The music of teaching

West High special education teacher Alex Michenfelder taught as a music teacher for several years but had to change professions when he lost most of his hearing.

West High special education teacher Alex Michenfelder started losing the upper ranges of his hearing in sixth or seventh grade. Hearing loss has always run in his family, so he wasn’t that surprised. However, the hearing loss was minor, so Michenfelder assumed he had a less aggressive version than some of his family members, and that it wouldn’t continue to progress.

“I didn’t need any hearing aids, the doctors thought I’d be fine, and I didn’t think anything of it,” Michenfelder said. “Even when I was in college, I didn’t think it really affected me a whole lot. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. That nothing bad is going to happen.”

When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. That nothing bad is going to happen.”

— Alex Michenfelder

Michenfelder had wanted to be a music teacher for his whole life. Being very involved in music, he decided to major in Musical Education in college. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2009, Michenfelder started teaching music.

After a few years of teaching, Michenfelder realized that his hearing was getting worse. He knew that he was going to need hearing aids and made sure to monitor it, but it wasn’t until around 2014 or 2015 that he knew that he was going to lose his hearing completely.

“It was a pretty emotional experience … I think I was prepared for it for the most part because I knew that it was probably going to happen,” Michenfelder said. “[But] I was more depressed about it at first.”

In June of 2020, Michenfelder qualified for a cochlear implant in his right ear. Cochlear implants, instead of amplifying sound like a hearing aid, send signals directly to the cochlea—the part of the ear that sends sound information to the brain.  While this allows for some sort of sound, it doesn’t sound like what a healthy ear would hear. It would make it impossible for Michenfelder to continue with music.

“I did more research about implants and I was kind of mixed. I was both excited and a little bit emotional because I wouldn’t be able to teach music anymore,” Michenfelder said.

In the end, Michenfelder decided to get the cochlear implant and had the surgery in June. He uses a hearing aid in his left ear because he has a bit of hearing left, but his hearing is completely gone in his right ear.

“I wanted to still be able to listen to music even though it sounds way different … it sounds different for everybody,” Michenfelder said. “Some people will say it sounds really high pitched, like a mouse. I would say it sounds more robotic. It starts to become normal after a while, you just get used to it.”

Michenfelder can play music directly through his cochlear implant with Bluetooth, but some of the music he would listen to before no longer sounds good to him. He had to find music that sounded nice with the cochlear implant.

“Classical music, like piano and strings, sound pretty bad,” Michenfelder said. “But rock music typically is pretty good. [With instruments,] they all sound like the right instrument but it’s like they’re in a different key.”

Classical music, like piano and strings, sound pretty bad. But rock music typically is pretty good. [With instruments,] they all sound like the right instrument but it’s like they’re in a different key.”

— Alex Michenfelder

When Michenfelder learned that he would no longer be able to keep teaching music, he got his master’s in Special Education because he still wanted to teach.

“I always enjoyed working with students with special needs and thought that would be the best career choice for me in the future,” Michenfelder said. “I enjoyed working with them and going over to their classrooms, seeing what they were doing and making sure that all students are getting a free and appropriate education.”