University of Michigan student, violinist defies hearing loss disability

U-M student Abigel Szilagyi plays violin despite hearing loss

By Sarah M. Parlette - Associated Producer

Violinist Abigel Szilagyi will be a junior at the University of Michigan this upcoming academic year. Photo | Abigel Szilagyi | Courtesy of University of Michigan.

ANN ARBOR, Mich - University of Michigan junior Abigel Szilagyi is not an ordinary musician.

The violinist, who only has about 50 percent of her hearing, relies on gestures, muscle memory, vibrations and her own musical instincts as she works with Danielle Belen, a U-M associate professor of violin at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.  

Belen, who is also a violin soloist and chamber musician, has worked with Szilagyi over the past seven years and has seen how Szilagyi has adapted while playing the violin.

 Originally, when she first started working with her then 14-year-old student in California, Belen didn’t notice Szilagyi’s hearing loss but, was later told by Szilagyi’s mother. 

Despite Szilagyi’s hearing loss, the pair has created a way to communicate about music. In 2016, Szilagyi moved to Ann Arbor after being accepted to the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where Belen has worked since 2014. 

"I wanted someone who believed in me and who saw my hearing problem not as an inability, but an ability," she said. "I wanted someone who understood my hearing disability was as much a part of me as being a musician because I always wanted to connect these two parts of me."

Clearly, having a hearing disability hasn’t stopped Szilagyi, whose passion for music was sparked when she heard birds for the first time after getting her first set of hearing aids at the age of 4. 

Szilagyi said that she has learned to read lips, interpret body movements and facial expressions and other forms of gestures while playing. 

Violin teacher Danielle Belen and student Abigel Szilagyi performed at the University of Michigan Sensory Science Initiative in 2018. Credit | Abigel Szilagyi

"She can imitate sounds and mannerisms and has a remarkable skill of imitation," Belen said. "Her visual cues are very sophisticated. She is like clay -- moldable, flexible -- yet she has her own identity as well. She is truly the ideal young artist."

According to Belen, Szilagyi’s lessons might seem unusual. Szilagyi uses hearing aids to talk with Belen or listen for instruction. The hearing aids go in and out as Belen and Szilagyi communicate over the course of a lesson.  

"Instead of being frustrated, she laughs. As serious as the situation is, she is able to look at the big picture and realize that this is all joy. She has an amazing attitude,” Belen said. 

“I know there are tears, sacrifices, pain and frustration, but there is also gratitude. She always rises from the challenges, and I am sure she will have a unique and important career as a violinist." 

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