New Life With Hearing – How Soprano Anne Walker Overcame Hearing Loss To Revive Her Singing Career

By Greg Waxberg

“This is the greatest miracle of science and technology,” said lyric soprano Dr. Anne Walker in a recent chat with OperaWire. “I’m not sure where it’s going, but I know it’s not for nothing.”

Though her destination may be uncertain, she has come from a place of feeling isolated and ashamed.

Artistically Compromised

Over 15 years ago, before she turned 30, Walker’s hearing began to decline, causing embarrassing situations in musical settings.

“I was making atypical mistakes, like not hearing entrances and not being as quick to pick up stage directions for opera productions. An accompanist even got frustrated that I was pushing sharp, but I couldn’t fix it because I couldn’t hear it. My professionalism was compromised. I felt like damaged goods.”

To compensate, she tried to over-prepare for rehearsals and went through the laborious and mentally exhausting process of singing while transposing pitches a half-step. She relied on feedback from coaches and teachers, but they could only tell her what they heard. Walker was losing confidence—but worse, she suddenly felt like an outsider.

“Singing is a lifestyle, a community. I didn’t feel like I could be myself. I struggled with my identity and self-worth because singing had always been part of my identity. Without it, what was I?” she said. “As a singer, how you hear yourself is different than how anyone else hears you. Adding hearing loss is another layer of weirdness.”

However, as frustrating and demoralizing as her situation was, getting a doctor to diagnose the problem was, in some ways, even worse. Walker saw nearly 10 specialists (ENTs, audiologists, surgeons) over several years, to no avail.

“They didn’t offer any help, maybe because they thought I was congested or being overly dramatic. Maybe I didn’t push hard enough,” she reflected.

Ultimately, by plainly speaking her mind (“there’s something wrong” instead of “there might be something wrong”) and by making it clear that her livelihood was in jeopardy, she made progress.


Walker convinced an ENT in Arizona, where she was pursuing a D.M.A. at Arizona State University, to send her to an audiologist for a hearing test. The result was ski-slope hearing loss—the trouble area was high-frequency sounds. It was 2005 and she started to use hearing aids, but her trials and tribulations were far from over.

Her hearing worsened. She had to walk away from the opera stage, resorting to teaching private voice lessons from her home studio in Overland Park, KS.

Fast-forward several years to Walker’s time teaching musical theatre classes to elementary and high school-aged students through the organization Christian Youth Theatre.

Having basically given up on the possibility of a solution to her hearing, Walker became friends with, and confided in, the mother of a child in her class who had profound hearing loss. The mother was “outraged that nobody had spoken to me about more-advanced listening devices, and she pushed me back into research.”

That push would end up changing Walker’s life.

Changing Her Life

By conducting online research and joining advocacy groups for hearing loss, she found Dr. Timothy Steele, President and CEO of Associated Audiologists who she said “specializes in current technology and is an advocate for the hearing-impaired community.”

He was the first person to say the magic words: She might be a candidate for a cochlear implant, an electronic device that is surgically placed in the inner ear. Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies acoustic signals, a cochlear implant converts acoustic sound vibrations into electrical signals.

“I thought cochlear implants were only for people who are completely deaf, but that’s not the case anymore,” Walker said.

Indeed, they can be used for moderate-to-profound hearing loss when hearing aids aren’t sufficient. Nothing can restore normal hearing, because the nerve endings have died and can’t be replaced, but a cochlear implant can still bring dramatic improvements.

Steele recommended Saint Luke’s Hospital Midwest Ear Institute (MEI), a nationally recognized center for cochlear implants, where Walker met audiologist Dr. Kristen Lewis. Knowing that Walker was a singer, Lewis wondered, “How on earth can you do your job?” The biggest consideration for a musician’s implant, Lewis said, is how music will sound.

“Normally, 30,000 hair cells detect pitches from low to high frequencies, but an implant can’t reproduce that full range. Also, the inner ear is coded for pitch—the deeper in the cochlea the nerve endings sit, the lower the pitch perception. But the implant may not line up perfectly with the nerve endings, so the pitch may not be quite right. But those with a musical background are more likely to be able to adapt, or retrain their brain,” Lewis told OperaWire.

Thus, in 2012, Walker proceeded with her first cochlear implant in the right ear—not a typical cochlear implant, but an implant system that uses Hybrid Hearing, which combines the amplification of a hearing aid (picking up natural acoustics in low and middle frequencies) with cochlear implant technology (a special electrode that picks up high frequencies) in one device.

When the device was activated, “Voices all sounded the same, monotone and computerized, but everything was very clear. My hearing started to improve in a few days as my brain’s pathways opened up again.”

Walker recalls listening to a violin concerto while driving: “I could hear articulations on the violin. Tears were streaming down my face because I hadn’t heard that crisp and clear for years.”

She returned to and became comfortable with her old routine. Within a couple months of receiving the implant, Walker started to teach lessons again, accepted a position teaching voice at Avila University in Kansas City, MO, and began to perform in public again.



More To Come

But more was still to come. This past June, Walker received a second Hybrid Hearing cochlear implant system, this time in her left ear.

Although that ear had not been a candidate for an implant in 2012, it became worse over time; a speech recognition test, during which the doctor speaks words and sentences and asks the patient to repeat them, revealed that she was hearing only five percent of what was spoken.

“After an implant, the brain is working so hard to try to make sense of what it’s hearing that it tends to focus on the implant input and ignore the other side, which is evident when you test the bad ear by itself,” Lewis explained.

Four weeks after activation of the second implant, Walker repeated the speech recognition test and scored 97 percent. With music, “I can hear when I’m not in tune. It sounds dissonant. I need the full context of a piece and my muscle memory kicks in.”

Now with vastly improved hearing in both ears, Walker has renewed confidence.

“In my own way, I came out of the singing closet. I’m much more comfortable asking for what I need and telling people about my situation, and I’ve found that people are interested in helping and are understanding,” the soprano noted. “I have also been hearing from other singers who have experienced hearing loss.”

She did, however, have to adjust to what she believes will be a career away from the opera stage.

“When I’m singing now, I need to have such control over my surroundings. Ensemble singing isn’t pleasant. It’s too much sound at once, like drinking out of a fire hose. If it’s just me with the piano or a smaller group of musicians, that’s fantastic.”

Yet, she has peace of mind about her new circumstances. “I once felt that it was [opera] or nothing, but, through this ordeal, I realized there is more to music and singing—it’s about the connection to other people, to characters, to stories, to music, to the process. That’s what I love, and that I can still do and be a part of.”

Walker would like to share her story through music and, perhaps, perform more jazz and musical theater.

“My career is different,” she said, “but not done.”


InterviewsStage Spotlight