Would you rather be trapped in a small room with 10,000 tarantulas for 10 minutes, or eat 10 tarantulas in 10 minutes?

Would you rather lose all of your teeth or all of your hair?

Would you rather be in jail for five years or be in a coma for a decade?

There’s a game popular with the under-20 set called Would You Rather.  “Game” meaning psychological torture, from what I can tell.   It’s kind of like Truth or Dare, in that neither alternative is appealing, so it’s basically an excavation of your deepest fears and revulsions.  You know, fun stuff.  My daughter says the movies & books I consume are way too “depressing”; they deal with relationships, aging and soul-searching.  But somehow, deciding between dying by being eaten by maggots from the inside out or ants from the outside in, just doesn’t tick the “fun & games” box for me. 

Still, the choice between lesser or greater evils is a fancy that persists at all ages, and the adult version of ‘would you rather” choices has more to do with more realistic choices, if not outrageous situations.  In a “there but for the grace of God go I” way, many people think that if, given the choice between blindness & deafness, it would be far preferable to lose one’s hearing than one’s sight.

Image of Helen Keller by Charles Milton Bell on Wikimedia

However, there are indications that being cut off aurally is actually much more isolating than not being able to see the world around you.  There’s the heartbreaking fact that most “deaf children often feel isolated and lonely.”

Helen Keller wrote: “The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.” 

Helen Keller acquired her deafness at the age of 19 months, and I assume that any music she heard prior to that disappeared from her memory, otherwise I’m sure she would have added music as a loss.  She learned to communicate, she was able to access language, but from her comments I can guess that she was lamenting the loss of immediacy, the firing up of ideas and feelings from the sound, the inflection and the tone of another’s voice. 

The visceral effect of the sounds of music are very clearly demonstrated in the animal kingdom, seen above.

Image by Jim Callaghan on evelyn.co.uk

Dame Evelyn Glennie is a Scottish percussionist who lost most of her hearing by the age of 12 due to illness.  Although her condition makes spectacular headlines, it is irrelevant to her work as a brilliant and pioneering musician, as she clarifies in a personal essay.

Her 2003 TED talk on How to Truly Listen has received over 6 million views, and is absolutely inspirational.  At about the 7:00 minute mark she describes starting music classes at age 12, with probably one of the most compassionate and remarkable teachers imaginable.   With her enchanting Aberdeen accent and magnetic personality, she has influenced countless aspiring musicians as well as learners of all ages.

Another musician who wasn’t in any way slowed down by being “differently abled” in the auditory department was, of course, Beethoven.  The development from his beautiful earlier works (such as his op. 47 “Kreutzer Sonata” here, played by Duo Concertante)  was as seamless as though he never suffered any hearing loss at all.  These days, his work based on the chorale “Ode to Joy” is so well-known, it’s a hit with flash mobs:

We can be sentimental and appreciate that by the time he wrote that piece, he was completely deaf, and never lived to hear it performed.  But these musicians prove that hard of hearing music isn’t necessarily hard of feeling music—and that hearing clearly happens in many more ways than we imagine.