NCRA president to local music teachers and boosters clubs: Tune into court reporting

In recognition of National Court Reporting & Captioning Week, NCRA President Nancy Varallo sent an invitation to local music teachers and music boosters clubs in her local area to share a flyer with their students that highlights the benefits of a career in court reporting, as well as the correlation that exists between talent for a musical instrument and success as a court reporter. Her firm, The Varallo Group LLC, in Worcester, Mass., plans to donate $50.00 to each school music program or music boosters club that forwards the flyer to its music students and parents.  Varallo invites other firms and groups interested in doing the same to celebrate National Court Reporting & Captioning Week to download a generic form of the flyer to personalize and distribute to local schools and clubs in their area. Find it here.

PDC Corner: Can we try that in B flat?

You can earn 0.25 PDC by passing the exam for this article, which has been approved for publication by NCRA’s Council of the Academy of Professional Reporters. The exam is available on the NCRA website, or a hard copy is available by calling 800-272-6272. The questions are based on the material in the article, but some may require additional research.


A/D: analog to digital

baffle: a partition that prevents interference between sound waves in a loudspeaker

dB: decibel

DSP: digital audio processor

frequency: also called pitch; a measure of how many vibrations a sound creates per second

HLAA: Hearing Loss Association of America

intensity: how small or large the vibrations that are produced by sound are, as well as their relationship to each other

RMS: abbreviation for root mean square; used as a way to measure the intensity of pressure

temporal pattern: how a sound relates to the musical attribute or rhythm

timbre: the combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume

One of the most common complaints from people with hearing loss is that while their hearing technology helps them hear speech well, music “just isn’t the same.” This column will discuss why music is such a challenge for people with hearing loss as well as some real-world advice on how to take proactive steps to reduce frustration and make listening to music more enjoyable despite your hearing loss.

Describing and measuring sounds

All sounds can be described by using a few characteristics, or attributes, that can be directly measured. These include intensity, frequency, and temporal pattern.

Frequency is a measure of how many vibrations a sound creates per second. We perceive frequency as pitch. Low frequency sounds like vowels, a tuba, or the piano keys on the far left have a great deal of energy and travel in all directions. High frequency sounds like consonants, violins, or the keys on the far right of the piano keyboard have less energy and travel only in a straight line.

Intensity, which we perceive as loudness, describes how much energy a sound has and relates to how large the vibrations are. A whisper, the rustle of leaves, or a single instrument playing music marked “pianissimo” all have very low intensities. A person shouting, construction noise, and a marching band playing the finale of a Sousa march all have very high intensities.

The temporal pattern of a sound relates to the musical attribute rhythm. If you’ve ever heard an infant babbling, you can appreciate that speech has a very specific and predictable temporal pattern. If the babbler is in another room, you might think that he or she is actually talking because what’s coming out of his or her mouth has the pattern of speech even though there are no words or sentences yet.

In the realm of music, we also describe the character of “voice” of a sound using the term timbre. Timbre is how we differentiate two instruments — say a flute and a trumpet — playing the same note. The frequencies (and pitches) are the same, but the way that each instrument creates that sound gives each a different timbre.

How speech and music differ

Whenever I talk about music and hearing loss, I check with my friend, colleague, and fellow musician Dr. Marshall Chasin of the Musicians Hearing Clinics of Canada ( He has spent many years researching and treating hearing loss in musicians. He reminds us that while music and speech both have the same measurable properties, they have some very specific differences. Specifically, speech and music differ because of the construction of the “instruments” and the maximum intensities they produce.

Reverberation, or the tendency of sound to bounce around a room, can be controlled by adding more sound-absorbing materials to the room, like carpets and drapes. The general term for this added sound absorption is “damping.” Sound systems with high damping create “smooth” sounds with very few “peaks” where the intensity exceeds the average intensity of the overall sample we measure (also known as RMS (or root mean square)).

