Nancy Williams

The Sound of Music

The second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique has a famous melody (co-opted by the likes of Billy Joel, Kiss and Charlie Brown) and a fluid, calming line in the piano’s low register. New Haven pianist Nancy Williams loves the entire piece so much she once spent six months listening to it every morning as she drove to work. But it’s not just the lyricism of this classical sonata—to be played adagio cantabile, slowly, in a singing style—that makes it a favorite for Williams. It’s also the fact that the second movement, in particular, is played almost entirely in a range she can still hear well.

Like Beethoven himself, Williams is a musician with progressive hearing loss. Unlike him, she’s the beneficiary of modern technology, which gives her the ability to hear most of the sound of her own music. On February 1, Williams will be among 14 Neighborhood Music School musicians to perform in the first of four concerts celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Her contribution? The second movement of Sonata Pathétique.

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On her blog Grand Piano Passion, Williams writes that by the time Beethoven was 30, he was losing his hearing in the high frequencies of the piano’s upper register, the same range in which her hearing is most compromised. “At the theater, Beethoven had to lean forward towards the orchestra in order to hear what was being said on the stage…,” Williams writes. “He tried to cure his high-frequency loss with applications of herbs and oil of almonds, as well as with hot and cold baths, but to no avail. Those attempted cures now seem archaic, yet the feelings Beethoven experienced from his hearing loss are powerful and contemporary.”

Even with the benefit of 21st-century hearing aids, the notes in the piano’s top octave sound tinny to Williams; those in the next octave down sound artificial, as if played by a computer. They’re also lacking overtones. “There are notes that are ringing in sympathy with the notes that you play that can go up quite high in the frequency range,” Williams explains. The piano goes up to about 4,000 Hertz, but most people will hear overtones ranging higher than that. Normal human hearing goes all the way up to 20,000.

Williams’s hearing loss was diagnosed in kindergarten after her teacher noticed she was singing too loudly. “By the time I got to middle school, I really couldn’t hear the teacher when he or she turned their back to the classroom to write something on the chalkboard even though I was sitting in the front row,” Williams recalls. The child of a musical family, she’d begun piano lessons as a fifth-grader, and two years later her parents made the difficult decision to get her a hearing aid. They feared the stigma associated with it, but there’s a stigma attached to not being able to hear, too, Williams says. Despite the fact that the hearing aids helped, at age 16, she was told that she would never become a concert pianist, and she stopped playing. That loss, she says, was even greater than the loss of her hearing.

Still, music had a hold on her. In her adult life, she often attended concerts and the opera. She listened to classical music. When her son’s preschool teacher suggested he had a good sense of rhythm and would benefit from piano lessons, Williams reluctantly agreed. The piano was a painful reminder of what she thought she couldn’t do. But once a keyboard was in the house again, she signed up for lessons with her son’s piano teacher. More than a decade later, she’s still at it.

“It wasn’t really until I went back to the piano that I confronted how much my hearing loss and the piano music was intertwined,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of shame around hearing loss for many of us in society… There a lot of negative stereotypes, which is why people don’t get treatment.”

Since then, Williams has made a career move as well, opening her own business, Auditory Insight, which offers strategic marketing consulting for manufacturers of devices and drug therapies in the field of hearing healthcare. Previously, she’d kept her work separate from her condition. But the fact that she has a hearing loss is actually a plus for her clients, she says, because she’s representative of many of their customers.

Just as Williams has learned to compensate for her hearing loss, both professionally—using tools like video conferencing and real-time audio transcripts—and musically—for example, judging how loudly she’s playing the hard-to-hear lower range by the feel of the piano and the feedback of her teacher—Beethoven had to find ways to compensate as a composer. “His loss started high and just kept on creeping down the keyboard,” Williams says, “and there’s often a lot of very interesting action in Beethoven in the bass frequencies, which for awhile…, before he went totally deaf, was the only thing he was hearing.”

In his Moonlight Sonata, the primary motif is repeated in different octaves, Williams says, noting she doesn’t think that’s an accident. She recently chose to play that piece at a national convention of the Hearing Loss Association of America because “whether you had a low frequency or high frequency loss, at some point you’d be able to hear the music more clearly.”

Beethoven composed—apparently in his mind and without the aid of the piano—some of our most lasting musical masterworks. On February 1, concertgoers will get what Victoria Reeve, NMS piano department chair, calls a “very tiny tasting” of his early works, including two trios and four sonatas played by NMS faculty, students and an alumnus. Three more concerts will follow later this year, celebrating Beethoven’s middle period on April 25, his later period on October 24 and, on the composer’s December 16 birthday, an all-school Beethoven Bash.

The longevity of Beethoven’s music is part of what makes it impressive, Reeve says. “But then the uniqueness of this music,” she adds, “the fact that it changed so much over the course of his life…, this phenomenal transformation of musical sound, the way he wrote for the piano and the fact that he was deaf… It’s mind-blowing.”

Williams may have at least a glimmer of understanding of how he did it. “In some way,” she says, “there’s the note that I’m playing, and there’s also kind of the resonance of it in my mind at the same time.” It’s more than a sound memory, she insists; it’s a “creation of the sound in your mind without the stimulation of your ear,” suggesting another reason to believe that listening to music is more than simply hearing the notes.

Beethoven 250 Concert Series
Neighborhood Music School – 100 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-5189
Next Show: Feb. 1, 6:30pm (adults $10, children under 12 $5)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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