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Queens Composer Overcomes Hearing Impairment to Make Beautiful Music

By Katie Honan | June 7, 2017 9:51am
 Michelle David is part of the first class of Special Music School High School on the Upper West Side.
Michelle David is part of the first class of Special Music School High School on the Upper West Side.
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Courtesy Michelle David

NEW YORK CITY — As a child, Michelle David spent hours teaching herself how to play along to the songs that came pre-programmed on her keyboard, which she received as a gift at 7.

It didn't take her long to start making up her own songs. 

"I just starting playing my own music out of nowhere," memorizing songs before she knew how to write music, she said.

What made her passion more remarkable was the high-frequency hearing loss in both ears she's had since birth. It can affect what she hears in crowds, and certain words have to be repeated.

But thankfully, it doesn't affect her much with music, she said. 

"I can at least hear notes — and that makes me a happy person," she said. 

Her early obsession with music led her to the Special Music School High School at Kaufman Music Center near Lincoln Center, the city's only K-12 school for musically-gifted students.

She was part of the first class of 50 students, traveling from her home in Woodside. She chose the school for its small size, and its focus on music.

While her freshman year specialty was singing, she kept coming back to composing.

"I would play around with the notes and I'd end up making pieces out of nowhere," she said. "It was fun, and I would write music around 2 a.m., or 3 a.m., because I wanted to finish the piece so badly."

She switched her specialty and was later selected as the first fellow of her school's Luna Lab, a mentorship program that pairs female composers with students. She studied under Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid, who were available for feedback, advice, and evening Skype sessions when the young composer was stressed, she said. 

An original composition performed at the 2016 Face the Music concert:

On Monday, David will perform an original piece she worked on with her music mentors as part of Face the Music, the student ensemble based at Kaufman.

She worked on the music for about a year, finalizing it over the last two months. It's a brass and percussion piece — which was itself a challenge because David doesn't play any of those instruments.

"I had the choice, I love challenging myself," she said. "I challenged myself to write a piece for an instrument that I don't even know how to play."

Her next challenge will be college. She's heading to SUNY Geneseo, where she'll study musicology and neuroscience.

The plan is to compose music for the rest of her life, but she also wants to be a neurosurgeon.

And she credits her high school for helping her find her passion.

"I learned a lot about music, and I also learned a lot about family, and what family means," she said.