Stephen Schultz
Stephen Schultz | Credit: Maurice Ramirez

The acclaimed Baroque flutist Stephen Schultz says that one of the most memorable performances of his 2023 was playing J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 8 with the Cantata Collective in Berkeley in November. “Bach must’ve had a flute player from Mars,” Schultz joked about the piece’s virtuosic flute part in an interview with SF Classical Voice. “He is the first composer in history to write up to high A [for Baroque flute]. I had to practice this for about six months.”

Hitting a high note may be phenomenal, but it’s even more remarkable, to a certain extent miraculous, for a musician who has suffered from hearing loss for nearly two decades. Over that time, hearing aids have become an integral part of Schultz’s music-making and helped prolong his performance career.

In 2004, Schultz noticed his decreased hearing when teaching a class for about 200 students. “There were students speaking from the back of the hall. I couldn’t hear them at all,” he recalled. Aware of the symptom, he went to the doctor, who told Schultz that his audiogram showed classic otosclerosis.

Middle ear
An anatomical plate of the ear

Otosclerosis, an abnormal bone growth within the middle ear leading to progressive hearing loss, is often inherited and has afflicted some of Schultz’s relatives. However, he never expected the condition to be passed on to him because it had mostly occurred in the women in his family. Usually, such a condition would spell doom for a musician’s career.

Schulz was given two options: hearing aids or an operation. However, afraid of losing professional opportunities, he chose neither. “At first, I was in denial, and I was nervous,” he recounted. “I was scared that if people knew I was wearing aids, they wouldn’t hire me or they might think that the quality of my work would go down. I thought people might look at me differently because I was disabled or something.”

Four years after his initial diagnosis, Schultz finally decided to take a step, as his hearing loss had started to affect his teaching. “The hearing aids worked fine. I’d been using them for my recordings and performances since 2008,” he said.

But the standard hearing aids he tried early on were only designed to help people hear words clearly and tackle difficulties in conversations. They’re great for daily use but not optimal for musicians. Longing to hear a more natural sound from his flute as well as from those around him in performance, Schultz was waiting for a better choice.

The problem was solved when Widex Moment Sheer came into play last year. Putting these hearing aids on for the first time, Schultz immediately discovered a new world. “They are the gold standard,” he said. Not only does the system have a built-in music mode, he and his audiologist were also able to make fine adjustments to create a concert mode, which, according to the flutist, is the best solution for musicians. “We got an incredible sound that makes the Baroque flute sound as natural as it possibly can.” And the device can be controlled through a smartphone app.

Schultz emphasizes the importance of educating young musicians about how to protect their hearing. Tools such as musician’s earplugs and plastic shields are necessary in the percussion and brass sections of the orchestra to protect those players as well as their fellow musicians.

Knowing that there are other musicians who are also experiencing hearing loss, Schultz has felt a responsibility to encourage them. He’s set an example, continuing to enjoy a multifaceted career in performing, teaching, and recording while retaining his artistic excellence with hearing aids.

“I know there are a lot of people, musicians, who have hearing loss, who are in denial and don’t want to get hearing aids for the exact same reason I had. The main reason that I came out of the closet about it is because people need to accept it if they are losing their hearing,” Schultz said.

The advanced technology now available can help many people overcome their hearing difficulties and continue to do what they love. “The state of the art in hearing aids is phenomenal. It’s important when you do notice you are losing your hearing not to be shy about it. Don’t spend four years in denial like I did. Go get help.”