It’s just before Christmas 2020. Sporting a black suit, white shirt and a fedora, the musician – who has shared a stage or studio with the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, and Frank Zappa – is sitting on a chair in the store’s waiting area. He has brought his saxophone to the fitting and is passing the time until his appointment with short improvisations, to the delight of the two staff on duty.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Charles Owens is the only visitor to the store. As with every customer, the appointment has been arranged with him individually in advance. Everyone present is socially distancing and wearing a mask over nose and mouth. In line with California’s strict public health measures, only one customer at a time can be served in the fitting room. Staff have also received special COVID-19 hygiene and safety training from Connect Hearing. They have to ask customers specific questions about their health and take their temperatures upon arrival, for example. They must also regularly disinfect all surfaces, wash their hands with soap and an anti-bacterial agent, and cover their noses and mouths with medical-grade masks.
Charles Owens’ “jazz fitting” – the individual calibration of the new hearing aids to his surroundings – is being overseen by Ivan Wu, Connect Hearing’s Senior Regional Director. Ivan also fitted Charles with his Phonak hearing aids back in 2019. “It was like having new ears,” says Charles, who is still delighted with them. He is now being fitted with the latest model, Phonak’s Audéo™ Paradise. These multi-functional hearing aids deliver improved hearing performance and speech understanding, coupled with industry-leading wireless connectivity. The musician is excited about how it’s going to sound. “It’s like having a top-of-the-range car and upgrading to the latest model – adding the little details is always the cherry on the cake.”
This “jazz fitting” with Charles Owens is a challenge relished by Ivan Wu, who studied audiology at San Francisco State University and has been working in the sector for over 20 years. Now managing more than 20 specialist audiology stores, he views himself as an artist and a translator between the customer and the computer during the hearing aid fitting process. “I have to create an acoustic portrait of the entire world surrounding each individual wearer,” he says, adding that it is important to work with the widest possible palette of sounds and noises. Just as Charles is refining his art every single day, Ivan always strives to do his very best in his own field. To achieve this, he has to know as much as possible about the day-to-day habits of his customer – from practicing music at home and performing in a club with his band, to chatting with his family and playing sax with his grandson. “Charles Owens and his active involvement with every aspect of jazz presents us with a very special challenge,” explains Ivan.
At the “jazz fitting”, the top priority is, of course, to ensure that the musician can hear the instruments he is playing, without distortions, reverberations or echoes. This is one of the reasons why Charles Owens has brought his saxophone to the appointment. In the fitting room, Ivan Wu uploads data from the previous hearing aids to his computer. A graph appears on the screen that, to the trained eye, will reveal details of Charles’ hearing experiences. This information is programmed in and the specialist continues to calibrate the new devices to his customer’s requirements with careful keystrokes.
When Charles is playing with his jazz quartet, it is important for him to hear the entire spectrum of sound. For example, the rhythm of the drums and the high frequencies of the cymbals, piano chords and the low tones of the double bass, along with his own melodies on saxophone, clarinet, flute, and oboe. He has to make out the bassist’s muted solos just as easily as the cheers from the back rows of the audience. As a musician, he even wants to be able to hear ear-splitting drum fills. In other situations, the hearing aids need to filter out certain volumes and frequencies, however, as audiologist Ivan Wu explains: “He shouldn’t get a shock if his wife unexpectedly claps her hands in the middle of a conversation at home.”
The new PRISM™ (Processing Real-time Intelligent Sound Management) sound processing chip is particularly helpful here. Not only does it have more processing power and twice as much memory as its predecessor, it also features many new functions, including personalized noise-cancelling, motion sensor hearing, tap control, and multiple Bluetooth® connections. For example, the motion sensor automatically detects whether Charles is sitting alone in a quiet room or conversing with others; strolling in the park or along a noisy street; practicing saxophone in the garage or playing in a jazz club. The more information Ivan Wu gathers, the more pieces of the puzzle he can put together to optimize the performance of the hearing aids. “He’s a magician, an artist, and a sound technician,” says Charles in a voice full of admiration. Charles hears one little difference straight away. “Voices are even crisper, despite the masks!”It’s the end of January 2021, a month after the fitting, and the jazz musician is sitting at home in his living room in an upbeat mood. Despite all the restrictions imposed on life by the coronavirus pandemic, he has managed to land a gig for his band – a concert to be streamed live via video and on several social media platforms. When the day comes, the audience watch the gig on their screens via the World Stage Art, Education & Performance Gallery’s Facebook page. Charles enjoys playing with his bandmates again: “That’s the best belated Christmas present for all of us and, hopefully, the first step back to the stage and my audience!