I hear a symphony: For U-M violin student, hearing loss is not a disability
ANN ARBOR—Violin teacher Danielle Belen uses a lot of gestures and hand signals but not many words. Her student, Abigel Szilagyi, relies on vibrations, muscle memory and instincts.
Learning to play an instrument can be difficult for anyone, but Szilagyi must work through her own challenges: She was born with just 50% of her hearing.
When Belen, an associate professor of violin at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and Szilagyi, a violin soloist and chamber musician, started working together in California seven years ago, it took nearly two months before Belen learned her then-14-year-old student had only half of her hearing. And she didn’t notice herself—the musician’s mom broke the news about her daughter’s unique circumstance.
“Her mother asked me if I had noticed anything different about Abi,” Belen said. “I quickly answered, yes, she is very talented and I am totally drawn by her passion.”
The answer was not wrong, but incomplete.
“Her mom looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘Abi is partially deaf!'” Belen said.
Belen had never worked with a student who was hard-of-hearing, so it was difficult to imagine how this would work.
“But something immediately in her personality showed me that it would be possible,” she said. “I was quite impressed with her ability for her age.”
With passion and extra discipline, Szilagyi has never stopped playing the violin. In 2016, she was accepted to the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance and moved to Ann Arbor, where Belen has taught since 2014.
Szilagyi, who will be a junior at U-M this fall, said she had many instructors before Belen, but there was no connection.
“I wanted someone who believed in me and who saw my hearing problem not as an inability, but an ability,” she said. “I wanted someone who understood my hearing disability was as much a part of me as being a musician because I always wanted to connect these two parts of me.”
When Szilagyi was 4, doctors discovered she was born with a 50% sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. A couple of months later, she got her first set of hearing aids, and on the way home heard a “lovely and vibrant singing sound.”
“I then heard the birds chirping for the first time in my life,” Szilagyi said. “I was so drawn to how they could make such beautiful music. This sparked my desire to become a musician.
“It is amazing how your body can adapt. I am very observant. I learned lip reading, body movements, facial expressions and other types of communication that really help me to play well and find the correct tune.”
Belen explained that when Szilagyi’s basic level of hearing is diminished, her other senses pop up, especially her sense of touch.
“She can imitate sounds and mannerisms and has a remarkable skill of imitation,” Belen said. “Her visual cues are very sophisticated. She is like clay—moldable, flexible—yet she has her own identity as well. She is truly the ideal young artist.”
Hearing aids, ear plugs and no ear plugs
During her freshman year at U-M, Szilagyi suffered some serious ear infections that led to further damage to her fragile hearing. During the entire fall semester, she could not wear hearing aids because of sharp pain.
Again, no quitting, just a break and new adaptations. Now, the only way Szilagyi can play and tolerate the sounds is to wear ear plugs.
“It is a hard thing to explain,” she said. “While I struggle to hear ordinary sounds and conversations at a normal volume, my ears are extremely sensitive to loud sounds and pressure and it causes sharp pain in my ears.”
Her professor works closely to adapt to whatever Szilagyi needs to do.
“Her lessons are a bit crazy to watch,” Belen said “She has her hearing aids near by and they go in and out. When I need to talk to her, it goes in, and when she is playing, it goes out. It is challenging, but somehow, we are managing it.
“Instead of being frustrated, she laughs. As serious as the situation is, she is able to look at the big picture and realize that this is all joy. She has an amazing attitude. I know there are tears, sacrifices, pain and frustration, but there is also gratitude. She always rises from the challenges, and I am sure she will have a unique and important career as a violinist.”