Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:
Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.
It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.
While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.
In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.
And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
When I was a little girl I played the piano. I played for years and years, for hours a day. There was a time I imagined becoming a concert pianist. Even after I started losing my hearing, I continued to play the piano. I could not imagine life without music.
Early on I had a natural ear for music. I could tell three notes just by hearing alone without looking-- C, F, and G. From there I could figure other notes, and I was able to sound out songs I heard by the time I was five. If you have been hearing, you know most people cannot do this, so I was born with a special musical gift even among hearing people.
As I became deafer, I began to fear the loss of music. First, I could not hear music boxes. On our first Christmas together my husband began a tradition of giving me a music box, but by our fifth year I admitted to him I couldn’t hear them. In fact, I had never been able to hear them. Then it was the radio. Songs began to sound different. “Oldies” that I had once known as a kid didn‘t sound right. Flute solos, soprano harmony and guitar parts were missing. Finally, as the years passed and my hearing continued to decline, my own piano playing became affected.
Notes above middle - C began to sound flat. I stopped playing. I can still listen to others play the piano. It’s just that when I play, I get distracted by flat sounding notes when I know I have struck the right key. It drives me nuts.
The thing is-- I was born to make music. And dance. I still dream about music, pianos, dancing at night. . .and so. . . When I stopped playing the piano it left a big hole in my life that needed to be filled. For several years I felt depressed because there was this big missing hole. Sure-- I had other hobbies. I skiied, but only in the winter. I like photography and I read a lot. I still missed making music. One thing about my hearing-- my low tones have stayed fairly constant and I have continued to enjoy rhythm and base. So one time, when Stomp came to town I went to see them. They energized me!! I could not get them out of my mind!
Then someone told me about Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist who plays barefoot. She’s amazing!! I have never seen her live. I would love to someday. I have decided not to write much about her myself, except that she was born in Scotland in 1965 and was deafened by age 12. Her father was a musician, so she was given musical training as well. I will let her explain her own deafness and music. This is what she says about it on her webpage. You can also read more here. Evelyn Glennie's Hearing Essay
“Deafness is poorly understood in general. For instance, there is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence. To understand the nature of deafness, first one has to understand the nature of hearing.
Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body's sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb 'sentire' means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form 'sentirsi' means to feel. Deafness does not mean that you can't hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds.
If we can all feel low frequency vibrations why can't we feel higher vibrations? It is my belief that we can, it's just that as the frequency gets higher and our ears become more efficient they drown out the more subtle sense of 'feeling' the vibrations. I spent a lot of time in my youth (with the help of my school Percussion teacher Ron Forbes) refining my ability to detect vibrations. I would stand with my hands against the classroom wall while Ron played notes on the timpani (timpani produce a lot of vibrations). Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing. The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf. Profound deafness covers a wide range of symptoms, although it is commonly taken to mean that the quality of the sound heard is not sufficient to be able to understand the spoken word from sound alone. With no other sound interfering, I can usually hear someone speaking although I cannot understand them without the additional input of lip-reading. In my case the amount of volume is reduced compared with normal hearing but more importantly the quality of the sound is very poor. For instance when a phone rings I hear a kind of crackle. However, it is a distinctive type of crackle that I associate with a phone so I know when the phone rings. This is basically the same as how normally hearing people detect a phone, the phone has a distinctive type of ring which we associate with a phone. I can in fact communicate over the phone. I do most of the talking whilst the other person can say a few words by striking the transmitter with a pen, I hear this as clicks. I have a code that depends on the number of strikes or the rhythm that I can use to communicate a handful of words.
So far we have the hearing of sounds and the feeling of vibrations. There is one other element to the equation, sight. We can also see items move and vibrate. If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound. A common and ill informed question from interviewers is 'How can you be a musician when you can't hear what you are doing?' The answer is of course that I couldn't be a musician if I were not able to hear. Another often asked question is 'How do you hear what you are playing?' The logical answer to this is; how does anyone hear?. An electrical signal is generated in the ear and various bits of other information from our other senses all get sent to the brain which then processes the data to create a sound picture. The various processes involved in hearing a sound are very complex but we all do it subconsciously so we group all these processes together and call it simply listening. The same is true for me. Some of the processes or original information may be different but to hear sound all I do is to listen. I have no more idea of how I hear than you do.
You will notice that more and more the answers are heading towards areas of philosophy. Who can say that when two normally hearing people hear a sound they hear the same sound? I would suggest that everyone's hearing is different. All we can say is that the sound picture built up by their brain is the same, so that outwardly there is no difference. For me, as for all of us, I am better at certain things with my hearing than others. I need to lip-read to understand speech but my awareness of the acoustics in a concert venue is excellent. For instance, I will sometimes describe an acoustic in terms of how thick the air feels.
To summarize, my hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me. There are a couple of inconveniences but in general it doesn't affect my life much. For me, my deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes. Sure, I sometimes have to find solutions to problems related to my hearing and music but so do all musicians. Most of us know very little about hearing, even though we do it all the time. Likewise, I don't know very much about deafness, what's more I'm not particularly interested. I remember one occasion when uncharacteristically I became upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions only about my deafness. I said: 'If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My speciality is music".
And so, it was about a year and a half ago, someone asked if I wanted to join a "drum circle." I craved a musical outlet, but I had never tapped a drum in my life. Would this be weird. I wondered? My children had been accusing me of acting weird ever since they became teenagers. I thought and thought, then I remembered Evelyn Glennie!!! Not only is she a middle-aged woman who plays drums, but she's also Deaf! Because I work in a library I checked out a book on djembes, which are the drums used in drum circles. Then I started researching on-line. Next I went to a music store to find out about drum circles in my area. I guess it was meant to be, because the store was having a drum sale and I found a beautiful little djembe for an extremely good price. Now I am taking djembe lessons.
Also because djembes are used as accompaniment for belly-dancing, I sort of got hooked up with that as well. So now you know why Evelyn Glennie is special to me.
This is my djembe sitting next to my empty piano bench. Isn't it cute?? It was made in Indonesia, and is very small and light. Perfect for me because I do not have big hands and could not carry a heavy drum. I also have bongos and just bought some marachas in Mexico. Last night my daughter came home and we jammed a little. FUN!
The drum also provides good exercise. I have learned drum circles are being used for meditational/spiritual healing. Beating on a drum requires much concentration. I've been in love since I started playing it.