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Alan Keef Steam-Up Day 2012

Susurration of steam in leaves, Steam-Up Day at Alan Keef, 2012 © The Bear

People need rituals – by which I mean the regular recurrences of everyday life. We know that September means autumn and ‘back to school’, a feeling which persists into adulthood of a sense of new beginnings, even as the northern hemisphere winds down at summer’s end. Most of us remain connected to this ritual as adults through university and beyond, watching the next generation go to school, or, as teachers, bound to it for a lifetime.

As the seasons come round, so do annual events, markers of life stages. They may have a deeper symbolism, an enduring comforting familiarity, or erase previous experience. Each milestone this year has been a reminder that life goes on, but at the same time every one has been experienced in a new and strange way because my mother is no longer there to mark them with me.

Having had my CI for two and a half years now, the events running through the year are no longer ‘new and strange’ as they were in 2010, experienced with sound effects for the first time in over 30 years. There’s a new layer of familiarity which has changed my mental landscape.

As with returning to school but moving up a class each year, there’s always something new in that very familiarity. These events act as benchmarks for an informal check on progress from one’s own perspective – a ‘real-world’ annual review to complement and balance professional reviews and feedback from the hospital. As each event occurs, I realise how much more I get from it than the previous year, and that I’m still seeing small incremental improvements. Coming from a hearing family, the Last Night of the Proms was always a television event my parents tuned in to. To the Bear, it means that summer is over. To me it is a way of judging how my music comprehension is coming on, with the same key pieces played in the same venue and in the same atmosphere. The first year, in 2010, I was disappointed with how it sounded: compressed, ragged, and confused. Last year it was much more recognisable as music and I got more out of it and could tell the subtitles were out of sync with the singing. This year, I recognised all the tunes and understood the singing without subtitles. I’m not sure how much it is that I was overwhelmed at first and that it was “too much to process” and how much it is that I now have the tools not only to process, but also to identify, what I hear through practice and exposure.

Simple things like this are excellent real-life benchmarks to supplement annual audiological reviews and could be anything: regular family gatherings, annual meetings and conferences, celebrations of religious festivals.

The experience this time wasn’t only about hearing the music for myself, but also about sharing it with someone else, as it happened my father for whom this was also a modification of previous experience with my mother no longer being there. He chatted away about the music in the first half of the concert – the one with more variety and less flag-waving – stuff perhaps that he wouldn’t have thought to share with me before, so I got to learn something new about him too. Dad the music critic, who doesn’t like the works of Delius.

Or take yesterday – the annual Alan Keef Steam-Up Day. I don’t go every year, but it’s a major event in the Bear’s annual calendar. The last time I went was in 2010 and my appreciation then was of simple enjoyment of all the different noises, enough in itself, without looking for the detail which I certainly noticed at the time but didn’t really register. This time round it was amazing to take in all the different tones produced by the hissing steam as the little train laboured with its load up a very mild gradient barely noticeable on foot, modulated by whether it was among trees or not. It’s almost as if I have more head-space to notice these details because the novelty of hearing them has worn off. So – it’s back to school to learn advanced hearing language.