Well, if that subject header made you think I was retiring, you’ll have to wait a bit longer for that. But it’s time I talked about something I’ve dealt with since April, 2009.

Yes. That long ago.

I had written about the incident then, but hadn’t really discussed what happened next because, well … because talking about one’s hearing when in the music business can be a bit tricky. People will make assumptions once they know someone is dealing with a hearing issue.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the beginning.

On April 23, 2009 I had vertigo, which was something I’d not experienced before. I remember telling our conductor that I was feeling a bit dizzy, just to warn him that I was sort of “off”. On April 26 I had an awful migraine in the morning and then had to play Carmen that afternoon. I get migraines on occasion, and I call them “eargrains” because the tragus of my left ear is so painful to touch and I know that means a migraine is coming on.

But on April 29 I had a horrible experience. I had vertigo, and a headache that actually caused me to cry and worried Dan so much he asked if he should call an ambulance. I couldn’t stand or I’d throw up. And I had opera in two hours. (Fortunately I was able to call my wonderful sub and he came in for that performance.) I was a mess, and the next morning ended up going to the doctor. She said she thought it was labyrinthitis, sent me home after doing some tests to make sure it wasn’t something worse, and I waited it out.

It did pass. I felt better. But then I had tinnitus in my left ear. It was pretty awful and I went to see an otologist. It turned out that not only did I have tinnitus, but I also suffered hearing loss. It wasn’t horrendous, but it was still troublesome.

Fast forward some years (and more migraines) later. I returned to have another hearing test and my hearing had deteriorated enough to qualify for a hearing aid. It was a tremendous help at parties and restaurants: the hearing had gotten to a point where I just withdrew at noisy events because I couldn’t hear. The funny thing was I was MOST comfortable in the orchestra: I didn’t notice the tinnitus, and I didn’t feel the hearing loss caused any problems with my playing. The majority of my colleagues didn’t even know I had the hearing loss problem (I didn’t wear the hearing aid at work because the sound was so darn tinny).

About a year or so ago I went in for a new hearing aid. I’d been neglecting wearing the old one a large part of the time. My audiologist said that was a mistake — the ear can just shut down eventually if it’s not working. But oh this new hearing aid was a life changer! I could wear it at work. The sound was marvelous. I was overjoyed. And I nearly felt normal. Still, very few in the orchestras knew about my situation: I was still not ready for the looks, the possible judgments on my playing if I was out of tune … that sort of thing.

Again we fast forward to a week before our huge trip this past summer (so mid-June). Dan and I were walking downtown and I told him I felt like my head was in a bubble or something. He suggested perhaps I had a clogged ear. I tried to get the wax out using the drops one can buy. No change. In addition my hearing aid seemed broken … until I held it up to my right ear and realized it was working just fine. So I made an appointment to see a doctor. She took one look in my ear and said it was as clean as can be. NO wax. So off to get a hearing test I went.

Profound hearing loss in the left ear. Sigh. When the speech recognition bit was done I simply couldn’t understand anything! It was all distortion and ugly sounds. The doctor suggested prednisone and, thankfully, said I could travel. My hearing aid was useless, so while I brought it with me on the trip, hoping the ear would somehow heal itself, I never could put it to use.

I thought my career was over.

I have always said “I am not my oboe,” and I still believe that to be true. I still, though, hoped to play a bit more. One possible goal was to play through the 2025/26 season so I could say I’d been with symphony for 50 years. Could that still happen?

Yes. No. I don’t know!

What I do know is I played last week and if people are being honest I was fine. I use an earplug in my left ear the entire time to avoid distortion. I use the right earplug when everything is tremendously loud (I do NOT want to sacrifice that ear!). So I am taking one day at a time and we’ll see what happens.

Oh, and if you are wondering, the damage was NOT caused by loud sounds. The doctor made that very clear. It was the migraine, most likely. Did you know migraines can result in hearing loss? Now you do.

So that’s my story. And I’m ready to go public with it because it helps people understand why I might not respond if they are to the left of me. I am going public because I think people should know that music really can continue even with hearing loss. I’m going public because, despite my loss being caused by something other than loud sounds, I hope my colleagues and students will wear earplugs when they are able since we all know that loud sounds CAN certain cause hearing loss. I’m going public because it is my way of processing this loss.

I’m writing this quickly, and odds are I’ll go back and edit on occasion, but I just wanted to finally get this out there for all to read.


  1. Wow, Patty! I would not have known, and you know well the problems I had with my right ear. The symptoms you describe, including being more comfortable in the orchestra than in social situations are the same as mine. I think you will find that playing will not be an issue for you, and navigating the social scene will be a learning experience. I’m truly sorry to know that you have entered the world of the hearing impaired, but I know you will defeat it.

    I’m glad you posted this, because you have a following in the oboe world, and perhaps this will spark a conversation that we should be having…

  2. Patty, I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this. I have been dealing with hearing loss (and hearing aids) for about 35 years. In my case the hearing loss was due to my being a percussionist/timpanist, most definitely. I have had tinnitus all that time, and to be honest I don’t notice it most of the time. Part of the problem is that soft, high pitched sounds can go below the cloud of tinnitus and become inaudible. That’s where the hearing aids come in. My first models were not satisfactory for playing because they would distort horribly when I would strike the drum. They couldn’t handle it. The current model I wear are great, and I could finally wear them while playing which was a huge plus, being able to better hear the strings in the pit. The current models are receiver in canal design with the aid behind the ear and a small wire going to a speaker in the ear canal by Oticon. What I instantly discovered with the first RIC aid was that the silicone dome that fits in the ear canal can come with perforations which let natural sound in while augmenting the frequencies I need. The best of both worlds, and it really opened up the sound to be more natural. I reply didn’t like the solid domes because I only got the sound the aid gave me, which is not full-spectrum and felt like I was wearing headphones all the time. I sincerely hope you get to the bottom of whatever is going on.

