Playing by Ear
Beethoven’s hearing loss resonates with this similarly
To say that a career in music isn’t the
most obvious choice for someone with significant hearing loss is an
understatement, but that’s irrelevant to Valerie Zamora. Despite serious
hearing damage from a case of the mumps during her infancy, Zamora became
a pianist, training at Juilliard. On Saturday, she’ll be at Carnegie
Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, performing an all-Beethoven program. She spoke
with Alicia Zuckerman.
We’re talking on the phone right now, so you’re obviously not deaf.
How much can you hear?
People have a lot of misconceptions, so I’ll
compare it to vision. When somebody’s nearsighted, if they’re looking at
something close by, it’s perfectly clear. Any sound that’s within a realm
of me, I can hear fine. There are some sounds I’ve never heard but I can
feel. Telephones, for instance—they’re either very loud and painful, or I
can feel them. There’s no in-between.
Did your piano teachers know about your hearing?
not. I really hid it from everybody. It was really far better to be
considered some drug addict—at least there was respect for my art—than to
be hearing-impaired. Every time it has been exposed, a wall has been put
I was thrown out of one teacher’s studio after he
heard about my hearing. At Juilliard, I had a wonderful trio, and we were
going professional, and someone told one of the players about my hearing,
and it fell apart. When I was at the Hochschule for Music and Theater in
Hannover, Germany, my teacher encouraged me to tell people. He thought it
was like a cold. So I did, and I got called into the office the next day,
and they said they made a mistake.
They tried to throw you out?
Everyone said my playing was
fantastic—too bad about my hearing. I went to the student government, so,
of course, I got back in.
When did you decide to stop hiding it?
About five years ago.
I was really sought-after—whether it was accompanying or chamber music—and
now the phone isn’t ringing as much. In Europe, everyone just thought it
was my accent or their accent.
It sounds like perceptions of you have been much more of a challenge
than actually being hearing-impaired.
Absolutely. There are things
that are really wonderful about the way I hear. I have perfect pitch.
There are instruments that I know I’m not hearing in the same way somebody
else does, but becoming familiar with the sounds I do hear, I can
understand what the player is doing. It is in the scope of every musician
to produce sound using all their senses, and I think that’s what I’ve
developed, to produce sound not just using my training but to consider
gravity, motion, dance, color, even touch and smell.
Do you imagine that Beethoven, as he went deaf, experienced music as
I’m not gonna say it is the case—even if you were able to
go into someone else’s mind and see and hear the way they do, nothing
would make sense. [But] about two years ago, I had been playing a lot of
Romantic composers, and I was drawn back to playing Beethoven. Pianists
have told me after hearing my Beethoven—they never understood this and now
they understand it, and that’s happened more than once. So there may be,
in my approach, something that’s easier for me. Perhaps—just perhaps— I do
have an insight.
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