Meet The Partially Deaf Musician Sharing the Joy of Homemade Music

What do you call someone who can play the banjo, guitar, and harmonica? Talented.

What do you call someone who can play the banjo, guitar, and harmonica who also happens to be deaf? Incredible. And that’s exactly what Patrick Costello is, an incredible example of what the human spirit can achieve when determination overcomes adversity. An incredible inspiration of the power of perseverance when it’s all too easy to give up. Patrick Costello’s story is the stuff Lifetime movies are made of.

Joseph Patrick Costello III - or Patrick to his students - is a teacher, musician, and YouTuber. He uses YouTube as a platform to help teach the joys of music to thousands around the web, specializing in teaching five-string banjo and acoustic guitar.

Music was a part of Costello’s life from a young age.  Perhaps it was his environment or perhaps it was fate, but a series of poignant events occurred before he was even eleven years old that solidified Costello’s musical destiny.  

When Patrick Costello was young, his mother gave him a harmonica, igniting his passion for music after a few toots. His mom said, “This is music. If you have music you can go anywhere in the world and you will never be alone.” According to Costello, “Those words have been in my mind and imagination ever since.”

As if those words were foreshadowing young Patrick Costello’s future, not long after, another significant moment occurred. “A young blind woman visited my third-grade classroom to talk to us about how she worked around her handicap in day-to-day life. By this point my hearing was bad so I didn’t pay attention to her presentation until she brought out a Guild guitar and got the class involved in a sing-along,” Costello explained.

He continued, “It was a life-changing moment for me because here was this lovely woman who our teacher said was handicapped, but with a guitar in her hands she was so powerful. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a musician. You see, music is a language. Not in terms of communicating data, but for sharing emotions. I can’t use music to order a cup of coffee, but I can use music to share how it feels to wrap your hands around a hot mug of coffee on a cold morning. There are only twelve notes, but there are infinite rhythms and there are countless ways to phrase a note to convey what I feel through my instrument.”

They are patient with me when I stop to listen to rain or crickets.

Part of the reason these past experiences were so impactful for Costello is because of his near deafness. “I have conductive hearing loss. That means the inner ear mechanics that transmit sound from the eardrum to the auditory nerve have failed,” Costello explained. For any burgeoning musician, you’ll know that hearing is fairly essential to developing technical skills.  Feeling particularly frustrated one day, he rested his head on the instrument in despair, and realized he could finally hear the instrument. Costello explained, “After some trial and error I found that my teeth gave me the best results. I worked around [near deafness] by resting my teeth on the upper bout of my guitar. As I played the sound, vibrations of the instrument would travel through my teeth, through my skull and eventually wind up reaching my auditory nerves through bone conduction,” said Costello.

In addition to using bone-conduction, Costello had a lot of support from his immensely talented family. “Music brought me closer to my father. He let me lean on him at jam sessions and performances by playing rhythm on the tenor banjo. Even when I couldn’t hear myself playing I could watch the rhythm of my father’s hand and use that as a reference point. We have been through so many adventures together [from] performers, festival organizers, theater managers, disk jockeys and now Internet-based music teachers.”

However, by 2007 Costello was nearly completely deaf, and struggling to hear any of the music he was playing.  In 2009, Costello decided it was time to pursue surgical options, and had a bone-anchored hearing aid installed at Johns Hopkins. “In my situation, the surgery was abnormally difficult. In addition to the bone-anchored hearing aids, the surgeons at Johns Hopkins had to deal with the infections that had destroyed my hearing. It took five operations and I got so sick it nearly killed me.” Costello continued, “it took a long time to recover from all of that, and on top of everything, there were other medical issues in addition to my ears. So right now I am just getting back on my feet. The support from my wife and family has been amazing. They are patient with me when I stop to listen to rain or crickets.”

While Costello’s musical journey is incredible, it’s a reminder to us non-musical people that those ‘stop and smell the roses’ moments in life are not to be taken for granted. It’s also a reminder of just how amazing modern technology can be outside of our constant social media streams. “I love being able to finally hear bass lines. I have a little Bluetooth device that allows me to stream music directly into my bone anchored hearing aids.” Technology is incredible. Costello continued, “Hearing in stereo is amazing. I listen to a crazy mix of music, bouncing from hard rock to Ray Charles to early jazz and back to the headbanger stuff. I love it all.”

So what’s next for the phenomenon? “Since posting my first video back in 2006 I have been able to help an amazing number of banjo and guitar students. Now, more than ten years and over 700 videos later, I am starting all over again so that folks beginning today have a resource that will walk them through the early stages all the way up to advanced musical concepts and techniques. I have learned so much over the past ten years, so I am thrilled to continue teaching and sharing the joy of homemade music.”