Day Trips14th September 2015

Cochlear Implants, Music and A Day Out at The Big Cwtch

After a lot of hard work and training, music is once again something to be enjoyed

by Natasha Hirst - Deaf Writer

This summer my friends’ facebook posts have been full of photos of festival fun. I felt like I was missing out, so when a group of friends invited me to The Big Cwtch Festival, I jumped at the chance to join them.

I am a little over 18 months into my cochlear implant journey and in the last few months I have been trying to work out how to listen to music. I have only ever had limited and poor quality access to music and pretty much gave up on trying to listen to music during my teens. When technology improved in my mid-twenties this enabled me to at least discover my taste in music but this didn’t last long, as the rest of my residual hearing faded out. I hadn’t really expected my CI to provide me with any great connection to music but I still disappointed myself by my early experiments at listening to music, which just sounded like a cacophony of noise. Songs I had enjoyed as a teenager sounded bizarre. I left it for a bit, but over time, with a lot of practice and hard work, I have started to find a real joy in listening to music again.

One of the tricky things for me, is that how I hear now, all depends on how my brain interprets the electrical signal from the electrode in my cochlear. All sounds feel relative, not absolute. It makes it hard for the brain to calibrate itself because it doesn’t really have any reference points. So, how do I work out what a song is meant to sound like? It’s hard work. I listen to songs I knew in my teens until my brain can make sense of them and they sound how I remember them.

More and more, I’ve been trying new music; random YouTube playlists, taking suggestions from friends and listening to Desert Island Discs. I find song lyrics online which helps me to follow but I find it really tricky to learn new songs and to recognise them when I hear them again. I can listen to the same thing at different times and my brain will ‘hear’ it differently. It takes a lot of listening to the same song again and again for my brain to work it all out. Over time, my brain gains a bit more and I start to distinguish voices, instruments and eventually the lyrics in some songs.

As a photographer, I am occasionally booked to cover gigs and that has introduced me to live music which has been stunning.  With hearing aids, it was all just loud noise, headache inducing and frustrating. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed live music in small venues. With a bit of fiddling on the processor settings, I’ve been able to work out how to get the best out of the CI in different environments.

I had not yet had chance to listen to live music outdoors. The Big Cwtch Festival couldn’t have been a better place to try this out. Held in Carmarthen to raise funds for Ski4All Wales, the festival is a fantastic showcase for up and coming bands and singer songwriters. With two live music stages, plenty of food and drink stalls and children’s activities, The Big Cwtch is a really friendly, fun and comfortable weekend out, even under overcast skies.  

We rocked up with our camping chairs and wellies and found a good place to sit near the lakeside stage. We chatted, listened to the acts, enjoyed great food and drinks. A few of us joined a taster yoga class and came out feeling very refreshed. It was obviously a brilliant family day out catering for children of all ages. There were rides, climbing frames and a programme of activities for the kids throughout the day. The children were quicker to get up and dance to the bands than the grown ups!

I was pleased to see people taking care of their children’s hearing by giving them headphones to wear when they were close to the stage. Typical Welsh summer weather had us taking layers of clothes on and off as the sun and rain appeared and disappeared. We got muddy and wet and dried off again and then huddled together under the band tent once the cold night air started to bite.

One of the strangest things I noticed is my total lack of residual hearing. With hearing aids, I could switch them off and still pick up ever so slightly some frequencies in the music if I was next to a loudspeaker. At the end of the night, I found myself standing next to a speaker taller than me, so loud that the air blasting out of it was moving the fabric of my clothes. When I took my CI off, I could feel the bass but heard absolutely nothing, it was quite bizarre. The contrast of how much I picked up with the CI was pretty incredible. I still can’t work out the lyrics, nor would I recognise any songs if I heard them again, but I loved being there with my friends and absorbing such a great atmosphere, dancing along to excellent music.

The energy of the whole day was great and after a lifetime of being so excluded from experiencing music and the social environment that goes with it, it felt amazing to be so connected, not just to the music but to the people around me too. As you would expect from the name, The Big Cwtch is a super friendly festival, you can’t get lost or overwhelmed, and it is a very laid back and relaxing environment to be in. I’ll be back next year!

Article by Natasha Hirst - Deaf Writer

posted in Entertainment / Day Trips

14th September 2015