Playing by Ear

To say that a career in music isn’t the most obvious choice for someone with significant hearing loss is an understatement, but that’s irrelevant to Valerie Zamora. Despite serious hearing damage from a case of the mumps during her infancy, Zamora became a pianist, training at Juilliard. On Saturday, she’ll be at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, performing an all-Beethoven program. She spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.

We’re talking on the phone right now, so you’re obviously not deaf. How much can you hear?
People have a lot of misconceptions, so I’ll compare it to vision. When somebody’s nearsighted, if they’re looking at something close by, it’s perfectly clear. Any sound that’s within a realm of me, I can hear fine. There are some sounds I’ve never heard but I can feel. Telephones, for instance—they’re either very loud and painful, or I can feel them. There’s no in-between.

Did your piano teachers know about your hearing?
Absolutely not. I really hid it from everybody. It was really far better to be considered some drug addict—at least there was respect for my art—than to be hearing-impaired. Every time it has been exposed, a wall has been put up.

How so?
I was thrown out of one teacher’s studio after he heard about my hearing. At Juilliard, I had a wonderful trio, and we were going professional, and someone told one of the players about my hearing, and it fell apart. When I was at the Hochschule for Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany, my teacher encouraged me to tell people. He thought it was like a cold. So I did, and I got called into the office the next day, and they said they made a mistake.

They tried to throw you out?
Everyone said my playing was fantastic—too bad about my hearing. I went to the student government, so, of course, I got back in.

When did you decide to stop hiding it?
About five years ago. I was really sought-after—whether it was accompanying or chamber music—and now the phone isn’t ringing as much. In Europe, everyone just thought it was my accent or their accent.

It sounds like perceptions of you have been much more of a challenge than actually being hearing-impaired.
Absolutely. There are things that are really wonderful about the way I hear. I have perfect pitch. There are instruments that I know I’m not hearing in the same way somebody else does, but becoming familiar with the sounds I do hear, I can understand what the player is doing. It is in the scope of every musician to produce sound using all their senses, and I think that’s what I’ve developed, to produce sound not just using my training but to consider gravity, motion, dance, color, even touch and smell.

Do you imagine that Beethoven, as he went deaf, experienced music as you do?
I’m not gonna say it is the case—even if you were able to go into someone else’s mind and see and hear the way they do, nothing would make sense. [But] about two years ago, I had been playing a lot of Romantic composers, and I was drawn back to playing Beethoven. Pianists have told me after hearing my Beethoven—they never understood this and now they understand it, and that’s happened more than once. So there may be, in my approach, something that’s easier for me. Perhaps—just perhaps—I do have an insight.

Playing by Ear