The Columbus Dispatch March 30, 2014
Israelle Johnson with Dispatch Instructor Linda Stieg
As members of the New Albany Symphony Orchestra began their first rehearsal for an upcoming concert, viola player Israelle Johnson — focused on the complex music in front of her — awaited her cue. The 17-year-old and her fellow performers barrelled through the contemporary Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a cacophonous romp by John Adams with staccato trumpets and unruly drums. The piece might pose a challenge for any player, let alone one who is almost deaf. Between takes, Johnson looked toward a nearby sign-language interpreter, Lisette Tedeschi, who sat translating the conductor’s detailed directives on tempos and time signatures. Johnson is the only hard-of-hearing musician in the upcoming program. “I was so intrigued by her story,” said Heather Garner, who as executive director of the New Albany Symphony — and a viola player with the Columbus Symphony — learned last year about the Fairfield County teenager and invited her to join the group. Johnson, who speaks slowly and reads lips but also signs, is skilled.“If a deaf person has music in their blood,” she said, “I want to let that person know you can pick up an instrument.”
About the time that Israelle turned 3, her parents discovered the root of their daughter’s prolonged silence: enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, a congenital condition. Caused by fluid buildup in an oversize inner-ear channel, her hearing loss is 76 percent in the right ear and 64 percent in the left. Her hearing could one day worsen or be lost entirely, doctors have said, but there is no way to tell by how much or when. As a young child, she would watch her four older brothers sing along with Christmas carols playing on the car radio. The music was audible to her, but the lyrics were muddy. On a whim, Israelle at age 11 took up the violin. Her mother initially hesitated to ask Linda Stieg — a longtime Suzuki-trained strings educator — whether she would accept a pupil with special auditory needs. It was uncharted territory for both teacher and student. But Stieg, who has taught in central Ohio for 26 years, said Israelle “plays better than some of my hearing students. . . . She plays more in tune because she really is working to hear it correctly.” Even with hearing aids that boost her auditory levels to about 85 percent, Israelle ultimately found that a viola’s lower frequencies make the instrument more suitable for her than the violin.
Like other Suzuki students, she learns melodies by ear; she first listens to CD recordings.Another strategy is more innate: sensing the viola’s tones through its vibrations. The practice is similar to one once employed by another deaf musician: Ludwig van Beethoven allegedly took the legs off his piano to feel the music from the floor. “Beethoven heard music in his head,” Israelle said. “If he can write music, I can play music." Garner pointed out a 1924 letter that Helen Keller wrote after touching a radio-speaker diaphragm as a Beethoven selection played. Keller described the “ tones and harmonies (that) conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty.”
Proficiency demands patience and physical stamina. Israelle, who often practices more than three hours a day, has put enough strain on her body that she had to have two neck cysts — caused by the instrument constantly pressed to her throat — removed last year. A two-hour round-trip commute to attend a mainstreamed academic program for deaf students at Upper Arlington High School, where she plays in the school orchestra, doesn’t sap her energy. “You might do something 15 times; Israelle will do it 150 times,” said Ed Zunic, an orchestra teacher in the Upper Arlington district. “She understands her responsibility: If she’s going to do this, she’s going to do it well.”