Because the human vocal tract is coated with mucous membranes, it is a highly damped system. This makes speech and vocal music very smooth with relatively low, blunt peaks of energy. According to Dr. Chasin’s measurements, these are in the 12 dB range above and below the average intensity. Speech sounds also don’t generally get louder than about 87 or 90 dB.

By contrast, most musical instruments are, by design, very reflective. This makes them sound “bright” and produces sounds that travel quite a far distance. These sounds have peaks of close to 18 dB above the average. Depending on the genre, musical signals can be as intense as 110 dB.

These stark differences clearly make using hearing aids and cochlear implants designed for speech tricky with a music input.

How hearing loss affects music perception

Before we address how hearing aids and cochlear implants do and do not play nice with music, let’s take a bit of a look at why hearing loss messes up music so much. In the inner ear, we have two sets of sensory hair cells that, working together, allow us to hear and discriminate a wide range of pitches and intensities. The outer hair cells function like a pre-amplifier in a sound system, making very soft sounds loud enough for the microphones to convert to electrical signals. In the ear, the “microphone” is the inner hair cells. In addition to this pre-amplifier function, the outer hair cells work together with the brain to fine tune pitch perception.

When outer hair cells are damaged or missing, not only do we lose the ability to hear very soft sounds, but the sounds we do hear are not accurate. The pitches of similar sounds blend together and our ability to hear changes in loudness is distorted. Hearing aids can help with the soft sound audibility part and, to some extent, with the exaggerated loudness perception, but they really can’t help us regain our “fine tuning” pitch.

When hearing loss reaches the moderate to severe and worse range, not only are the outer hair cells affected, but also the inner hair cells, or the microphones of the sound system. When inner hair cells are damaged, even though sounds are loud enough to hear, they are often distorted, much like listening to a person speak into a broken microphone.

How hearing technologies interact with music

The fact that speech has a predictable pitch, loudness, and temporal pattern helps hearing aids and cochlear implants make decisions about which sounds in the environment might be speech and which ones might be noise. This really does improve the ability to understand speech in less than ideal settings, but this design “bias” can cause some issues when trying to use these technologies to listen to music.

At the very front end of both hearing aids and cochlear implants are microphones. The microphones used by both technologies can easily handle input levels greater than 100 dB; however, the next component of the system is often not so forgiving. All cochlear implants and digital hearing aids need to convert the analog sounds picked up by the microphones into digital ones and zeros in order to be processed by the digital audio processor (DSP). This analog to digital (A/D) converter often includes a feature called a limiter, which reduces the intensity of the signal from the microphone. The purpose of this limiter is to conserve battery power. There is some logic to this if we recall that speech signals usually don’t exceed 87 dB. Why would a designer waste processing time and power with sounds outside of the range of the signal everyone using the device wants to hear? The answer, of course, is that many people want to hear things that are not speech. The problem is that when hearing aids and cochlear implants apply front-end limiting, many people perceive a small amount of distortion. Because of the digital nature of these hearing systems, this distortion is faithfully carried throughout the entire audio processing pathway and is ultimately delivered to the listener. The degree to which this will impact a given individual will vary, but I’d like to share a story from my clinical experience that illustrates how significant this can be.

In 2001, I was an adjunct clinical supervisor at Northeastern University in Boston. One of my students referred a saxophone player in middle school who was hard of hearing to me for a consult. She had a severe hearing loss and was wearing digital hearing aids only a few years old. Her issue was that while she could play her saxophone well and in tune alone, whenever she was in a group, such as during band practice, she began to play out of tune. It was recommended that her parents buy her new hearing aids with a music program in them, but she wasn’t convinced that was the issue.

I had her bring her sax to the appointment, and I brought mine. She was able to play well enough, but as reported, when she tried to match her pitch to mine, she was off. As an experiment, I had her remove her hearing aids and, using the corner of the room as a baffle to acoustically amplify sound, I asked her to try again. This time, without the distortion of the front end limiter of her hearing aids’ A/D converter, she was able to match my pitch so well that I was able to teach her several songs “by ear.” My conclusion was that in the context of a full-sized concert band, the sound levels would be more than sufficient for her to hear and play. We arranged for a body-worn FM system with headphones that she would use only when the director was talking to the group.

