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Monday, 24 April 2017

Losing my religion

As a musician and singer for over 50 years playing bass in rock and blues bands as well as strumming an acoustic guitar to write songs and sometimes even going out and doing solo gigs it never occurred to me that I might go deaf. Over the years my hearing did deteriorate, but it didn’t stop me being able to function as a player and as a listener but that all changed as my Meniere’s progressed.
I had had the odd bouts of vertigo over a few years, and I had also had days when my hearing wasn’t functioning as it should but I put it down to blocked Eustation tubes, like when you have a bad cold and things go a bit dull and fuzzy. I suppose looking back I can recognize that I have had this condition for perhaps 10 years.
Up until a couple of years ago I was still doing gigs as a solo artist and although at times these were on bad hearing days I was still able to hold a tune and jam around with friends. My wife Jackie and I had bought a boat and were living the dream sailing in the Caribbean. I was teaching Jackie to play ukulele and we used to have fun practicing a few sea shanties to perform for our new found cruising friends.
Then one day on board our boat I picked up the ukulele to practice a couple of tunes and had found I was having difficulty tuning the thing up. I hadn’t noticed this before, in fact I seldom used an electronic tuner and did my tuning the old fashioned way, by ear. I resorted to the tuner which told me that it was now in tune and I began to strum a couple of basic chords, C, Am, F, and G.
Something very strange was occurring as the Chord of C and the chord of Am sounded exactly the same. Even F sounded a bit like C and G was no different. Oh there was a sort of subtle variation but it was a long way from this familiar sequence that I had played 10,000 times before. I tried fingering a simple scale which my ears recognized starting at low C and climbing to high C. I tried that chord change again from C to Am, then I tried an A major to Am. It all sounded the same, I could not tell the difference from one chord to another. And this was on a day when I thought my ears had cleared momentarily.
The bummer with Meniere’s is that you have good days and bad days, or sometimes good weeks and bad weeks, it seems to have no pattern to it. I could go to bed with good ears and wake up the next feeling like I was living with ear defenders on, it was that dramatic. The days when it was bad I just wouldn’t play at all, but when the fog lifted I would revel in the amnesty, but this particular day it seemed I had crossed a threshold with the condition that I was totally unprepared for.
Prior to this point I had noticed that listening to any sort of music was becoming difficult as there was something wrong with the bottom end, which had become a sort of blur that caused me to hear it as over ripe distortion, or a sort of blooming that masked out the rest of the tune. But now my ears were failing to recognize the subtle changes that make up melody. Music had become a no go area, nothing sounded right anymore  in fact it was just becoming a very uncomfortable noise.
This was how my life was going to be from now on, a life without music, it was unthinkable, Meniere’s had robbed me of a huge part of my life. I would try from time to time, when I thought I was having a slight respite from the fog but C Am, F & G just came out as discordant blur. That was perhaps 18 months ago and I was losing my religion..
I’ve done a good deal of investigation via the wonders of the internet looking for information about ears and how the work and how they fail but have found very little that describes this loss of harmonic decoding that our ears do without us even thinking about it. I found a Scotish professor who played piano that described exactly the same symptoms that I went through, and probably described it better than I have. It makes you aware of how amazingly complicated the process of hearing is and makes you wonder how on earth it works, when everything is normal, of course.
 There’s an eardrum that wobbles backwards and forwards that moves some miniscule bones that tap on an inner window, as they call it, that then moves some 30,000 hair cells that float in a fluid inside a shell like organ called the Choclea. This movement is then converted into electrical signals that race along an auditory nerve fibre which is connected to a particular part of the brain than makes sense of it and manifests itself as a particular sound. We can hear frequencies from very low, I’m not sure how low, to about 20,000 hertz which is a very high pitched squeak.
Now the thing is that when we listen to music it may contain all of these harmonics happening at the same moment, as in a symphony concert, say, and our ears capture all of this at the same instant, feed it to our brain which interprets it as music. It also turns this information into an emotionable response, happy, sad, elated, calming, it passeth beyond all understanding that’s all I can say.
Until you lose the ability to hear, to listen, then the sense of hearing is something we all take for granted, but just stop for a moment and contemplate the wonder of how that sense works, and then put on a set of ear defenders and walk through a week with them on.

Our hearing is dependent on us having a full set of those hair cells, and as we grow older we start to lose them. Loud noises will kill a few of them off at a time, and they are not renewable, they do not regenerate, and even without contracting Meniere’s most people will have trouble in later life. But Meniere’s seems to ransack the remaining ones we have and with a vengeance will lead you to a curious world where music and the whole auditory experience just doesn’t make sense anymore.