Severely hearing impaired student. Tips??

Edited: March 1, 2018, 3:10 AM · So I've run into a speed bump in the form of a precocious eleven year old transfer student who's got a mouth that'll make the hounds of hell flee. Smart as a whip, learns everything quickly, and is deaf as a post. Kid's verbal and talking a mile a minute, but has absolutely no pitch perception. Hearing aids in both ears, profound hearing loss in both.

His hearing loss is the high frequency kind, meaning everything after E5 goes silent. His former teacher used stickers, I'm told, but he wants to attempt playing without them. Inability to hear the top string is the least of his problems, however. He is unable to distinguish between semitones and tones. A and B sound the exact same to him, as do A and C. He can tell you that A and E sound slightly different, but terms like high and low, bright and dark, are totally lost on him. Forget about subtler nuances like tone shading.

Kid's got good motivation and drive but the world's worst intonation by no fault of his own. Google is no help. The same commercial about a deaf girl from Thailand pops up, nothing else.


Oh, the kid can't sing. I'm not sure if this is universal to the deaf community but he cannot hum or sing.

Replies (33)

March 1, 2018, 3:52 AM · As it happens I work for a deaf childrens' charity in the UK, and we have a some resources about how deaf children can take part in music! Have a look here:

It's more about 'how do I communicate with deaf children and how can they take part' rather than 'how do I teach specific technical skills on the violin' but I can ask some of my colleagues if any of them have worked with violin teachers, if that helps?

Edited: March 1, 2018, 4:51 AM · If high notes are a problem, focus on baroque music while transitioning him to a fiddle teacher. If the student's hearing is so bad that they cannot hear "ring tones" or other cues for intonation, it needs to be explained to the child's parent that this will be a profound limitation in classical violin. The piano is a fine instrument for someone who is deaf. Beethoven had to give up the violin too.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 5:01 AM · Yes, ring tones are out as well. He does mention that they feel different. I assume he's talking vibrations.

What the student cannot hear: high notes, intervals smaller than a third, the difference between high and low, the difference between brightness and darkness, the difference between bowing near the fingerboard and near the bridge. He cannot, obviously, appreciate harmonics or double stopped notes, and I don't know how to start teaching shifts. Never mind vibrato!

Of all the instruments out there, violin has to be the least deaf friendly... the student has no way at all of knowing he is in tune. Short of carrying a tuner everywhere he goes.

March 1, 2018, 5:45 AM · Corinne, have you tried Intonia?

It is a really neat app. He could use the visual graph to perhaps train his hand for note placement.

Have the parents been to specialists and actively search for possible things to help? I have seen determined people overcome impossible odds when they are willing to work and search for solutions.

March 1, 2018, 7:39 AM · I'm really hoping your student doesn't read your post, because it isn't exactly pleasant to him ("a mouth that'll make the hounds of hell flee.").
March 1, 2018, 8:38 AM · Maybe transition to fretted violin or mandolin? At the least, put the stickers back on the violin. No shame in that! Maybe use black tape if he doesn't want it to be obvious.

Another idea: if the top string is the problem, maybe take it off and go viola. If the kid can hear lower notes, that might be a help. Could also see if cello or bass is more promising.

March 1, 2018, 9:12 AM · It is me in the description of that boy. I had to watch my son stays on the correct string to control him after his first lessons. I do not have aids. I can detect very low volume sounds. I think it is like to have very good vision and see everything in sharp, but in a white/black scale. For me the diffrence between A and E is minimal, and semitones not detectable. I can not sing as well. I do like to do it, but none can recognize the melodie. But i am very good in rythm, phrasing, putting emphasis and nuances, and controlling my fingers. And i really liked to study music, and i enjoy the sounds very much. Sax works for me. And piano. And i see all violinist as magic people.

