WXXI AM News

Musician redefines herself after hearing loss

Apr 4, 2018

Gaelen McCormick
Credit Photo Credit: Eastman School of Music

Gaelen McCormick has been losing her hearing, to varying degrees over several years as a result of Ménière’s disease – a condition that also causes vertigo and tinnitus.

"My husband and I have a morning ritual. Wake up, and the first thing he says, is “I love you” and the next thing I can say is “I can hear you” or “I can’t hear you” – and that’s how we start our day." 

The loss of hearing was a particular challenge for McCormick because of her profession: she is a musician.

She actually stopped being able to hear out of one ear 12 years ago, but kept it a secret. That stopped being an option when the hearing in her other ear started fluctuating: 

"In the years leading up to it, some days I would hear fine, some days I would hear fine with distortion, some days my hearing would drop 50 percent, 70 percent, and I would just be like, do I go to the concert tonight? Do I call in sick?  What do I do about this? And I never ever knew." 

McCormick recently started to speak publicly about the challenges she has been facing, posting this on Facebook at the end of 2017:

I’ve been deaf now for almost one year, and grappling with what that means to be deaf and a musician. This is why you have not seen me play with the RPO. 

Likely my professional performing days are over. Maybe. Jury’s still out on that one. Look at me living. Despite it all. And teaching. And creating, and writing new music for students. The next chapter is starting to get written in my own life. Love you all.

With the help of technology, resources from NTID at RIT, and a good support system, music is still McCormick’s profession. At first, she wasn’t sure if she could continue teaching – but she and a few students decided to give it a try.

She recalled, "And I literally could hear nothing, um, and it went great! It went fine. They were so flexible with me.  I would use my phone from voice to text, in a notepad program, like an app like a notepad, and so, if I could not understand what they were saying.  Usually I can figure out what you’re asking me - What’s that note, what’s that fingering. And I would still demonstrate for them – and I can see what they’re playing; The bass is very visual, because it is so large, and so we were able to work around that. And it was the thing that got made me want to get out of bed in the morning – was knowing that today I was going to see that person." 

So now she is teaching more, as well as composing and producing a series of videos online to help students – while continuing to adjust her life and how she sees herself:

"A couple things that I learned right off the bat, were…haha, you can’t do everything by yourself; haha, always thought that I could. Yeah, no. I’m fiercely independent and very very private, and I had to drop all that. Because it’s just impossible. It’s just impossible. I needed a ton of help in the last year, and I just had to ask for it, and I just simply couldn’t be private about it. Because it doesn’t make any sense - “Why is she not playing? Or like, “Why I am walking into a store and not hearing someone who needs to get around me in the shopping aisle?” You simply have to be more transparent about everything going on. So that was one thing."

Her relationship to her identity as a musician also changed: "The other thing was: you say that this thing has defined me, being a bass player and a bass teacher, and I’ve realized it doesn’t have to define me any more. I’m so much more than that, and I’m so many other things."

McCormick had been anxious about how people would react, but the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. And she wants to share that message with others who might be struggling:

"Whatever your thing is – because everyone’s got a thing – I mean you could be 100 percent healthy in your body, but if you’ve got a thing that’s hanging you up. There’s always hope to do whatever you do, you just have to find your way, and say, like, I may have this thing, and I want to do “x” – and, not but – and find the way that those things go together." 

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk. You can find an extended interview with Gaelen McCormick as part of the series Musicians of Rochester from WXXI Classical 91.5.