Cello player's fight with tinnitus – and his return for a series of concerts in Shrewsbury
Professional cellist James Barralet had a promising international career until tinnitus robbed him of his livelihood.
He’s recently been discovered busking under a bridge in Shrewsbury, and has agreed to give a series of concerts in the town this month – his first since 2019.
It’s impossible to watch clips of cellist James Barralet playing his final few gigs without tearing up, once you know his story.
A musician's ears are paramount; in the act of hearing, processing and responding to fellow players, every microsecond counts. You live or die by your entries. Come in early or late and, at best, you suffer the contempt of the other players; at worst, you’ll never get fixed again.
James' hearing has been deteriorating since he picked a nasty ear infection while swimming in a paddyfield pond on a gap year in India (he’s now 43). It left him with tinnitus that has got progressively worse. The doctors have described his hearing loss as profound in both ears. It’s a cruel and incurable condition, or a "one way street", as James describes it: “Once the hairs inside the cochlea are damaged, that's it. There’s no hope of a cure.”
James is plagued by a perpetual buzzing which has finally forced him to abandon a promising and hard-won international playing career. He only survived so long by copying the bowing of other string players: “I would look around at where people were changing their bows and change mine with it, feeling the rhythm.
“If things are just a little bit out, clarity in the moment is really hard. Frequently I didn’t know where to play. What I would then do is take the lead myself, which would frequently annoy the first violinists. That led to some run-ins.”
In this way, he hid his symptoms from fellow musicians: “I didn’t really want to use it as an excuse. I thought, 'If I can’t do the job, I can’t do the job'".
James finally admitted defeat after an especially traumatic concert with The 4Cellists in Seoul in October 2019: “We were four cellists in a row and I couldn’t hear where to play. It was massively traumatic – I basically had a nervous breakdown in front of 1,000 people. I was having to rely on visual signals to play.
“I was filling in for another member of the The 4Cellists who were playing a lot of my arrangements to good audiences in fantastic concert halls, so it should have been a highlight of my diary. Instead it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.”
James’ CV points to a pre-eminent career as a soloist, recording artist, arranger and composer. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and Die Hochschule für Musik in Basel and has a fistful of top prizes next to his name, billed as ‘one to watch’ by Gramophone magazine in 2008. He also founded the Whittington Festival in 2011 to bring world-class music to the Welsh Marches (baritone Roderick Williams OBE performed at the festival this year, fresh from The King’s Coronation). For the past three years, he has been living as a virtual hermit in a "clapped out campervan" with his border collie Caer, surrounded by sheep in the Welsh hills, having sworn never to play the cello again.
There is an obvious parallel with Beethoven, who suffered a similarly cruel and slow deterioration in his hearing over more than 20 years. The great composer was also plagued by a persistent ‘buzzing’ noise and finally went completely deaf by the age of 44, a year older than James is now.
In a letter to his family in 1802, Beethoven bemoans his "hard fate" and laments not being able to hear a flute, or a shepherd singing: “Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life. Only art it was that withheld me … and so I endured this wretched existence—truly wretched …”