This programme was initially broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday December 4 (it remains available on iplayer).

The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley’s life has revolved around music for as long as he can remember.

Since childhood, he has had problems with one of his ears, but which did not appear to impede his career in music. Then, in 2010, as a result of infection with the common cold virus, he lost his hearing in the other ear, and as a result he is now one of the 9 million in the UK with partial deafness.

The radio programme was primarily about Berkeley’s coming to terms with his experience of living with deafness, but it was also about raising awareness of the fact that what happened to him, and presumably to many other sufferers, was potentially avoidable and treatable in its early stages.

We follow Berkeley as he awaits the performance of one of his own compositions at the proms. He shares his anxiety that what he now hears, and what he composes, may no longer be the same as that heard and perceived by those with normal hearing. The basis of this anxiety must be impossible to prove, or disprove.

Berkeley uses hearing aids, which are technologically so much more sophisticated than those of even five years ago. Nonetheless, they too distort sound.

When he initially lost his hearing, the composer wrote a newspaper article on his experience. He was contacted shortly afterwards by an ENT surgeon with a special interest in music, who believed that with the correct treatment at the time of the event, deafness could perhaps have been prevented. Too late at this point for Berkeley, he remains determined to raise this issue, as it may benefit other sufferers in the early stages of deafness.

Berkeley stopped playing the piano when he became deaf. Confused as to whether he should trust his fingers or his ears, he lacked confidence in what he was hearing. So too, he initially stopped listening to music. The experience of it was too painful, a reminder of what he had lost, plus the renewed shock he experienced each time when listening, akin to a bereavement.

It is difficult for newly deaf musicians to be open about their loss, and there is the immediate fear that others will lose confidence in their ability to make and perform music. The reality, however, is different. Those who have heard, and later develop deafness, retain the memory, as Beethoven did so famously.

Berkeley reads movingly from a letter written by Beethoven, when he seemed suicidal, a ‘hopeless case’, as his deafness took on the appearance of chronicity, a ‘lasting malady.’ On the verge of despair, Beethoven believed that only art kept him from suicide.

Berkeley, as he himself states, is an optimist, and he claims that there may even have been some positive aspects to his deafness. He believes that he now values music more intensely, and that it has become even more precious to him. He also feels that he hears and listens better than ever, which could be explained on the basis of brain plasticity, a rewiring of sorts, reflecting the brain’s capacity to adapt.

For Berkeley, as for Beethoven, the music map was already there, and the memories had been laid, prior to deafness. Thus, hearing loss occurred for both when they were already hearing with their brains, and perhaps less so with their ears…

Berkeley’s compositions now are undoubtedly different to those written prior to the onset of his deafness, but difference does not necessarily mean inferior. If anything, he believes that his work is now more focused.

We tend to take our senses for granted. Deafness is a particularly invisible impairment, yet one which can acutely and dramatically change the sufferer’s perception of, and interaction with, the world.

There is also the sobering statistic that hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline. Keep hearing well, and you may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Listening to Berkeley’s programme, I thought of Anne Stevenson’s poem On Going Deaf, and her pragmatic approach to losing her hearing:

‘I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?

Searching myself, I find a spare.’

The poet had originally studied the cello in college, and later switched to literature. Although she suffered an acute and progressive hearing loss, her poetry comes from the sounds of music. For her, as for Berkeley, deafness has not been a place of silence.

CQ

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