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"I was in shear and utter terror," said Lisa Burns, a professional musician from Mountainview, California on realizing she had amusia.

"I was in shear and utter terror," said Lisa Burns, a professional musician from Mountainview, California on realizing she had amusia. "I lost 12 pounds in a month without trying. I was scared out of my head."

"Every musician, unless they are in massive denial, acknowledges that some day, we may have arthritis or back problems and not be able to play," she continued, "but I never, ever thought that I would not be able to listen. And that just scared me to death."

Lisa had… well maybe it's better to start at the beginning. "My dad was musically oriented. He subjected us to a lot of opera — Verdi and Puccini."

She had a lifelong love of music. "I always sang as a kid and I started playing guitar when I was 12 through a Girl Scout class. In junior high and high school, I was in choirs and I was in musicals as a singer."

But at the age of 35, she realized that there were way too many guitar players in the world and that bass players were getting more work.

So Lisa took a weeklong music camp class on the bass, within a year she was playing was in four bands, and within four years, she was playing major festivals. She currently plays bass with the Bluegrass bands: Sidesaddle & Company and The Goat Hill Girls.

Her amusia journey began just after an evening entertaining her aunt from Germany. They drank wine and played music. "I took her to the San Francisco airport so she could fly back to Munich, and the next morning when I woke up — everything went very quiet."

"I felt that's weird, I must have a head cold, but the weird thing was that I could clear my ears so it probably wasn't a head cold."

Lisa got in her car to drive to work and "I couldn't make sense of the music that was playing on the radio." I thought, "That's pretty weird."

"I was having trouble hearing people at work — everybody was really quiet."

She called her doctor and was referred to an ENT, who referred her to an audiologist, who recommended a hearing aid "— which I needed, for sure, but I had a feeling that they were not going to correct my music problem."

"With the hearing aids, I could hear people speaking better but I still couldn't make sense of music. And when I played a note on my guitar, I heard a different pitches in each ear."

Another doctor gave her a steroid shot in her ear. "That seemed to solve the problem. But I got the feeling that it wasn't the steroids, it was the fluid. Because everything sounded to me as if it was underwater."

In the middle of the crisis, when I played a scale on my guitar, do re mi fa so la ti, it didn't seem right. The intervals were incorrect. I said to a friend, that I had been seeing all these doctors and I described the problem, and he said, "That's not your ears that's your brain."

"After seven mis-diagnoses had been done — my favorite was syphilis, which was a false positive, they finally did an MRI of my head, and my ENT sent me to a neurologist."

Off I went to the neurologist with these MRIs. I told her my long tearful story, and amazingly through all this I was still recording – I must've been playing by muscle memory.

The neurologist said, "You have normal pressure hydrocephalus and I think we can fix this with brain surgery."

"Which was frightening," Lisa said.

The neurologist explained that Lisa's cerebral spinal fluid was not being reabsorbed by her body. "It normally circulates through the brain and down the spinal cord," Lisa said. "Mine had collected in the middle of my brain."

Lisa's hair was shaved on one side of her head and the operation was performed. "I had to wear a wig for three months."

After a period of adjustment, Lisa's musical perception returned. And it took a bit longer for her to get used to the new hearing aid. "Noise from the garbage disposal and garage door opener nearly scared me to death during the testing period of my hearing aid."

If you are in the Silicon Valley area and like Bluegrass, check out one of Lisa's bands — now that she's back in the groove.

Amusia*: The inability to recognize musical tones or to reproduce them.

~ Al Zagofsky





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