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Vol. LXII, No. 11
May 28, 2010

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Reinventing Himself Yet Again
Hard of Hearing Computer Whiz Revives His Passion for Guitar

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Music has almost always been a part of Charles Mokotoff’s life—almost, because for many years the highly skilled musician kept his guitar and talents tucked in the back of a closet.

He began reading music in third grade when he learned to play the French horn. Later, in high school, he did what many young men in the 1970s did: he grew his hair long and played guitar in a rock band.

But one day, at age 15, he woke up and could barely hear. He had experienced a profound hearing loss, overnight. Doctors said it may have been due to a virus or to taking antibiotics to combat ear infections. Whatever the cause, his hearing was not coming back. He used his long hair to cover the hearing aid he wore in order to hear much of anything at all, and continued to play guitar, practicing over and over to be sure he got it right.


He left band life when he got to college and discovered the beauty of playing solo classical guitar. It became his major and he went on to earn a master’s degree in guitar performance. He was so successful, he turned professional, teaching, recording, touring the world and playing such legendary venues as Carnegie Hall.

But in the early 1990s, after playing professionally for nearly 20 years, the lifestyle had begun to wear on him. Having felt he’d accomplished everything he could, he packed up his guitar and searched for a different path in life, something that would allow him to feel that his hearing loss wasn’t such a novelty for those meeting him.

“Thanks to the Internet, I can record a piece at 5 o’clock in the morning when I get up, link to it on a discussion board, and by the time I get home from work, people all over the world will have chimed in and told me what they think. How cool is that?”  

He decided to follow the growing computer trend and began working with Gallaudet University on technology and digital communications. Looking back, he realizes what a fortunate decision it was.

“Deaf people are the ultimate consumers of digital content. We were using the Internet much before everyone else,” he said. “I backed the right horse.”

Mokotoff remembers giving a lecture in 1994 to the Maryland State Association of the Deaf and telling the audience they should really pay attention to this new thing called the World Wide Web. He gave examples of how it could change their lives.

“You won’t have to go into the car dealership anymore or do this fax stuff. You’ll be able to do your research online,” he recalls saying. “How ’bout that?”

Not only was Gallaudet at the forefront of Internet technology, but also it was one of the first campuses to use email extensively. It was also a prime community to explore what would eventually become texting. Mokotoff was in the middle of it all.

“We had two-way pagers before anyone even dreamed of texting on a hand-held phone,” he said. “When I had been at NIH a while, I went back to see the CIO at the time. I walked into his office with a Blackberry and told him everyone’s going to be using these things. He wasn’t convinced yet.”

Charles Mokotoff performs at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

Charles Mokotoff performs at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

After Gallaudet, Mokotoff joined NIH to provide Mac support and soon began working on web projects, intranets, two-way pagers and using the web to replace outdated client server technology. He was on board when the Division of Computer Research and Technology became CIT. He’s been here 15 years and still favors Macs over PCs.

About 5 years ago, when his son was away at summer camp, Mokotoff, a single dad raising two children, ages 12 and 15, realized he was bored.

“There was a big hole there,” he said. “I knew all this music in my head, and there was this one particular piece in my mind that I thought, ‘If I played again I would definitely do that, I could play that piece. I wonder if I can remember it.’”

So he reached into the back of his closet and pulled out his guitar, the same one he’d used all over the world, and started to play.

“Other than having to change the strings, it sounded pretty good, and starting to play again was really an amazing experience,” said Moko-toff, who had played barely a note in more than 15 years. “Technically, I was not that far off. It’s like the bike-riding thing.”

He started uploading to the Internet recordings of himself playing some of his old repertoire in order to get feedback. Everyone who posted comments kept encouraging him and telling him to start performing again.

Since taking the guitar back up, Mokotoff has played at churches and community centers, at the mansion at Strathmore and with the NIH Philharmonic. He’s done some traveling, but generally only on the Eastern seaboard.

At a recent performance at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in the District, he played a concert that included a three-movement piece by Mozart that he had adapted from a work originally scored for wind trio, the four-movement Temptation of the Renaissance by Czech composer Štepán Rak, and music by several Spanish composers that conjured up, in the small stone church, all the high drama of bullfighting and flamenco dancing. The program made mention of his hearing loss, but no one would have known had it not said so.

He hugged the instrument close and rocked ever so slightly, sometimes nodding his head to the beat and tapping his foot, but always paying attention to his left hand as it raced across the neck’s frets. With no amplification, Mokotoff coaxed a constant swell of sound from the guitar, like an ocean rushing ashore in an ever-changing melodic tempo.

He has several other concert dates coming up and also plans to play a big concert in New York City to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this fall. Mokotoff likes knowing that his music is inspiring to others with hearing loss and to fellow players who’ve returned to music after years of being away from it. Most of these people may not have found him had it not been for the Internet.

“Many of my best guitar buddies, unfortunately, don’t live anywhere near me,” he said. “But thanks to the Internet, I can record a piece at 5 o’clock in the morning when I get up, link to it on a discussion board, and by the time I get home from work, people all over the world will have chimed in and told me what they think. How cool is that?” NIHRecord Icon

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