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Meet the specialist audiologist and bassoonist combining her passions for people with hearing loss

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Kristen Sutcliffe has been both a specialist audiologist with Hearing Australia and a bassoonist with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for over 10 years.

She holds a Bachelor of Music (Hons) and a Bachelor of Science from the Australian National University, and a Master of Clinical Audiology from the University of Melbourne.

Kristen is passionate about the intersection of music and healthcare; she plays a central role in CSO community engagement and has curated and presented CSO’s Rediscovering Music program for people with hearing loss over many years.

Kristen spends her free time with her husband, two kids and their adopted greyhound, Joe.

Where did your musical journey begin?

Inspired by my Mum’s collection of tapes and LPs, I announced to her at the grand old age of four that I would like to learn the piano or the violin. She asked me to decide between them—after much thought, I chose the violin.

I completed up to Grade 8 on the instrument before I found a better fit for me: the bassoon. I enjoyed playing my own part in orchestra and not sharing with others!

How do music and audiology intersect in your life?

Rediscovering Music is definitely where my two professional worlds meet.

Over the last nine years, it has been my absolute pleasure to be able to design and implement this program, which is a unique, live, rehabilitative approach for people with hearing loss to begin to enjoy music again.

Hearing devices (such as hearing aids) aim to help the wearer hear speech, but music is something quite different and can require a different approach.

The damage that is in the hearing organ can make the music sound distorted, even with amplification. Music means so much to me; it enlivens me to help people rediscover their love of music.

I also help out with any tricky musical needs of our Hearing Australia clients; it’s not unusual for me to get emails from around the country asking for musical advice for both our adult and paediatric clients.

What are some moments that stand out from your community work with CSO?

Music at the grassroots, community level, is what I love. I feel strongly that music should be accessible to everyone within the community; it’s an honour to advocate for this on behalf of those who may not be able to themselves.

Among my favourite yearly activities are the performances CSO musicians give in special education schools. The chance to connect with these amazing kids and see the impact music has on them and their wellbeing is deeply fulfilling.

Being able to bring enjoyable music to people who are hard of hearing or Deaf—through Rediscovering Music—and being there with them for the journey over many years continues to be a privilege.

The CSO’s 2020 Music and Memory pilot program was also a highlight, where we saw music deliver a statistically significant, positive impact for people living with dementia through a specially designed, live concert series.

I’m also very interested in making live music accessible for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

How would you describe the role music does, or should, play in community life?

Music, and the arts more broadly, has a multifaceted benefit in community life. It brings people together socially, it allows them to experience a broad range of emotions, it exercises our minds by inviting creativity, it relaxes us—the list goes on.

One person may get that buzz by looking at a Botticelli painting; for me it may be listening to a Mahler symphony.  Whatever the artistic vehicle is for any individual, it is important for our wellbeing that we can access the arts.

Rediscovering Music returns in 2021 with three free, interactive concerts for people with hearing loss, supported by Better Hearing Australia (Canberra).

Register via cso.org.au/events.

Photography: Martin Ollman

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