  3. It’s always been such a taboo to discuss this, hasn’t it Bob? I think it’s time that stops. I’ve dealt with this since 2009 and it took me THIS long to finally write about it!

  4. Thanks, Jim! When I received my latest hearing aid it was just heaven! I could hear music correctly. It was truly life-changing. My audiologist has me coming back to see if she can manage to get things to work okay with this new, much more serious hearing loss. I will remain hopeful. But I also am grateful that my right ear is pretty darn good. I will be meeting with a doctor as well, and if I’m told I’m taking too much of a risk by continuing to play I will consider the options. But mostly I am just ready to write about this aspect of life and hope that it is helpful to some others.

  5. Thank you to all who are sharing this information. My husband is in the process of shopping for hearing aides and we are being told the newer generations are so much more effective in discerning which sounds to amplify. And yes. He is very withdrawn in group settings because of his hearing loss.

    We haven’t heard anything about a perforated dome. It this through Oticon? Curious which newer model folks have purchased. Oticon is the one recommended.

    I also developed tinnitus and some hearing loss. It is sad to lose the ability to experience silence. :(.

    Mine may have been oddly triggered by the Ketamine dosing I was taking for depression. Theoretically The brain was trying go make sense of the sounds and images being thrown at it, causing the tiinnutis. ( though there are no external soinds when dosing, it can somehow be quite noisy in the brain. Visual images during dosing May have also caused “visual snow syndrome-kind of Like tinnitus but in the eyes. I no longer recommend Ketamine dosing:(.

    My husband and I are both looking for a new hearing specialist. Any recommendations?

    I’m so sorry to heard of all dealing with this hearing loss. But it sounds like you are receiving great care. And so thankful for the improvements in hearing Aides

  6. Jim will have to fill you in on the perforated dome hearing aids. I was using a Phonak Audéo Lumity one that I loved. I could wear it everywhere, while the older one wouldn’t work well in an orchestra setting. It was, as I’ve said over and over, a life changer for me! I will be seeing my audiologist soon to see if she can adjust it for my current situation, but it might not be possible.

    I have Kaiser, so I go to the doctors and audiologists there. I’m guessing you aren’t with them, so I really haven’t a clue who to recommend. I just think Ralph will find getting good (sadly very costly) aids to be amazing. They have come SO very far!

    And I’m sorry you have tinnitus from Ketamine. Isn’t it something how these things can happen? Someone else I know now has hearing loss due to a virus. Others I know have tinnitus for various reasons. Our ears sure take a beating. Sigh.

  7. Economos Pamela Hakl

    Patty, bravo for your persistence and bravery in facing this crucial issue, I grew up with a mother who had profound hearing loss from a childhood illness. I know how it can affect so much of life, as it certainly did hers.
    (She said she married my dad because she could hear him propose! Yes, he did have a loud voice.)
    Of course, being a musician takes it to a whole new level. But as you showed last week, you can still play beautifully! So play on!

  8. A childhood friend’s husband swears by hearing aids made by Ear-lens, a Menlo Park company. Check out their website. There are many good options these days and new innovations being developed. Patty, you are dealing with this well corroborated by the fact that no one (?) knew you had any issues–only compliments on your playing in both symphony & opera. Please don’t retire–wish I could have made it to 50 years…

  9. Thank you so much, Pam. And of course thank you for all your encouragement as I have navigated this road for so long. I’m grateful that you were at my side and never made me feel as if I should give up!

  10. I actually LOVE my hearing aid … just have to get it to work for a nearly dead ear, and I am not sure at this point if that’s possible. But I did manage to play this past week, so I’m hoping that I can continue whether or not I get that ear “back”. I did start to feel more comfortable as last week progressed.

  11. Thanks for this, Patty. I am also a Kaiser member and I am so glad that you had good experiences with their audiologists.

  12. Thanks, Lisa!

    I go back to my audiologist this Wednesday: she really wants to see if she can get the aid to work for me. I then see a doctor on Friday, when we can talk about the options I have. I’ve read about a cochlear implant and I’m really not ready for that at this point. I’ve read about it, and seen videos, and several things I saw or read said the one thing you don’t get with an implant is an ability to hear pitch and timbre. Um. Hello? We MUST hear those in an orchestra! But maybe the doctor will clarify things for me. Still, I’m VERY uncomfortable having something attached to my head, having a huge device behind my ear, and having surgery for those things to be used. So I’m not sure I want to deal with that.

    I’ve really appreciated Kaiser. The only huge issue is getting appointments: I had to wait a month to get in to see my audiologist. That’s really nuts! But I can be patient … for now.

  13. I have friends who were never able to get appointments with the Kaiser audiology department in Oakland and went to Costco instead. I hope you have a good visit with the audiologist!

  14. It is VERY frustrating … Kaiser is so very slow, and of course first you have to get a referral from your doctor. When I DO get in they’ve been helpful, but what I am hoping for this time is someone who understands the issues for a musician. Hearing pitch and timbre is so important (and if what I’ve read is correct a cochlear implant will NOT be good for those issues).

    Hearing loss is frustrating, and frequently makes me want to disappear. When I am in a noisy restaurant I just tune out. I’m frequently a bit of a hermit and this only makes me want to truly become one!

  15. I am very sorry that this has happened to you, Patty. I hope that, with the help of your healthcare team, you are able to arrive at solutions that will allow you to hear better and continue your work!

  16. Thank you very much, Susan!

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