Making it better

Since then, there have been some good efforts to make hearing technology more music friendly. Most mid- to high-end hearing aids have pre-sets for a “music” program that sets the amplifier’s characteristics to be more compatible with the acoustic signature of music. A few manufacturers have listened to the work Dr. Chasin and others are doing and are allowing the A/D converter to pass more sound intensity to the DSP. By the way, this not only helps with music perception but also with hearing very loud speech, such as when we are in areas with a great deal of background noise. If your technology doesn’t support these options, you can overcome the input limiter issue by turning down the level of the music if it is recorded or by moving farther away if it is live. Both of these techniques will decrease the amount of sound hitting the microphones, and they can prevent the input limiter from kicking in.

Technology aside, it is possible to practice listening to music — much like new hearing aid and cochlear implant users who undergo aural rehabilitation. Like speech-based aural rehab, rebuilding your musical sound vocabulary will take time, and it needs to be built from the ground up. Rather than listening to your favorite symphony the first day you get your hearing aids, listen to something simpler, preferably something more speech-like. Folk music is a great choice as are ballads with a small combo rather than a full orchestra.

When to find a different drummer

The hardest thing to come to terms with in the realm of hearing loss is arriving at a place of balance between hope for improvement and acceptance of realistic expectations. For some, advanced technology and hard work will allow them to enjoy most, if not all, of the music they enjoyed before their hearing loss. For others, however, it may be necessary to let go of the past and rediscover music from scratch. If your hearing loss prevents you from hearing fine gradations of pitch, try listening to music that has a simpler structure. Explore all the instruments both live and in recordings, and find the ones that fit your hearing loss rather than trying to squeeze the square peg of your hearing loss into a round musical hole.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. It requires creativity, time, and resourcefulness. Most of all, it requires a willingness to accept the fact that while music “isn’t the same” since your hearing loss, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lean on the support of friends, family, and your local and national HLAA contacts. Above all, take a step back and ask yourself why music moves you. Is it the beat? The melody? The words? Once you find the core of your love of music, seek opportunities to experience that part of it with styles and instruments that you hear as well as possible. Then just listen, relax, and let the music move you. Dance to your own drum like no one is watching, and enjoy!

This article was developed under a grant from the Department of Education, NIDRR grant number H133E080006. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

This article is reprinted with permission from the March/April 2013 Hearing Loss Magazine. Visit the Hearing Loss Association of America at

The exam for this article is located on the NCRA website at By passing the exam, you can earn 0.25 PDC. The questions are based on the material in the article, but some may require additional research.

For additional information on music and hearing loss:

Dr. Marshall Chasin’s Blog:

Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss:

Music to our ears

Court reporters chime in on how playing musical instruments helped with their careers.


When kids learn an instrument, teachers sometimes tell them “you’re a natural” or “you have a great ear.” It’s true that many are born with talent, but for most, it’s a combination of talent and hard work. In other words, it doesn’t come easily. There are endless hours of practice to hone skills and become great musicians — which is also true about court reporting.

So this made us wonder — does it make a difference in how reporters get through school and get a start in the field if they have a musical background? Does playing an instrument help with finger dexterity on a writer? Does the experience of hearing notes, reading music, or playing in a band help with captioning the spoken word? To get to the bottom of this, we spoke to several court reporters who have spent years playing instruments.


Linda Fritsch, RMRLinda Fritsch, RMR, from Largo, Fla., has worked as a deputy official court reporter and has done depositions and civil court work. Fritsch started playing the piano when she was eight years old and continued studying music in college after playing in the high school orchestra. When she started court reporting school, she found playing music gave her a head start in the program.

