At fifty years of age, I must say that I feel very fortunate to enjoy very good health. I never take that for granted either, or at least I try to remind myself not too. One aspect of my health I pay particularly close attention to is my hearing. As a young person, I enjoyed more than my share of music at high volumes via headphones, car speakers, guitar amplifiers, and symphony orchestras. I am a violinist by formal training, yet I never worried about its effect on my ears. I mean, it's not amplified and playing Bach does not generate a high decibel danger zone.....at least I thought that to be so.
In early January of 2003, I was teaching violin lessons at the Music Arts Institute in Independence, MO. I had a studio there with 5-6 students each week. MAI is in an old elementary school that was transformed into this great program for teaching music. It is a very old building with high ceilings and wood floors. This created a wonderful "echo chamber" that made my violin sound brilliant and alive....and loud. If one of my students did not show for a lesson, I would use that time to practice. I would also stay late to practice, taking advantage of the wonderful acoustics.
The piece I was trying to play at that time was J.S.Bach's Chaconne from his Partita no. 2. Despite the fact that it really was beyond my technical ability, I was determined to play it and I worked on it every chance I got. It is one of the greatest works of art every created, in my humble opinion, and the fact that I could play it at all gave me enormous satisfaction.
One reason the Chaconne is so difficult to play is its use of chords.....lots of them...which on a non-fretted instrument like the violin is very hard for most of us to play. I worked so hard on this piece and spent a lot of time trying to stick the chord passages.
One evening when I stopped practicing and started putting my violin in its case, I noticed a high-pitched ringing in my right ear. It was a very high, super-sonic tone...constant and very noticeable. No matter how I turned my head, or what I did, it stayed there. I didn't notice it as much in the car on the way home because of the noise of the car itself and the music on the radio. But when I put my head on the pillow that night, it was there....loud and clear. I was very frustrated that it had not gone away. And I was also alarmed because it was so annoying. I went to see an ear doctor. My hearing checked out fine, but he told me I had tinnitus. I had heard of tinnitus and hoped I would never have it...but now I did. He recommended that I use earplugs for any sounds louder than a vacuum cleaner. I read everything I could find about it. I learned about many famous people who suffered from tinnitus, including Beethoven, Some of my friends and family have it too. Any loud noises or trauma can cause it, not just music. Firearms are particularly damaging.
In time, I began to learn to live with it. It has became part of my "normal". It has become part of my "quiet".
I wear earplugs when I play the violin now. I wear them when I am in loud places, including restaurants, my son's swim meets, movie theaters and Royal's games. I am mindful of volume when I listen to music. I do everything I can to be smart about it.
And in a weird way, I am forever connected to Bach now....which is certainly not a bad thing either.
Here is a stunning performance of Bach's Chaconne played by Maxim Vengerov.