Truly Listening: Playing Bass with Impaired Hearing

The Bass Player

Photo by Pietro Izzo

Q: I’m an intermediate level hearing-impaired bassist who cannot identify notes or pitch or key by ear. I play songs by memory. How would I go about breaking through to the next level?

A: Wow, this may be the hardest question I’ve ever had to attempt to answer.

The impression that I have is that with something so outside of the realm of a hearing musician, you may be forced to get creative and develop your own alternative ways of communicating musically.

I immediately thought of Evelyn Glennie, who is a well known, hearing-impaired (she’s not entirely deaf but pretty close, I believe) percussionist. And she’s quite good.

Evelyn spent years learning how to tune timpani simply by learning how to interpret the vibrations she could feel more than hear. She then moved on to explore most percussion instruments and is pretty a phenomenal player.

Here is a Ted talk she gave entitled, “How To Listen”.

There is a transcript available through the TED website.

Now, rhythm is one thing, and pretty amazing in its own right. But the ability to discern subtle harmonic shifts and so on is a bit beyond me. I simply can’t imagine the act of playing through changes without hearing them and developing exercises to hone those abilities.

However, here are some things that come to mind:

So much of music has to do with feel. Quite often, the feel is more important than the actual notes. Operating under this theory, I can see how you could continue to hone your abilities to develop your rhythmic feel, chops and even dynamics. If you continued to think of the harmonic aspects as fairly academic – playing the appropriate scales, extensions, etc. – and made it felt great, that might be a start in that direction.

I would certainly suggest working with an instructor. You might have to poke around to find one who is open minded enough to work with you in some new and different ways. Try to find someone who can help guide you to finding what works – where and why, harmonically speaking. In addition, you should likely also work on rhythmic and dynamic studies and base your work around the feedback you get about what is working and what isn’t (and why, again).

You might also explore things like the “rumble seat” or a newer model, which is a platform that one stands on and the vibrations of the music are sent through to the platform. It’s almost like a monitor mix but you are only getting vibration feedback.

The seats are popular with drummers who use in-ear monitors to help them feel the kick and bass better, but I remember seeing the platform at a NAMM show and I couldn’t think of why one would really use it, until now.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the brand or even the exact name of the product but I’d bet, with a little digging, you could find it online. One example of the drum throne version is the Pearl “Throne Thumper”. You could possibly even just sit on that. Hey, Anthony Jackson always sits, right?

That is really about as far as my limited perspective will allow me to see.

How about you readers? Any suggestions? If so, please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. theres an upright bassist in Puerto Rico Who studied with Gary Carr and he is impaired too.. he developed a way of feeling the vibration of the notes, because each note vibrates diferently… i took a few clases with him, and he is an outstanding solo bassist.

  2. Contact Anthony Wellington (Bassology) from the Victor Wooten band. He’s a phenomenal teacher who has developed intuitive exercises for navigating the fingerboard. He’s located near D.C. but also teaches on Skype.

  3. Gary Willis has a book called ultimate ear training i believe. Might help to some extent.

  4. Go on feeling and vibrations and how notes resonate with other.

  5. What an excellent topic, because I’m an hearing-impaired bassist as well.

  6. I actually sat my hearing impaired stepdaughter on my combo amp, and played for her, she grinned from ear to ear, just on the vibrations.

  7. I know John Entwistle used to watch the fingerings of his guitarists in the later years of his life to help determine what he’d play, as a supplement to actually hearing what was being played around him. But then again, he always had memory as a backup if there was a problem.

  8. so, you are not totally deaf.. let me ask, when you hear a song you know, do you recognize it?

  9. I have a friend who is completely deaf and he loves to play guitar. He has a cochlear implant but a kind of old one, not good enough for the subtleties required.
    As Damian, I have trouble finding anything to say: it’s a little bit too far away from our understanding of reality.

    Also: check with your doctor.
    Bass can be very destructive to hearing, since it is harder to hear, sometimes hard to find in the mix and a lot of people turn up on the amps recklessly. You don’t want to damage your hearing, specially if you have little of it left (or science has a saying with it and in time you can get an improvement in your hearing.)
    Have a bandmate check on your volume all the time, if he is having a bad time standing next to your amp is bad for you too.
    My best!

  10. Work on the numbers/theory. A lot of bass playing can be determined by the chord structure; where it is, where it was, and where it’s going. Major, minor, augmented, diminished, and all their friends; these are the tools for picking a tasty line.
    Have a complete thought and execute it; hear or see the notes in that place in your head before you play them. My theory is that one ‘hears’ the sound in the mind before one plays the notes. Physical technique becomes the method for realizing what one has already heard.

  11. I’m a hearing-impaired bassist and when I practice for a performance, I rest my chin against the upper horn of my bass. It resonates in my jaw and transmits the sound of my bass right into my ear. I use this technique to get my fingering down (I can’t always hear short notes or fret buzz) and it gives me some confidence to play live.
    The only thing I can recommend beyond that is to see if you can get in-ear monitiring equipment; you can tweak it to where it sounds like what you hear with hearing aids in (I’m assuming you have hearing aids like me) and get a mix that makes your ears happy without blasting the volume. Good luck and jam on!