“I definitely think learning to read music and developing finger dexterity in playing the piano were a big help in learning court reporting. Learning and practicing steno theory requires the same skills needed to read music and play an instrument,” Fritsch says. She adds playing chord formations on the piano is like writing out phonetic words. “In learning to read music, you look at symbols on a page, and then you translate those symbols through your fingers to different keys on the instrument. In learning reporting, you study steno theory, which involves memorizing the letter formations that produce phonetic sounds. When writing, you hear the phonetic sounds and, in turn, translate the phonetic sounds through your fingers to the appropriate keys on the steno keyboard.”

Fritsch adds that if you love what you do, as in theory and the steno writer, this should provide students the determination to keep practicing. In fact, she says the quicker you are to recognize notes or sounds, the quicker you will be able to respond to the keyboard. Even so, she thinks practicing is the important part. “Repetition is what builds one’s reflexes, both on the piano and the writer,” Fritsch says. “Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes.”


Victoria (Tori) PittmanWhen it comes to playing, you either stick with one instrument or you play several. In Victoria (Tori) Pittman’s case, she started with piano then picked up the oboe, violin, baritone sax, and bass violin. Pittman, RPR, from Wake Forest, N.C., was in the school orchestra and was also in an allcounty band as well as an all-county orchestra and the Mohawk Valley Symphony. To say she’s accomplished is an understatement. She no longer plays these instruments due to the time needed to practice, but her musical experience has helped in many ways when it comes to court reporting.

“Having the manual dexterity and the hand-eye-ear coordination definitely helps. You can feel and hear when your fingers are in the wrong place,” Pittman says. She also mentions a rule her high school band leader kept. “He always said, ‘If you’re on time, you’re late.’ Meaning your music is up and ready, and you should be ready to play when the time for brand practice hits. I was never late for class. Ever!” Pittman adds that because she had to practice to get a piece right, she knew it wasn’t going to just magically hap ; she knew that it would take a lot of effort.

Pittman is not sure about the correlation between music and court reporting in regard to attaining her skills faster, but in other ways, she thinks it has helped.

“The fact that I already had the ability to not watch my hands and let them do what they needed to do (as when reading music) made it easier for me when I had to listen for words but not watch my fingers as they tried to write them (trusting one’s notes, if you will),” Pittman says. This background has also helped overall in her profession. Having punctuality drilled into her head while in band class made her very conscious about being early, setting up, and being ready to go before anyone gets in the room. On a final note, Pittman says, “After a good performance, you don’t really remember what you did, you only remember how it felt. If someone were to ask me the topic of a hearing/deposition, I probably could only give the very basics. I get subsumed by the ‘music’ as it were and let myself flow with it. I no longer think about it.”


Michelle GrimesJust like the variety of court reporting professions, there are also a variety of types of musicians. Michelle Grimes is a freelance court reporter from Joliet, Ill., who has been a drummer since she turned eight years old. She started taking lessons and had formal training during grade school.

After a while, she wanted her own drum set, but her parents weren’t too keen on the idea. So she waited, and at 19 years old, with determination and a little luck, she bought her own after selling a fax machine she won in a Chicago radio contest. Once she got the set, she started playing in a few rock bands at festivals, benefits, and clubs in the Chicago area. Then, she took time off, but for a good reason — court reporting school.

“After a five-year hiatus of not playing so I could get through court reporting school and begin my career, I have recently returned to playing for myself, not in a band, and I am working on honing my hobby with more technical stuff as my time and schedule allows,” Grimes says. She adds that playing the drums is her reward for getting work and other necessities done.

“The biggest lesson playing drums has taught me is that in order to become very proficient and skilled at something, it takes a lot of practice, dedication, concentration, discipline, and perseverance. It’s hard work. There is no easy way to get there. It has taught me discipline and dedication, and it has helped my concentration. All of that is necessary, I believe, to becoming a skilled and proficient writer,” Grimes says.

