Dr Paul Whittaker OBE – ‘My hearing aids and music’

Paul Whittaker is a freelance speaker, musician, performer and workshop leader who is also profoundly deaf.

In this blog post, he talks about his experiences using hearing aids for music.

“As a professional musician my hearing aids are of vital importance to me. For probably over 20 years I had Phonak PPC-40 Superfront aids and I loved them: never had to turn the volume up very far at all, and they had so much power. For playing, for listening to music and for theatre interpreting they were just wonderful.

“Of course, all good things have to come to an end and they finally died. On visiting my regular NHS audiology department I was told that they could not be replaced, so I contacted Phonak and they told me they had some in stock. Regretfully, they were no longer NHS issue so when I returned to the hospital a couple of weeks later I was given two Phonak Naida digital aids and told they were the best available ones for music. I was also told that, because I was very specific about what I wished to hear, it would take ages to find the correct settings for me, if ever.

“It’s worth mentioning that, several years before, I had tried a couple of digital aids but, at that time, their power was nowhere near good enough for my hearing loss, so they were forgotten and I went back to my analogue ones.

“I’m well aware that the sound processing in a digital aid is very different from an analogue one, so was prepared for a change when I got the Naidas. Within a week I took them out and did without any aids for almost six weeks. To be honest, they were not properly programmed for me, but I found sounds to be too quiet, too compressed, too tinny and largely unrecognisable.

“What was particularly frustrating was that this happened in early December at time when, as a church musician and choir master, I really needed decent aids. Playing the piano and organ was so unpleasant, aurally, whilst I was simply unable to hear my choir properly and had to rely on them telling me if they were right or not.

“I no doubt tried to hide my frustrations yet suspect I failed miserably. For six weeks I did not wear any aids, the longest I have ever been without them since the age of seven. Eventually, having little faith in the hospital audiology department, I contacted Cubex in London, who I regularly visited when I was a child. They don’t usually see people who haven’t bought aids from them but agreed to see me.

“The first surprise I had was having an audiogram done and finding there was nothing at all on it. That made me realise just how much hearing aids do assist the little residual hearing I have. The second surprise was having the aids reprogrammed then stepping out into Oxford Street and hearing lots of strange noises, many for the first time.

“From London I went straight to Cornwall for work, where I kept asking people, “What’s that? What’s that sound?” for several days. I could hear things like fridges humming, kettles boililng and seals honking on the beach: all well and good if that’s what you want to hear, but I still found listening to music an unpleasant experience.

“It didn’t really get any more pleasant over the next few months. I stopped listening to music, found theatre interpreting increasingly hard and more tiring, rarely played the piano or organ for pleasure and still couldn’t cope with training the choir. All of this affected my confidence badly; probably affected every area of my life, really.

“I kept wearing the Naidas but eagerly sought a replacement. Conversations with various audiologists didn’t inspire confidence and I became increasingly aware that hearing aid manufacturers are not really interested in people who have been wearing aids for many years. Their target audience is people with acquired hearing loss and a disposable income.

“That was another problem. It was apparent that there was nothing available on the NHS that would suit me so whatever I did find would have to be paid for, somehow. After some time I found myself trying a pair of GN ReSound ‘Sparx’ aids. They sounded better than the Naidas, had more power and were clearer, so I got them.

“On the whole they do a decent job; better than anything else I’ve come across. They’re OK for playing the piano and organ, enable me to manage with the choir (though not to the extent of when I had analogue aids), I listen to music again (also partly because I bought a ‘Bose’ Bluetooth speaker – excellent), but they’re still not great for live concerts. Choral music and orchestral music are still too compressed and I no longer derive the pleasure from those that I use to.

“I would give anything to have those PPC-40 aids back. As it is, I can see a time in the future when I will no longer wear aids, a view shared by my current audiologist. The aids I now have may have a total shelf life of 5 years, and I’ve had them for over 3 already. I can’t afford to keep buying new ones, and although hearing aid technology is changing rapidly I have it on good authority that those changes are not geared towards people like me, but towards new wearers.

“I know I’m not alone among deaf musicians in desiring analogue aids. Some are coping well (and love) their digital ones and I’m delighted for them. For me, however, it seems the future is more likely to be a silent one. Somehow the music will continue for me, but in what form, and with what aids, is unknown.”


For more information about Paul Whittaker, please check out his website and twitter feed.

And please do continue to email the project team with your ideas and experiences: musicandhearingaids@leeds.ac.uk.