I sing better with someone or along the piano, so i have the physical feeing in my chest when i resonate. The same with tuning my sons violin, i can tune it without tuner, because i have noticed that the right G,D,A,E are louder than wrong ones. The same, i can check the finger position by pressing the key at piano - so i see, that the string resonates. Then i remember where the point is. So i can control if my son stays on pitch by looking at him.(I do not need to do it anymore, my son now can practice himself).

I think, the student was recommended to take violin lessons to develop some pitch (not really pitch but learn how to destingwish more sounds).

What about bare feet? Can he feels the resonation of the floor? Or feeling in his chest? What about volume of sound, does he see all the notes equally, or some of them are louder? Etc.

Edited: March 1, 2018, 9:45 AM · Keyboard or percussion!
And check out the book "Sticking it Out" by Patti Niemi
March 1, 2018, 10:19 AM · I am not based in the States and the student speaks minimal English, if any at all. It's only taught in junior middle school. His lessons are conducted in our native language!

So the consensus seems that a percussion instrument might be more accessible?

March 1, 2018, 12:23 PM · Wow, I can't imagine the determination that would lead such a student to continue to try to study the violin! My hat is off to him for drive, regardless of where it takes him.

That said (and I am an amateur violinist, not a teacher, hearing expert, etc), it's hard for me to imagine ultimately being succesfull on the violin without being able to hear tonal differences significantly smaller than a semitone. However, if the hearing loss drops off sharply by pitch, and your student is strongly inclined by personality type to be a string player (we may be a bit of a "type, heh) - has he considered _lower strings_?

Cello or even Double Bass might work a lot better, if he can hear fine pitch differences down in the fundamentals of those instruments. I'd suggest viola, but it sounds like it might not be low enough for him. Acoustic bass guitar, to go a bit outside the box (bow), would gain him frets, though a rather different sort of beast than bowed strings.

Failing all that, of course, percussion isn't a bad idea!

March 1, 2018, 2:32 PM · On one hand, never under-estimate human potential.... On the other, do not give false hope if there are objective limitations. You need a professional information from your student's audiologist and ear doctor. Once you grasp the real extent of damage, you will be in a better position to provide advice. If bone hearing is better than by air, some devices could help, but your student will be a very lonely musician.
March 1, 2018, 3:10 PM · What's the likelihood that this student would eventually receive cochlear implants?

And are the hearing aids currently correctly adjusted for music? Many are optimized for speech, and can, with adjustment, be tweaked to be more helpful for music.

Edited: March 1, 2018, 3:55 PM · Lydia, he isn’t a candidate for CI. He’s using Phonak bone conduction aids, if I am not mistaken.

As much as I would like to encourage a little boy’s dreams, is it really an unkindness to be upfront about an uncomfortable truth? He has the right to know that it’ll be an uphill battle.

But then again, the child has no delusions of grandeur. He has no dreams of becoming a professional and he’s too old anyway (he’s 11 and in Suzuki Book 2 after 9 months of playing, which, while a fine pace, is way behind what an 11 year old on track for a pro career would be capable of). Is it still wise to encourage him to carry on playing for his own leisure and fun?

Apologies if the English is rubbish, it’s not our first language.

March 1, 2018, 9:11 PM · Your English is just fine. It's not politically correct to tell a person with a disability they can't do something. But blind people do not drive cars, and deaf people do not play the violin. As Andrew said, the piano or the drums.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 10:42 PM · 11 at Suzuki book 2 is not too old to pursue a professional path, as long as you can reach a very high level by the time you reach high-school graduation. Can he hear music clearly? If not, is there a way to crank up his hearing aids? I don't want to discourage him unless it's absolutely necessary. I highly recommend consulting with his audiologist. Making really quick progress is going to be noticably more difficult for the hearing-impaired. And yes, he can play for pleasure.
March 1, 2018, 11:24 PM · He has no desire to play professionally. I am honestly unsure if things like vibrato or artificial harmonics will ever be accessible to him. I’ve tested him without hearing aids, he can’t hear me unless I shout at the top of my voice, and most of what he hears isn’t quite accurate.