This thought actually helped with her decision to put playing on hold while in school. Grimes says, “I knew that if I had my drums around, I’d be more tempted to play them than practice on my steno machine, so I had to put them away, which was really difficult for me. I missed them dearly. Thankfully, we are happily reunited.” While some people think that musicians might listen better, Grimes points out a different similiarity: “I notice that there is a natural cadence or tempo in which most people talk. The drummer is the keeper of the time for the whole band. I often connect with a person’s cadence of speech while I’m writing. Syllables are to words as notes and beats are to drums — for me, anyway.” Grimes also sees how reading music has helped. In fact, she mentions punctuation and grammar author Margie Wakeman Wells’ theory that reading the written steno notes creates “grooves in the brain” and improves muscle memory.

“Muscle memory is taught in both court reporting and drumming. It dee s as our eyes see and recognize the steno outlines and music notes. I think reading music creates grooves in a similar way,” Grimes says. Even though at one point she wanted to be a professional drummer, she chose the court reporting field because the Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were more jobs than people to fill them.

After her five-year hiatus of drum playing, Grimes is happy to be back on her drummer’s throne and comments how drumming has taught her a lot of lessons about life and court reporting. “Playing set the foundation to help me get through many challenges of court reporting — dedication, determination, overcoming defeat and disappointment, celebrating successes, facing new challenges, and relieving stress,” she says.


Lori Judd, RMRFor Lori Judd, RMR, a freelance reporter from Las Vegas, Nev., it wasn’t as much about relieving stress as it was about learning something new. So when she turned 40 years old, she bought a harp. Even though she had a lot of music experience and a degree in music performance, Judd confesses to being a beginner.

“I knew from my previous music study that I needed to practice at least a little every day,” Judd says. This practice paid off because now, 15 years later, Judd plays gigs all over Vegas and is the principal harpist for the Henderson Symphony Orchestra. “More than anything, I think the skill that reporters develop is an ear/hand coordination. Musicians have the ear/hand coordination, too. Musicians have to learn a new language — reading music — and become proficient at thinking in terms of notes and chords, and reporters also learn a new language — steno — and become proficient at thinking in steno,” Judd says.

Judd adds that she doesn’t think reporters are eye/hand coordination experts. She thinks they’re ear/hand coordination experts. “Yes, we often watch the people producing the sounds that we capture, but we take the spoken words using our ears and convert them to written words. And playing an instrument certainly helps me listen more carefully.”

Learning the harp as an adult has affected Judd differently from learning other instruments, and is an inspiration to court reporters who have taken up the profession as a career change. “It can be daunting to start something difficult later in life. The best advice that I could give is to just keep showing up to your lessons (or to classes) no matter what, and you need, need, need to be sure that you get some time on your machine (or instrument) every day, even if it’s just five minutes.” Judd says that she was disciplined, and that made the difference. It wasn’t always quality practicing, but she played nearly every day and still does. “Even when I didn’t feel I was ready for a lesson, I would still show up.”


Rich GermosenRich Germosen of North Brunswick, N.J., readily recalls how music helped when it came to court reporting school. As a saxophone player since the fifth grade, which included participation in the concert, marching, and stage bands, Germosen vividly remembers the first week of court reporting school.

“We were all doing finger drills, and when we got to the ring finger, everyone was moaning and groaning at how hard it was to drill the ring fingers. I was doing the ring fingers pretty quickly, and I remember looking around wondering why everyone else thought it was so difficult,” Germosen says.

Even though he no longer plays the saxophone, Germosen be lieves playing has continued to help him in his career. “Playing an instrument is sort of like writing on the steno machine. The more you practice, the better you get. All that practicing an instrument sort of set the stage for practicing on the machine in school. But I think I didn’t notice all that until after I was out of school and reflecting back over the years,” says Germosen. It also taught him how to practice consistently, and as he states, court reporting school is all about building skills on the machine by practicing a lot.

