By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Teen overcomes hearing impairment to fulfill dream

Ben-Han Sung, 15, reads over music before his piano lesson at Mark Richman's Sherman Oaks home.

April 8, 2008/Ventura County Star

At age 3, Ben-Han Sung was clinically diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears.

Now 15, the violinist and piano player is among a select group of five young musicians who have been chosen to perform as Discovery Artists with the New West Symphony Orchestra.

"Ben has developed his talent and gift for music, and excelled in playing both the piano and violin despite physical disabilities that might have discouraged most young people," said Nelson Dodge, executive director of New West Symphony.

A ninth-grader, Ben-Han is concertmaster of the Harvard-Westlake Middle School Symphony Orchestra and the California Association of Independent School Honor Festival String Orchestra, and served the same role for the Los Angeles Unified School District Honor Orchestra in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

He has also won top honors in competitions with groups, including the Music Teachers' Association of California, the California Association of Professional Music Teachers and the American String Teachers Association.

"Ben-Han is a very positive-minded young man who focuses on his abilities, not his disability," Dodge said. "He is a great example of what can be accomplished with a positive attitude."

Music teacher Mark Richman remembers the first time that he heard Ben-Han play a few measures on the piano. "I could tell that, even at this young age and even with his hearing disability, I was in the presence of a major talent who, if encouraged in the right direction, could have a successful career in music," said Richman, who graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in piano.

When he thinks of Ben-Han, he does not think of someone with a disability.

"What makes him stand out are his unique musical gifts and innate sensitivity toward classical music, coupled with an eagerness to learn and a quick ability to make changes and improvements in his playing," Richman said.

Ben-Han is a positive role model because of his solid work ethic — a quality that seems to be lost with most of the younger generation, Richman added. "Kids today want something for nothing, and almost always what they want is material in some way," he said. "They want to get into the best colleges not for the joy of learning but hoping to get the highest-paying job when they finish.

"I think Ben-Han can be a great inspiration and role model to his peers in that he works very hard to get the results that he has achieved," Richman said. "His sensitivity to music is a wonder to behold and listen to, and his playing often achieves a spiritual depth that all great music should have."

Music has been a constant part of Ben-Han's life, starting when he was very young.

Ben-Han, born and raised in Pasadena and now living in Lake View Terrace, said, "My parents would always put on CDs at home, and my mom would rock me or pat me to the music while holding me in her arms."

Before he took a single music lesson, he watched his older sister, Ben-Zhen, perform on the piano, and frequently attended her recitals.

"I had lots of chances to listen to many musical instruments," said Ben-Han, who developed a special love for the violin. "I really like the tone of the instrument and all the great pieces that were composed for it."

He particularly remembers listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and pretending to play violin to the music.

"My parents noticed my attraction to violin and decided to let me take private lessons," he said.

Wearing a pair of behind-the-ear hearing aids, he started taking violin lessons before age 4 and, about six months later, took up the piano.

Looking back, "I believe that whatever talent I may have is a gift from God," Ben-Han said. "I'm also really lucky to have an abundance of support from my family, doctors and all my enthusiastic teachers — not only my music teachers but also schoolteachers, speech therapists and my hard-of-hearing teachers."

Medically speaking, Ben-Han is moderately to severely hard of hearing, not profoundly deaf.

"My hearing gets worse at higher frequencies," he said.

His hearing also is affected by background noise, battery power and other factors that affect how well he hears throughout the day.

"Without hearing aids, I can't hear normal indoor conversation at a distance of 3 to 5 feet," he said. "If aided, I can pick up at best 80 to 90 percent of normal conversation in a clinical soundproof setting."

Learning to play violin and piano required a lot of coaching at home and during music lessons, he said. "Learning music is a long, ongoing process, and I adjust as I learn, and improve."

Living with hearing loss since birth, he said, "this is my experience; I can't really compare how hearing loss has affected my ability since I never experienced normal hearing."

For Ben-Han, playing music is a joy that comes naturally.

"It's also a great way for me to channel my emotions," he said. "I have great joy when I know people like my playing. Music is simply an important part of my life."

Music aside, he enjoys chatting with friends online, playing video games and "typical teenage activities in general," he said.

In the future, he hopes to attend Stanford University and do his graduate studies at a music conservatory.

"For my career, I definitely want to be a musician, whether as a member of an orchestra, soloist or even as a teacher," Ben-Han said.

Dodge believes that the boy will accomplish anything he sets his mind to: "Ben-Han has already learned that challenges are simply things to be worked out in order to achieve one's goals."

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