He is able to hear a little better with the aids in, but he is unable to distinguish pitches unless they’re very far apart from one another. A fifth, an octave. He can tell the two pitches are different, though he is unable to describe them. Any interval smaller than a third, he cannot hear. It all sounds the same to him.

Subtle dynamics like mp and p are likewise lost on him. He can differentiate extreme loudness from softness, and presto from lento, but that’s honestly about it.

I’ve played each of the four open strings from him. He can’t hear the E at all, but I’m concerned because he has difficulty telling me which is D, which is A, and which is G when I play them for him and ask him to shut his eyes. He can hear that they’re slightly different from one another (again, he cannot tell me how), but he can’t identify the pitches correctly.

The child is interested in violin, not the other string instruments. I do think he will be severely limited, but if he wants to learn it for fun, I’m going to say go on, knock yourself out.. or is that not too ethical of me.

March 1, 2018, 11:55 PM · How about cello? Lower notes and a lot of physical contact with the resonance of the instrument and people who like the violin would like the cello?
March 2, 2018, 3:44 AM · I've not had to deal with this, but it sounds like you've had some good advice already. An app that helps him hear pitches (or will respond sensibly to pitches he puts out) might be a useful training device.

One question I have-- if he can't understand pitch and dynamics, what is the attraction to the violin? Is it social, or is there some other element of music that he responds to well?

March 2, 2018, 5:05 AM · He simply wants to learn the violin. That’s all he ever says, and it’s really enough of an explanation for me.
March 2, 2018, 5:26 AM · Corinne, you are certainly not doing anything unethical by helping this young man in his interest. In fact I think it is a wonderful thing to do. I think it is an interesting challenge and finding alternatives and guides will be difficult but worth pursing. After all, there are blind artists-

March 2, 2018, 6:27 AM · @Paul Deck - please don't make generalisations like "deaf people can't play the violin".

It's not true, and to be honest if you're saying that you don't understand deafness very much. There's a deaf young man in my (amateur) orchestra and he plays with good intonation and good tone. (He often isn't in time very well... but that's not to do with his hearing! )

Deafness varies a lot between individuals and it's a condition where generalisations are almost never accurate.

Sounds like Corinne's student has a particularly challenging deafness for playing the violin (being unable to hear anything on the upper strings) but throwing around statements like "it's impossible" or "go and do something else" is doing no-one any favours.

March 2, 2018, 7:26 AM · I think there is some relevance here:
March 2, 2018, 8:49 AM · "Deaf" refers to a pretty broad range of impairment, just like "blind" refers to a pretty broad range of impairment. Where someone is along that range -- plus any mitigating technology like a cochlear implant -- is going to make a huge difference in what is and isn't likely to be possible.

This kid might just like the feel of the instrument and its resonance in his hands. I think that's okay, and it might drive a different sort of thinking -- "what can be done with the instrument that gives him pleasure?" rather than "how can he learn to play the violin properly?"

March 2, 2018, 10:23 AM · A customer of mine and his blind wife restored an early Rolls-Royce together. She was very adept at certain tasks that involved feel. When the car was nearly finished, he would drive the car to a large vacant parking lot and she would drive it around in circles, figure eights, and such for hours. While she could have never driven the car completely as intended, they greatly enjoyed this time spent together.
Edited: March 2, 2018, 10:47 AM · Chris Keating wrote, "@Paul Deck - please don't make generalisations like 'deaf people can't play the violin'."

How about if you don't misquote me either? I didn't say they can't play the violin. I said they don't. By "deaf" I meant profoundly, entirely deaf. Of course I could be wrong, but I would be surprised if there are many violinists who cannot hear anything.

Obviously there are many hearing-impaired folks who play the violin, you see them in community orchestras wearing hearing aids and the like. I am partly hearing impaired and I play. So I don't need your "help" understanding that.