He successfully finished school in just a little more than 22 months and passed the New Jersey CSR on the first try. “I wanted to pass the first CSR I took so I did a total of five hours a day of practice on the machine from June through October.” He’d wake up at 5 a.m. and do two hours before school, then practice for three hours at school from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. All that practice has paid off, and he has been busy with work ever since.

“If you ask me, I was supposed to learn how to play the saxophone to prepare me for a lifetime of writing on my machine. And here I am, almost 21 years later,” he says.


Diane HromekSome of our musicians never really thought they’d make a profession out of it, but Diane Hromek, who splits her time between Florida and Wisconsin, wanted to be a concert pianist. That meant a grueling practice schedule that included repeating classical music 15 to 20 times daily. “I was the piano soloist at Riverside-Brookfield High School in Illinois. I sometimes memorized more than 80 pages at a time,” Hromek says. But one day, her mother said something she’ll never forget: “You know, dear, you are not going to make a living doing that.”

“I was shocked!” Hromek recollects. “That’s what I thought I’d be doing.” She took what her mom said to heart. Soon thereafter, she spotted an ad in the Chicago Tribune talking about court reporting school.

“When I was 16, Mom and I, with Dad’s approval, went to visit the school. I signed up,” Hromek says. During the time she went to court reporting school, she had to stop practicing piano, which broke her heart. But since she was used to practicing the piano 3 to 5 hours a day, she put that energy into her steno machine. Those years of playing the piano, especially preparing to perform, caused Hromek to strive for perfection. “Everyone can hear if I make a mistake. That comes pretty close to writing realtime, as I do for every job. So, I believe there is a close correlation between the two,” she says.

Hromek still plays the piano, but mostly at her home. It gives her a relief from stress that builds up with life or work. “Even after many hours of writing on my steno machine or editing on my computer, even if my back is aching and my head is tired, I still find myself sitting down to play a song. In fact, ‘play a song’ is a phrase I used daily. I say to my retired husband, ‘I think I will go play a song.’ He says, ‘Go play a song.’ [But] I seldom only play one song,” she says.

Now at age 63, Hromek believes the exercise from playing the piano has given her hands and arms exceptional durability. And she fondly remembers how much she loved playing at a younger age. “When I moved away from my childhood home to Chicago, my first piece of furniture was a brand-new Chickering baby grand piano. I didn’t know how they would get it up to the 47th floor in the elevator, but they did. I bought that before I bought a bed. I knew I could always sleep on the floor, if I had to, but I couldn’t live without a piano,” she says.


Linda Breech, RPROur list of musicians wouldn’t be complete without a clarinet and guitar player. Linda Breech, RPR, from Santa Clarita, Calif., is an official reporter for the Los Angeles Superior Court. She started out with piano at age six, then moved on to clarinet and guitar in middle and high schools, where she, like Germosen, played in the marching band.

“Learning the theory of reading music and finger dexterity and coordination gave me what I needed to adapt easily to the steno keyboard,” Breech says. And the discipline built in to practice made it come naturally. “I think the musical background very likely helps to create neural pathways in the brain to process sound and have it come through the fingers more accurately,” she says. After she saw an ad for the court reporting program, Breech progressed quickly through school. She said a light bulb went off. “I was interested in law but did not want to be a lawyer. I had excellent English/grammar skills, and I had the finger dexterity from my instruments, so I took to the steno machine very easily.” She says that music is still her first love, and it’s her favorite avocation. “It helped me launch quickly into a vocation that I still enjoy 20 years later and look forward to doing for the next 20.”

After speaking with our musically inclined court reporters, we can see how a combination of finger dexterity and hand-ear coordination played a part in helping them get through school and become successful reporters. But one thing is even more evident — s ding years practicing an instrument every day set the stage for court reporting school and passing the exams. It was, in a way, knowing what to expect, having s t all that time practicing something to perfection. In other words, even with capturing the spoken word, there are no short cuts. Would Rachmaninov, Joan Jett, or Miles Davis have been great reporters? Most likely — if they practiced for hours, were dedicated and highly disciplined, and could persevere.