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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.

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