Deaf Musician Plays By Ear | by
Ask Colorado musician Steve DiCesare to recall his favorite tunes from his youth and a slightly bittersweet smile washes over his face as the memories flood back. “I remember my mom’s 70s funk – bands like Earth Wind and Fire, and the Beatles. I kept a radio under my pillow. I’ve loved music,” he says.
He still does. But today, the only way he can experience it is through making his own. At age 42, the lead guitarist and songwriter is almost completely deaf.
“I had 10 good years of sound and music,” he says, recalling the days he found his muse, before a genetic disorder tried, unsuccessfully, to pull it from him. By Junior High his hearing was slipping fast, but he joined childhood friend and bass player Mark Brummer in a band anyway. Nearly three decades later, the two still play together, gigging at venues in the Denver/Boulder area in a jam band called Wide Mouth Grin. Come fall, the high school special education teacher and father-of-two will unveil his first solo CD, Nut and Plier, composed of songs he wrote, arranged and helped mix himself.
“Audiences have no idea,” he once told Spin Magazine. “People think my band is joking when they say I’m deaf.”
Today, DiCesare’s hearing is nearly 90 percent gone, but he uses the remaining 10 percent sliver (all in the lower register) wisely. When he composes, he uses specialized equipment to translate what he plays into that narrow “sweet spot” where he can “sort of” hear it.
On stage, he wears industrial ear protection (to preserve what he has left) and uses a combination of “mind reading,” vibrations, and visual cues to stay in sync with the band.
He relies heavily on the memory of what notes sound like – something he concedes grows more faint as time goes on – and he gets inspiration for his songs from snippets of everyday life that the hearing world might overlook (like the rhythmic movement of my pen as it glides across the page during our interview).
“I see my role as someone who combines things – like notes or ideas. I don’t know if I even think of it as sound anymore.” (To the hearing world it sounds remarkably tight, with an upbeat and funky vibe.)
DiCesare’s moment of glory comes in the studio, during the mixing stage, when he can see the various instruments and vocals he’s brought together playing out in multi-colored graphs on the screen ahead, and hear the specially tailored “Steve mix” playing in his ears. “That’s my big moment.”
But how does it feel when the CD is complete, and he can’t hear it? He pauses, takes a deep breath, and dodges any hint of self-pity.
“I guess I have to start again and do another one.”
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