There was no time to move the speaker, the stage manager told me, so I stuffed my ears with musician’s earplugs and swallowed my objections that it was too close. I’d be a bit shell-shocked, I assumed, but nothing more than a temporary annoyance.
After an encore from The Phantom of the Opera, the program came to a close with thunderous applause. As I exited the stage, I suddenly felt an excruciating sensation in my ears, which radiated down my neck and into my face, neck, tongue, teeth, and jaw. Pain hardly describes it. Meanwhile, the fluttering sensation in my head was making me feel faint.
I hurried out of the building to escape the backstage commotion—every noise, I quickly discovered, was making it worse, including the sound of my own voice—and drove home, barely able to see through my tears. Sleepless, I lay in bed praying the pain would simply subside overnight.
The next morning, I showed up for work, a three-hour dress rehearsal of the opera Carmen, pretending all was well. I had spent hours preparing the cello parts for the entire section and perfecting my solos. But the voices of the singers, usually thrilling, was ear piercing. I had to wear earplugs for a classical program for the first time in my long career, too worried that my playing was off to actually focus on the music. I had loved the cello, the instrument whose sound is closest to the human voice, since I began playing at age 16—but now, with the world’s volume stuck on high, all I could think about was escaping to silence.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, I saw otolaryngologists and neurologists, heading from one appointment to another in a flurry of anxiety. The ENT exams, neurological assessments, and MRIs revealed no abnormalities—in fact, my hearing tests came back better than normal. I could actually be a spy, I heard so acutely. The specialists recommended psychiatric tests. Perhaps meditation, relaxation exercises, or therapy would help, they told me.
Finally, one of my many doctors offered me a diagnosis: I had sustained an acoustic-shock injury to my left ear. Ear trauma is permanent, with no real treatment. The best I could do was load up on vitamins, abstain from caffeine and alcohol, and keep my life as silent as possible to see if the pain subsided.
I spent the next three months in near-solitary confinement. I avoided social situations. All communication was restricted to email and texts. No TV, no radio, no telephone—and worst of all, no music. Cut off from life outside my home, isolated from human contact and from the thing I loved most, the monotony became nearly intolerable.
The silent exile seemed to help, though. I returned to my position, with a major compromise: I would always have to wear a left earplug, and for the time being I would be excused from performing in any amplified programs. Soon enough, my brain and my life adapted themselves to this new normal. My playing hadn’t deteriorated, but as a precaution I kept all noisy activities at bay, even avoiding the car radio. At home, my husband did the vacuuming and the dishes as quietly as possible. My son kept his friends out of the house when I was home. We all stayed away from the television.