Edited: March 2, 2018, 10:52 AM · I'd like to suggest going to "", an electric violin maker, and taking time to understand their theory and practice of making fretted violins. It's not what you think it is, because the frets are low and subtle, and the intention is to put your fingers on the frets, not behind them. So vibrato and glissando still work. The frets are a tactile reference more than fixed pitch standards, and their fretted violins require a very light touch with the left hand, which is good technique anyway. That could be a useful strategy for your special needs student.
March 2, 2018, 4:47 PM · Thank you, all, please don’t fight.

He doesn’t want tapes because they don’t look good. Or so he says. Peers his age aren’t using tapes so he doesn’t want to use them either. I’m trying to encourage him to use black tape, though!

March 2, 2018, 5:43 PM · Transparent tape works too, for the tactile feel. When I was a kid, I transitioned from yellow to blue to black to transparent tape, I think.
Edited: March 3, 2018, 1:57 AM · I just cannot get it why sometimes parents push children to directions that are really really hard for them. As he is otherwise a good student he could be a nice piano player in stead of an horrible violin player.
It seems like its a punishment for him. Not be able to use the gifts he has properly.

I think honesty is good, just expain nicely that he is not able to play without the stickers. If one is deaf then one obvioustly doesnt know tha sound should be hence the playing is horrible without stickers. Violin intonation is pretty difficult with proper hearing. Sure they can look like they are playing but without stickers how would they know if they sound horrible or not?

And most of the teachers dont really tell you when your playing goes to pieces to not discourage you, which is sometimes good,but if the student has not the ability of proper hearing he has not the ability to become better. So stickers, definately, what is the point of playing violin, if you sound horrible and everyone is just afraid to say it even though they really are feeling sick by your playing and hoping that you would just stop playing?

And also it is a punishment for the teacher. It must be horrible to listen to.

March 3, 2018, 1:57 AM ·

The kid is pretty smart in not using tape...even he gets it. The concept in teaching intonation is listen first then repeat second, if a mistake is made they are corrected. For a deaf child the same rule applies, but they need to focus on the vibrations more. Use a piano to play the note first, or a keyboard with a loud speaker, and then have him repeat the note on violin. If he plays it wrong then help him correct it, in the same way we do with hearing students.

Edited: March 3, 2018, 1:59 AM · But if you are deaf how can you hear vibrations as you cannot even hear the sound on piano?
March 3, 2018, 2:19 AM · Maria, he is the one who wants to learn. He isn’t in it because of a tiger mom or dad. He has no intentions of going pro, and he simply enjoys it. His first position is pretty solid, solid enough for me to have no complaints. I am not deaf, so I don’t know what his takeaway from it is. He can’t hear what he produces, but he enjoys the process nonetheless, and I think that’s admirable.

I don’t want to start a debate on whether or not he should or shouldn’t learn the violin. So long as he’s interested, it’s all the explanation I need. I do want to know how better to teach him, however.

With regards to his tone, it is not warm, nor is it smooth and buttery. But it is good, easily comparable with students with regular hearing who are around a Book2 or 3 standard. He is confident, and he has good form. He isn’t afraid to use the lower half of the bow, which I think is quite impressive for a beginner.

I don’t want to discourage him.

Edited: March 3, 2018, 2:42 AM · You can feel them in your body. The whole meaning for deaf people to study music is to extend the possibility to differentiate as many sounds as possible using every avaible sensor. The student needs to focus on his feelings in his body. Is it different when he is exposed to different sounds. Has he resonation in his chest? Can he detect vibrations with his feet? Can he see the differenses between string vibrations? Etc.Can he control his fingers to make an exact position everytime? He needs also to learn how to use his brain and body to mask that he is deaf. The violin lessons are very benefitial for him. And most proably he is in love with the violin because of the feelings it gives for his hands or chest. You can try to use that.

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