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May 14, 2011

Stillwater piano teacher regains hearing

STILLWATER, Okla. — Sonja Hannon was driving down the street when she reached a cross section that would determine the course of her life. To the left was a school for the deaf to learn sign language, and to the right she saw a music store.

“I didn’t know until that very second where I was going to go,” she said. “That was a choice and the whole direction of my life.”

It was no easy one. She had to choose either to remain a piano teacher, something she had been since she was 12 years old, or become a sign language teacher for deaf children. Hannon picked up the language because she knew she was going deaf and had grown to admire it — as if were music.

“It’s almost like dancing,” she said.

  The pianist turned right and bought music for her students to learn, and she hasn’t looked back. She eventually became 95 percent deaf. The 5 percent hearing she had left was enough for her to keep teaching.

“I heard music much better than I heard voices,” she said. “I was taught to read music. Just by reading it, I knew what it sounded like.”

She became good at reading lips and was able to hear and understand people nearby. But in large part, everything sounded like noise.

“I went to an opera once and all I heard was static, just loud, loud static,” Hannon said. “Ugly noise.”

At restaurants, she would hear plates clattering. At home, it was the sound of the refrigerator kicking in and off. It affected her life and her teaching. She could not talk and connect with her students beyond the lessons.

“It was always do this and do that,” she said. “I became pretty isolated.”

One year ago, things changed.

She regained 98 percent of her hearing by way of a nucleus cochlea implant surgery.

She always had wanted to undergo the procedure but was told it would not work for her. Last January, her doctor approved the surgery, and she got her hearing back in June.  

“I am hearing the birds for the first time in years and years and the locusts and crickets,” Hannon said.

She wrote down a description of the moment after the doctor activated the implant.

“I immediately heard a huge roar of chaotic sound — bells clanging, energy whooshing and swooshing, clicks and clacks,” she wrote. “After two or three more minutes, I realized another part of the huge roar of sound was my own voice. It sounded like it was separate from me and over to the side.”

Despite having almost no hearing at all for the last 20 years for reasons unknown, Hannon managed to live a complete life. At 70, she remembers her first piano concert when she was 10 years old in Ponca City.

She attended college in St. Louis and followed Ozan Marsh, a concert pianist who was a professor there, to San Francisco with a group of students. She settled in the bay area for more than 25 years, married a poet and had a son.  

From there, she moved to Mexico for 10 years, teaching traditional Mexican music to children at a Native Indian village she’d fallen in love with one holiday.

“I got to where I could hear music in every place, like windmills creaking or frogs singing,” Hannon said.

When it came time to move back to the States, she settled down in Albuquerque, where she started a piano academy. Eight years later, she returned to her roots in Oklahoma, finding a home in Stillwater where, for the last four years, she has taught piano to children.

“I think it’s so important for children to learn music because their ears are being educated just like in school their minds are being educated,” Hannon said.

She is performing in a recital with her students today at 2 p.m. at the Sheerar Cultural Center. The event is open to the public.

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