I Assume Beethoven Encoded His Deafness in His Music

I usually start practicing piano without my hearing aids. At first I still hear the music in my head, but after a while I’m more aware of the choreography, how it feels like I’m dancing in my hands. By focusing on a physical experience that feels good and healthy, you can counteract bad habits that occur just by hearing the sound.

For example, when playing a large chord of say eight notes, the tendency is to highlight the lowest and highest notes – the bass and melodic notes – to give them more audibility and meaning. Because of the structure of the hands, this means that the weakest fingers produce the most important notes. To help the poor fingers, the hands are bent, the left hand points to the bass, the right hand to the melody.

This is a very unnatural position for your hands, and in fact, it mimics the karate wrist-breaking locks taught in dojos that cause injury. Imagine a series of these chords on the keyboard in such an unnatural position. But because you’re chasing a full-bodied sound from that eight-note chord and not paying attention to its physicality, you start doing dangerous things. With the ability to take the sound out of the equation, I focus on the feeling. I first solidify a good technique and know it. If I know, once I’ve put my hearing aids back in, I can hold on to it and then work on the sound.

Ironically, sound can be a distraction even though it is a sound art form. Sound can distract your attention from the many other factors involved in making music. After all, music is so much more than just volume. The only thing I lack for my own loss is the volume. I am not lacking everything you need to make or enjoy music. And I even have a perfect pitch, so in some ways I hear better than I hear people.

And I think that must have happened to Beethoven. He learned to create music without sound, but reluctantly. He left a living document of his hearing loss in transition, likely starting with music written in his mid to late 20s when his hearing loss likely began. In other words, I think he encoded his deafness in the music. And like I said, the progress in his music is not perfectly linear, just as his progress through deafness probably wasn’t perfectly linear, but the journey is there. Unmistakable.

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