Alison shares her experiences of hearing loss
Alison Beck
Jazz, gospel and session singer & composer
25th October 2017
Alison shares her experiences of hearing loss

This article is part personal horror story, part cautionary tale for my fellow musicians (or anyone who relies on their hearing for their job, or to do something they are passionate about).

I can remember exactly when and where it started. On 13th February 2015, I was sitting at my desk at home, coming to the end of a nasty winter cold. I noticed something funny going on in my right ear. It was like someone had turned down the volume dial from 10 to 4. As well as being really quiet, the sound was tinny and muffled, and there was a constant hissing noise. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘must be a waxy build-up’.

So I get myself down to the nurse to have the wax syringed out of my right ear. The nurse took one look and said: ‘clean as a whistle’. I got a dark feeling in my stomach.

My GP said it was probably Eustachian Tube Dysfunction. This is quite common after a cold; your hearing goes a bit funny and the world sounds muffled. It usually goes away after a few days. But it didn’t for me.

After a few weeks of this, I was getting desperate. I’m a busy professional jazz/gospel/session singer and it was really difficult to do my job. In rehearsals and on gigs, I could barely hear what was going on to my right, and it was difficult to blend with the other musicians. 

The sound I heard was strange and robotic, and the constant hissing noise – like a leaking radiator that you can’t stop – was getting in the way.

When I was directing choirs and workshop groups, I often couldn’t quite hear what they were doing. I did a fair bit of blagging. It was stressful and awful. 

I want to mention at this point that I’m a member of two choirs – Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir and the London Community Gospel Choir – and everyone in those choirs was incredibly kind and supportive. 

One morning I woke up and I was due to record a solo for BBC Radio. My hearing was worse than ever, there was strange whistling going on and it sounded like I was underwater in a swimming pool. Somehow I got through that session, but it was a low point.

In daily life, it was hard to hear what people were saying, especially in noisy environments. I had to get people to repeat themselves, and make people walk on my left-hand side if we were walking and talking. Professional meetings and networking became quite embarrassing sometimes.

I went back to my GP and begged for a referral to the ENT clinic at the hospital. Various doctors still thought that this was Eustachian Tube Dysfunction. I hoped they were right – because that meant I would eventually get back to normal.

Finally, a year after my symptoms first appeared, I saw a new consultant and he explained that what I actually have is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss: permanent, irreparable damage to the nerves in my right ear.

The thing is – and this is why I want to share my story – is that the symptoms (if you present to a GP) are the same as Eustachian Tube Dysfunction. Both sets of symptoms tend to begin after you have a cold. Nobody knows why I suffered hearing loss but the doctor thinks it was probably ‘post-viral’ (i.e. it started because of the cold).

With Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, if you take a course of steroids within the first four weeks of symptoms starting, this will fix the problem 90% of the time. Unfortunately, because my diagnosis came 12 months down the line, it was too late for me and my hearing damage is therefore permanent.

So my message is: if you are a musician and you get a cold and your hearing goes weird afterwards, and it’s still weird after a couple of weeks, get down to the GP and insist that they make an emergency referral to the ENT hospital clinic. Or go and see the (brilliant) guys at Musicians’ Hearing Services straight away and get them to test your hearing. The specialists can perform a hearing test to find out whether your hearing loss is mechanical (i.e. the tubes in your head are gunked up) or nerve-related. If you have sensorineural hearing loss and you take the steroids in the first four weeks, you will hopefully dodge the bullet of permanent hearing damage.

Thankfully, there’s a happy(ish) ending to my story. I received a specialist musician’s hearing aid from Musicians’ Hearing Services, paid for with a grant from Help Musicians. This has made a huge difference and it means I can manage OK on gigs and sessions.

There are still challenges (e.g. music doesn’t sound as good as it used to, and the tinnitus is terrible) but I’m so glad to be able to carry on with my career.

Hearing loss is a real taboo in the music industry; I kept my hearing struggles under wraps for a long time. But in the end, I chose to go public in the spirit of raising awareness and helping others avoid what happened to me. So please feel free to share this post if you think it will help other musicians avoid permanent hearing damage.

Click here to find out more about how to protect your hearing and how HMUK can help you.