Change of tune
“I didn’t know if I could ever play drums again, or even music,” says 2003 alum.
One year after completing his degree in music business with emphasis in percussion, Joel Styzens ’03 was getting steady work as a drummer in the local Chicago jazz and rock scenes. He also had landed a teaching position at Chicago’s renowned Old Town School of Folk Music.
But in late January 2006, Styzens woke up with the pitch of A-sharp ringing in his ears. Tinnitus and hyperacusis – ringing of the ears and extreme sound sensitivity – threatened to take away his life’s work and passion. Styzens had to completely stop playing drums until he could determine what his options would be for managing this painful affliction.
“I had quite a bit of time where, because of my ear sensitivity, I wasn’t comfortable doing much of anything. Just going outside was a nightmare because of all the Chicago traffic noises,” he says.
He experienced the isolation that those who suffer from tinnitus and hyperacusis often face, especially musicians. Compelled by the need to continue playing music, he picked up a dusty, old acoustic guitar that was sitting in the corner and began playing it for hours each day.
Gradually, Styzens found himself searching for ways to get the instrument to produce more interesting sounds and textures. This led him to twist the strings and explore unusual tunings. The new music soon became a form of therapy for dealing with his hearing problems, and Styzens began composing for the guitar.
“I create by focusing on the sound, feeling and texture – not theory. But if I didn’t have background in percussion, theory and ear-training, I don’t think this approach would work as well,” Styzens says.
This intuitive experimentation led to a collaboration with Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn. They worked together on Styzens’ first album, 2009’s “Relax Your Ears.” The resulting collection of musical meditations was released on Styzens’s own label, A-Sharp – ironically named after the pitch of his tinnitus.
He now says, “I’ve spent most of my life playing drums on other people’s music, and now I get to create my own – and it’s really one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done.”
The CD’s opening track, a song also called “A-Sharp” is the first piece that really started coming together when he picked up the guitar.
“With ‘A-Sharp,’ I tried to capture the uncertainty, doubt and frustration of not knowing if I could ever play drums or even music again. I wanted to convey the way this ringing felt – but at the same time, keep it musical and not make the listener too uncomfortable,” he says. “I knew from the beginning that if I were to eventually make an album, it would be the first track.”
Styzens intends to use A-Sharp Records and the label’s web-site to raise awareness about hearing conservation. “Right now, my label is for my music and my story, but I want to expand it to include the music and stories of others with tinnitus and hyperacusis,” he says. “I would love to encourage community and collaboration, and also use the label and its music to pro-mote greater awareness about the importance of hearing conservation and what can happen if you don’t take precautions.”
Styzens continues to cope with the effects of the tinnitus and hyperacusis, but they have improved gradually with therapy, including a new treatment which uses customized white noise and music that interacts with the auditory system.
He still teaches percussion, using electronic drums rather than conventional ones, and is moving toward teaching acoustic guitar and piano. He is also working on his next album, which features hammered dulcimer in addition to guitar.
Four years after his hearing conditions changed his life, Styzens has no intention of focusing on the negative. “My ear problems and how I hear sounds started this whole transition to composing. So really, everything related to music in my life is influenced by my tinnitus and hyperacusis,” he says. “I would just like to stress the importance of continuing to follow your passions no matter what obstacles are thrown at you. You may have to dig down deep, and it may take a considerable amount of time, but I believe it’s possible.”