Ben Newman / Harriet Chen
Rachel Grosz climbs on her indoor bike and hits play. In front of a packed class, the Cyc Fitness Austin “cycologist” begins leading her devotees through 45 minutes of sweat-drenching cycling, pumping her crazy toned legs to Muse’s heavy beats.
“I live for my music,” says Rachel, 23, who is legally deaf.
As a baby, a virus-related fever blew both of her eardrums, leaving her completely deaf in her left ear and destroying 90 percent of the hearing in her right ear.
So how do you teach a music-focused class when you can’t hear it like everyone else? You feel the bass. “Generally, the beat of the song can be found in the bass, so I pick a lot of bass-heavy music for my classes,” says Rachel, who takes out her hearing aid before every class so that, rather than picking up a mush of sounds from around the room, she can focus on the bass notes.
“It’s just me and the beat.”
Feeling the Music
When Rachel was three years old, she saw The Nutcracker and told her mom she wanted to become a dancer. She loved the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the ballerinas’ purple tutus.
Rachel’s doctor advised against her dancing because the damage to her inner ear canal would disrupt her balance—a warning that Rachel’s mom never told her about until years later.
“When you are little, you adapt,” says Rachel. “You’re a sponge.” (Rachel is still unsure exactly how she followed the music as a young dancer, though.) “The music became so instilled in me that I didn’t have to think about it.”
She stopped dancing during her sophomore year of college due to an increasingly cutthroat culture, and she started to miss expressing herself with her body. So she took up running, participating in 5-Ks, then a half-marathon, then a full marathon.
Then, she found cycling. “Cycling combines my love for fitness and dancing and fills that void,” she says. “In class, I’m basically dancing on a bike.”
Rachel credits dancing with a lot of her beat-keeping abilities on the bike, too: “There are some portions of my classes where the bass stops and I can’t hear the treble notes. I keep that same beat, and when the bass comes back in, I am still in sync with the tempo.”
Fun fact: Rachel’s classes are known for their playlists, which she DJs herself. (Check out her playlists at soundcloud.com.)
Doing so takes a lot more work than it does for most other DJs. “I go through music like everyone else,” she says. “I can hear pretty similarly to most people when I have headphones in.” The right headphone plays directly into her right hearing aid (she only wears that one since her right ear is the one that still has 10 percent of her hearing). “I just don’t pick up the treble notes as well.”
However, when she plays music over a speaker or the cycling studio’s sound system, most of a song’s notes disappear for her, meaning she has to run a speaker-check prior to every class to make sure that she can follow the beats that do remain.
She also looks up the lyrics of every song she likes before playing it in class. “Sometimes, I’ll love a song’s beat, but then once I read the lyrics, I’m like, ‘This probably isn’t appropriate,’” laughs Rachel, who relies on lip reading to understand what others say. That’s something you don’t get with music tracks. “I am never certain what the riders can hear of what I am saying because I am unable to discriminate between the volume of the music and the volume of my voice,” she says. “I have to be intentional in making sure the message of the music’s lyrics align with my message for the class in case they can’t hear what I am saying over the song.”
Finding Your Own Beat
From time to time, though, Rachel will turn down the music to chat with her riders about what’s holding them back—and how to let it push them forward. “Why do we compare ourselves to others? How can we change that?” she asks them.
“People come to my class for a lot of different reasons, but everyone in the class is dealing with something or has an obstacle in their life, and I can relate in that way,” she says. “I want every class to inspire the riders to push through those obstacles.”
“I give 100 percent to every single one of my riders in every single one of my classes, and that is mostly because I am so proud of what I am capable of doing in there. If I am doing it, so can they.”
Watch Rachel in action in this clip:
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