Relax your ears

Springfield native Joel Styzens in concert May 10

Joel Styzens grew up in Springfield surrounded by music and started drum lessons at the age of nine. A part-time job in sales at the House of Music led to him teaching drums when he was 15. He went on to a professional career in music and has taught at the renowned Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago for over 20 years. At 7 p.m. May 10 he will present a concert at Central Baptist Church, 504 S. Fourth Street, featuring music from his new album, Resonance. He will also perform at Millikin University in Decatur May 9. The Guardian named Resonance a "Top 10 contemporary album of 2023."

click to enlarge Relax your ears
Joel Styzens rehearsing with members of the ATLYS quartet.

Increasingly, we live in a fast-moving world that is noisy and chaotic. Styzens creates intimate, colorfully rich music that is presented in an accessible form that encourages pause, reflection and helps people to de-noise, relax, soothe and recharge. According to his website, his ensemble "performs a neo-classical music that blends the rhythmic sensibilities and nuance of a jazz drummer and the texturally rich and dynamic emotion of classical and world music."

Styzens is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer, recording artist, educator and hearing conservation advocate specializing in piano, hammered dulcimer, drums, percussion and guitar. He graduated from Ursuline Academy in Springfield and Millikin University, where he studied music business with an emphasis on percussion and drum set. He took accounting, marketing, business theory and history and played in a variety of bands, from jazz combos to rock bands. He played with faculty and with bands outside of school. As a teenager, Styzens also had the opportunity to play with musicians 10-15 years his senior. He says there is no better way to learn than to play with older musicians. Although Styzens was exposed to a wide variety of music genres, he specialized as a drummer.

As a child Styzens was always tapping on random, everyday things. His mother, Deborah Brothers of Springfield, who was also musically inclined and played the dulcimer, recognized that he was good rhythmically, which led to him taking drum lessons. He also dabbled on guitar and piano, but drums were his forte. He grew up listening to his stepfather, Bill Furry of Petersburg, play the guitar, banjo and fiddle and went to many folk and bluegrass festivals. He played with garage rock bands and, after college, moved to Chicago in 2003 where he played gigs as a drummer. Styzens says that for musicians, rhythm is often the weakest link.

On Jan. 26, 2006, Styzens' life changed. He was 24. The date is burned into his memory. He woke up with violent ringing in his ears. The sound of water from a faucet, airplanes overhead, birds chirping, even his own voice bothered him. He was diagnosed with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (intense sensitivity to everyday sounds). Severe ear infections as a child, coupled with the intensity of drumming, led to his hearing issues. He sought professional help and audiotherapy. The constant A-sharp ringing in his ears ended his professional drumming career. He could neither teach nor play the instrument and music that he loved.

Two pathways lay before him – either sink into a dark pit with no idea of what that entailed, or recommit to a new way forward. He discovered his voice as a composer. He picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing his own lower-volume acoustic music, incorporating his life experiences as a musician. He was exposed to folk and bluegrass as a child, became a rock drummer in high school and experienced jazz and world music in college. "The way I write draws on all of that," says Styzens. Relax Your Ears was his first album. He also was inspired by his own experiences to create the Chicago Tinnitus Support Group, which grew to more than 100 members. Styzens not only writes music, but he has also done film composing and film scoring.

"My ear problems gave me the opportunity to do music that I hadn't focused on previously," said Styzens. "I made a goal to make as many good and positive things happen so I wouldn't look back and wish it didn't happen." Certain sounds still hurt, such as a baby crying and car horns. However, he says that everything important and that he's now thankful for, including meeting his wife, may not have happened if he had not experienced hearing problems.

When he composes music, Styzens writes the foundation at either a piano or with a guitar and writes the string parts by singing. He then collaborates with other musicians who apply their own creativity to expand upon the foundation he has composed. Styzens describes his most recent album as more layered and lusher with more strings, exploring a wider dynamic range. "I offer my music as part of your interactive landscape with the hope you will pause, reflect and see yourself an essential part of our beautiful and chaotic world," writes Styzens. "When an experience, a relationship, a word, or a sound resonates with us, we remember it because we feel it deeply. Resonance happens from the smallest exchanges to the most awe-inspiring moments. Each has the potential to transform us, individually and collectively. These 16 pieces grew from some of my most resonant experiences."

The new Resonance album is available for purchase at It comes with attractive packaging, a detailed 16-page booklet that explains the inspiration for the compositions and a fold-out poster. "It's the kind of high-quality and therapeutic album that music lovers can deeply listen to and it's also an album that can be very useful for a wide range of things like yoga, meditation, cooking and study," Styzens writes on his website. "And because of my varied background and influence, it can be an album enjoyed by people who love all genres of music."

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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