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Arts & Culture
A musician, going deaf, fights for a life in music
From the moment Sandy Mix wakes up in the morning, she is thinking about music. Over coffee, she plans the day’s lessons.
“I can’t believe how lucky I am, because everybody wants to do the thing that they love, and hardly anybody gets to do it,” she says.
Mix teaches piano, trumpet, French horn, and even voice. The way she talks about teaching music, you might think it’s all she’s ever done. But only a few years ago she worked in a very different field: information technology.
“It was a horrible, horrible job and I won’t talk more about it, but it paid me a lot of money,” she says. “Then finally I realized, you know what? I’m tired of doing this thing with computers.”
She taught music lessons on the side for a while, and then she made the leap. Now she has about 42 students and a waiting list. They’re mostly piano students-- and about 75 percent of them are adults.
One of Mix’s students is Diane Wilson. “She’s been taking lessons about two years. She’s amazing,” says Mix.
During the lesson, Mix and Wilson sing “Funiculi, Funicula” together as Wilson plays piano with her left hand.
“I’m always having epiphanies in lessons about things. I’ll think, oh, let’s try it this way,” says Mix.
She has always had a gift for music. “Everyone has that thing that they’re good at, and this was the thing that I was really good at,” Mix says.
She majored in music in college. Then, in her 20s, Mix started to have trouble hearing. Eventually it was too disturbing to ignore.
“I was just lying in bed at night thinking, what is going on with my ears? Why are my ears ringing?” she says.
That ringing was a small part of a much bigger problem. “The type of hearing loss I have is high-end sensorineural hearing loss," she says. "And what that means is that my high-end hearing is completely gone.”
The rest is also going. Her hearing aids compensate for the loss, but not completely. “So when I’m learning a new piece I have to learn it down an octave where I can hear it,” Mix says. “When it gets much higher like C#6, I hear the percussive sound of the key more than I hear the note.”
At some point, her hearing aids will no longer help, and she’ll have to quit teaching music. But she still hopes to make music.
“I’m trying to get jobs doing accompanying gigs or cocktail music, things that I can do that I don’t necessarily need to hear really well for,” Mix says.
After all, a very famous musician composed some of his most notable work after going deaf: Ludwig Van Beethoven.
“From what I understand, Beethoven had a balloon on the piano and that’s how he did a lot of his,” says Mix. “He could feel the vibration.”
Mix has experimented with feeling vibrations as well. “If I put my hand on my throat when I sing, I can feel the vibrations and try associate the vibrations with where I am pitch-wise,” she says. “I mean, obviously I’m not Beethoven, but it can be done.”
But Mix admits that big questions do haunt her.
“Sometimes I lie awake at night and I’m like, what am I doing? What am I doing? This could all go,” she says. “And you’re like, brain, why? You can’t do anything about it. Especially not at 2:30 in the morning.”
“You can spend all your time being pissed off at the irony, being angry about the irony. Here I’m given this wonderful musical ability and - sorry - but you’re going to lose your hearing,” adds Mix.
But when the sun rises, she knows she still gets to play music all day.
“I would much rather be doing this and taking the risk that, you know, one day my hearing’s going to go altogether and I won’t be able to do it anymore, than work at a job I hated because I was scared that I was going to lose my hearing,” says Mix. “I made this work. I will continue to make it work.”
After all, for Mix, music is more than work. It’s fun. Mix may not always be able to hear music, but with some luck, she’ll always be able to feel it.