Merry Christmas and a Finger in Your Ear

It’s my first holiday with my cochlear implant.  I think I haven’t written for a while because I’m still trying to process (pun intended) everything that’ s been going on for the last month or so…

1950's black and white photo of people gathered around a piano singing, with Doris Day on piano bench next to man playing

Singing around the piano – a Christmas tradition for anyone whether or not you’re as perky as Doris Day (image from

After Thanksgiving, dear friends visiting from Boston helped us set up our Christmas tree while we drank egg nog.  I have an annual tradition of playing Christmas carols on the piano after the tree is up – it’s always the first time I break out the Christmas music.  Any pianist (or Christian pianist, anyway) can tell you that Christmas is when any piano player worth their salt can bang out some carols for sing-alongs.  Even kids in their first year of lessons can usually pull together a version of “Jingle Bells.”  I LOVE carols, and look forward to playing them every year – my fingers get itchy just thinking about “Sleigh Ride” or the cool chord combinations as I play “Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire…”

This year was bittersweet because it didn’t go very well.  I knew it wouldn’t be the same with the implant, but it was bad.  The implant in my right ear gave me some tinny staticky noise, especially in the higher pitches, and I couldn’t pick out any melody. My residual hearing in my left ear gave me fairly normal noise, but only in the very low pitches.  Together it was awful – it sounded like the same song played on two instruments in two different keys at the same time.  Or if someone played two versions of the same song at the same time, as performed by two different artists.  Ugh.

Black and white image of blond woman scrunching up face while putting fingers in ears, as if listening to unpleasant sound

Carols with Implant – Ugh!

I tried taking off the implant first as Plan A, but the implant surgery destroyed all my hearing in my right ear, and I have so little residual hearing in my left ear that the music just doesn’t work with it – it’s too quiet and I hear too little to appreciate anything.  My experience improved immensely with Plan B, when I had my five-year old come over and put his finger in my left ear.  Then I only got music through the implant and it was slightly more tolerable, even though it didn’t sound “normal” to me.  Of course, my son and I both burst into giggles after about one minute, but for that one minute I had some fun hearing music only through the implant.  Rest assured that my implant manufacturer does not recommend anyone putting a child’s fingers in their ears!

I also confess to occasionally cranking up Christmas music and singing along in the car during the holidays.  Yes – even as a Deaf non-implant person I did this!  Remember that listening to music is just like lip-reading, so give me a little context and my brain can figure out what I’m listening to.  Usually I could get enough from the bass line to not only figure out the song, but also to jump in and figure out the key so I could sing along.  I didn’t really care whether I was on pitch or not because I’d only try this when I was alone.  Now I can’t figure out the key with my implant, I can’t pick out a bass line or a melody, and if I sing,  my own voice drowns out anything I’m hearing from the car stereo.  So one more way I am NOT enjoying holiday music this year.

The whole key to this implant thing, though, is taking time to train your brain.  After a month or so of Christmas carols everywhere, I’m happy to report that I’m already noticing it’s a little better.  I can pick out a few songs – “Jingle Bells” is the easiest one because of the beat.  The worst ones are anything with orchestral music (can’t pick out any one instrument or melody) or any songs with notes that are held a long time – “O Holy Night” sounds like a scene from a horror movie just as the ghosts with chain saws jump out of a closet.  “Angels We Have Heard on High” sounds a bit like someone on a roller coaster: kids yelling OOOOHHHHHooooooooOOOOOOOOOHHHooooooOOOOOOOHHHHoooo” instead of “Glorias” gracefully trilling up and down.

Ever wondered what music sounds like through an implant?  I found some places online that can help (I think).  Good luck, because I have no idea if these are accurate!

YouTube video with speech and music:

An auditory neuroscience blog gives it a try, but with a complex piece of music:

One more:

I admit to being blue about the holiday music thing – I know this music so well and have been enjoying it since my mother taped letters to the keyboard and I started banging out “Away in the Manger” at age four.  It’s hard to have that wrecked by the implant instead of improved.  My audiologist has said over and over that the first sounds you lose are the last sounds to come back.  So I’m sure the music will continue improving over time, but I miss it this year.

Despite my mixed feelings about Christmas music, I had a lovely holiday.  I’m sitting on the couch right now watching snow falling gently in Arkansas, where we’re spending Christmas with my wife’s family.  Kids are running around with new toys.  A tree is lit.  There’s egg nog in the fridge.  Despite many households this year facing poverty, grief and tragedy, or separation from loved ones, we’re very blessed.  The true spirit of Christmas has nothing to do with which music you can hear, and whether you need a kid’s finger in your ear to do it.

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45 Responses to Merry Christmas and a Finger in Your Ear

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    Hi Wendy,
    Sorry to hear of your difficulties. I’m giving a paper at the MLA on cochlear implants and wondered if I could use selections from your blog in the paper (and possibly for publication later at some point)? Have you seen “Hear and Now?” and what do you think of it? Thanks for sharing.

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    This year was bittersweet because it didn’t go very well. I knew it wouldn’t be the same with the implant, but it was bad. The implant in my right ear gave me some tinny staticky noise, especially in the higher pitches, and I couldn’t pick out any melody. My residual hearing in my left ear gave me fai

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