10 Dec 2018

"Music is something that is not only heard, but felt"

From Upbeat, 2:28 pm on 10 December 2018

It is a common belief that the experience of music comes solely from hearing it, but Rebekah Stewart has proven otherwise.

She has struggled with hearing loss since birth, but that hasn’t stopped her from graduating from the University of Canterbury with a Bachelor of Music and becoming a piano teacher.

Earlier in the year she participated in the fourth edition of Beats of Cochlea, an international music festival that grants musicians with hearing impairments the opportunity to perform.

Christchurch pianist Rebekah Stewart

Christchurch pianist Rebekah Stewart Photo: Facebook - Rebekah Stewart

Performing alongside other musicians with hearing loss reinforces that music isn’t just something to be heard.

“Music is something that is not only heard, but felt,” Stewart says. “It is possible to still learn and enjoy music even if you can’t hear properly. I still went to concerts because, although I couldn’t hear clearly, it was still something to experience.”

She was born with congenital ichthyosis, a rare condition that affects her hearing by filling her ear canal with shedded skin cells, making it difficult to fit and wear standard hearing aids.

“The simple act of just making a phone call was difficult,” Stewart says. “I struggled a lot at work and in normal social situations like sitting in a café and talking to a friend.”

Although Stewart was unable to wear standard hearing aids, she received a bone conduction implant from MED-EL, a company specialising in the research and creation of technology that assists with hearing loss - this implant has helped her greatly with playing music.

“It has changed my life … I feel like I have been given my life back and can face life confidently and can achieve anything.”

Rebekah Stewart at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum

Rebekah Stewart at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum Photo: Supplied

It was through a post on the MED-EL Facebook page that Stewart found the opportunity to participate in Beats of Cochlea, a festival that was held in July in Warsaw, Poland.

She entered by uploading a video of herself performing on the piano.

From all the entrants, they chose three winners and flew them, all expenses paid, to Poland.

“It attracts people from all over the world, especially musicians with hearing implants. Some people are invited and some just go for the experience,” she says.

The opportunities to pursue music are becoming more accessible.

Hearing impaired artists, like Stewart, are able to access music through organisations such as Arts Access Aotearoa and the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre.

Art Access Aotearoa’s Creative Spaces and Arts for All programmes focus on developing the accessibility and inclusivity in artistic facilities for people with disabilities, New Zealand wide.

The Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre offers music therapy and lessons to both children and adults, accommodating to a wide range of disabilities.

*Stef Harris is a student at Victoria University of Wellington, currently interning with RNZ Music.