many hearing aid companies, and you don’t necessarily have to get just locked into one type of hearing aid. You can try different ones and see what works the best for your lifestyle and for your career and stuff like that. But I would just encourage people to do it and not wait and not be shy about it and overcome whatever fear you had, because I’m still overcoming that fear a little bit myself. But coming out with this article in this interview is helping me get over that. We have a stigma about disability in our society which, if you don’t mind me saying, it just sucks. It’s horrible. We all have our body issues. It doesn’t matter who we are or what age we are. And we all grow up thinking kind of like eww, that person’s wearing hearing aids, that person’s in a wheelchair or something. It’s like, it’s ridiculous. And that’s the stigma that I really hope that everybody gets over. And that’s, in my very small way, I hope I can help that, but especially with musicians, because there are a lot of instances not so much in my orchestra, because we’re a smaller chamber orchestra, but sometimes we do Beethoven and later music and a lot of people. But in modern symphony orchestras, it’s really loud. The brass section and the percussion section. And sometimes when you go to concerts, you see those plastic sound shields are between the sections. And I know that some musicians wear what are called musician earplugs, which cancel out loud noises. So to be exposed to that, it’s not just rock and roll music with headphones where you can lose your hearing, but it’s even in classical music. So I think people just need to be more aware of what damage they can do to their ears. And if they are noticing that they’re not hearing quite as well, they should go fix it. I guess hearing aid costs are coming down. Now. I haven’t been following all the stuff about, like, $100 hearing aids and stuff like that. but I’m sure there’s some that you can afford. And I know that some insurance companies pay for hearing aids now as well, or at least partially. So I guess the moral is just go get hearing aids. Get fixed. Why not? That is terrific advice. Or at least go get tested, right. And find out if you do have the hearing loss. And if you do, then there are many, many options out there. And hearing devices are such an important part of that. But part of my philosophy, and Gael Hannan and I wrote this book Hear & Beyond, live skillfully with hearing loss, and we write about sort of this three legged stool of skills that you need, and technology is one of them, right. But your mindset is another one, accepting that you have hearing loss and letting people know about it, and then also these nontechnical communication strategies. So it is a complicated thing, but the first step, right, as you say is to go get that hearing test. Absolutely. And not be shy, because, like I said, the reaction I’ve gotten in the last few weeks has been extremely positive about talking about it and people thanking me for being brave, whatever that means about it. And like I said, it’s not for my ego. It’s nothing I would have chosen. But I feel like, especially my age, our generation of people that do have hearing loss, of baby boomers, and a lot of people are in denial about it still. Excellent. Well, you’re definitely a great role model, and I very much appreciate that. I want to thank you so much for being on the podcast today. We’re actually out of time. It always goes so fast. And thank you for sharing your experiences. And I certainly learned a lot. and I wish you continued success with your music and your journey. And I just want to let others know if they want to learn more about your music and any performances that are coming up, they can visit www. And that’s Stephen with a /ph/ So thank you again, and I really appreciate you being here. Thank you very much for having me.

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About the Panel

Stephen Schultz. Photo by: Maurice Ramirez

Stephen Schultz, acclaimed as “among the most flawless artists on the Baroque flute,” is a renowned solo and Principal flute performer, contributing to orchestras such as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Musica Angelica. His musical journey spans Europe and the Americas, featuring performances at prestigious venues like the Musikverein, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Currently serving as an Associate Teaching Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Schultz is also the director of the Carnegie Mellon Baroque Orchestra. In 1986, he founded American Baroque, an ensemble redefining historical instruments’ modern genre. Schultz, an accomplished recording artist and collaborator, has explored alternative sounds with world music groups, emphasizing his dedication to pushing the boundaries of his instrument. 

Shari Eberts

Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: BlogFacebookLinkedInTwitter.



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