Can't hear, but NUS graduate has music degree

PHOTO: Can't hear, but NUS graduate has music degree

SINGAPORE - He may only have 15 per cent of his hearing left but that does not stop Mr Azariah Tan from pursuing a career in music.

The 23-year-old not only graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, he also has a double Masters in chamber music and piano performance from the University of Michigan (UM).

He is pursuing his doctorate at UM under its full-tuition scholarship.

Mr Tan was diagnosed with congenital bilateral sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) at age four and lost 5 to 10 per cent of his hearing every year, leaving him with only 15 per cent now.

"I'm not able to hear low volumes or vowels in certain words without the help of a hearing aid," he told The New Paper.

The root cause of SNHL lies in the auditory nerve, the inner ear, or central processing centres of the brain. Dr Raymond Ngo, a senior consultant with the Department of Otolaryngology at the National University Hospital, said it may be caused by inherited genetic defects.

"Constant exposure to loud noises can also lead to bilateral SNHL. Sufferers are given hearing protection, or amplification with hearing aids," he said.

Despite his impairment, Mr Tan's father Leslie Tan, an educational trainer, 51, wanted his son to lead a normal life. Mr Tan went to a mainstream kindergarten, which was "challenging" because his speech, understanding of languages and reading was below average.

Despite his handicap, Mr Tan showed a talent for music.

"We used to have an electric organ at home when I was young and I loved playing on it so much that my grandmother decided to teach me to play," he said.

It was only at 12 that he "truly appreciated music".

"That was when I started to learn structured theory. I discovered that music is the language of emotion. I learnt I could convey feelings through the pieces," he said.

But with a hearing aid, Mr Tan hears about half as well as an average person. So initially, he could not hear his own playing well. "Others would tell me my left hand had raced ahead of the right.. I wouldn't have known as my hearing aid was not tuned for music then," he said.

To encourage him, his parents took him on annual educational field trips to the US and Europe to visit music schools, museums, and to concerts.

Music path

But the senior Mr Tan had to consider the fact that pursuing music may not be the right thing.

The family wrote to several music teachers before his home-school programme ended with him sitting for the O levels.

The responses ranged form "don't waste your time" to "it's a personal choice". But one response in 2007 brought hope.

"Only Professor (Thomas) Hecht, told them to bring me to see him. He told me to develop my auditory memory while I could still hear," Mr Tan said.

Prof Hecht, a renowned American pianist, heads piano studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

"I guess if the famous composer Beethoven could draw from his auditory memory, I could too," he said.

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven became almost deaf in the last 10 years of his life, but he continued to compose. Mr Tan, who had scored distinctions almost every year at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams, received a scholarship from the National Arts Council-Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and entered NUS.

Said Mr Tan, who intends to perform in concerts after his PhD: "I want to show kids like me that they should not allow themselves to be sidelined. With support and hard work, they, too, can excel."

Tuned to the sound of music

A hearing aid is an electroacoustics device designed to amplify sound for the wearer.

It is usually aimed at making speech more intelligible and to correct impaired hearing as measured by audiometry.

The aid is usually fine-tuned according to the type and degree of hearing loss, said Ms April Chong, an audiologist with Siemens Medical Instruments.

With musician C's device, Mr Azariah Tan has three different programmes for three different listening situations.


"His main programme is for music, so the settings are adjusted differently from the normal aid," said Ms Chong. "Every single gain channel is individually tuned to his perception of frequency.

"As his audiologist, I visit him whenever he is back in Singapore, so he could play on the piano and perceive the sound quality with every tweak to his device."

But Ms Chong said the important thing about fitting someone with a hearing aid is the counselling to ensure that the user clearly understands the whole process to wearing it and getting used to listening to sounds.

"The wearer has gradually grown to not listen after losing his or her hearing. We need to make sure he maximises the use of the hearing aid," she said.

Free hearing test

Hearing Awareness Week (HAW) is an important corporate social responsibility event for Siemens Medical Instruments.

Held today and tomorrow (10am to 5pm) at the National University Health System, it aims to create awareness on the importance of good hearing.

And as part of its sixth HAW, the company will be offering free hearing tests to more than 100 elderly from the Thye Hua Kwan Senior Activity Centre and various community centres.

From Sunday to Sept 30, members of the public can go for free screening at 17 participating hearing care centres in Singapore. You can find the list of centres at

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