Music is magic // Music makes your ears bigger

The musical world I inhabit is indeed a rich one. I get to wear many hats as a musician: conductor, clarinetist, saxophonist, educator. It is an exhausting and exhilarating vocation and one I cannot imagine my life without. Through music I have made my best friends and built a wonderful home, littered with instruments and endless musical pursuits. I have travelled the world and through sharing music, formed friendships with those of different language and culture.

Music has this magical power to form community and friendship. It demands you to become a better listener- it teaches you to listen attentively to the other and to ourselves. In rehearsal and performance this is true, but also in the to-ing and fro-ing of everyday life. It helps us to connect and it helps us to be human.

The following poem displayed on the wall of a music studio I taught in, was written by a young musician-poet. The final lines highlight in child-like wonder this profound truth. There is indeed connection between the pursuit of music and the virtue of attentive listening.

Music is magic. Music makes your ears bigger.

……….

I knew something was wrong when my colleagues sang a melody together.

“What are you both singing?”

They thought I was joking- they were singing along with the choir next door. I laughed it off but no matter how hard I strained I couldn’t hear a thing.

Months later I built up the courage to book an appointment. And so at age 30, my audiologist explained to me I had moderate bilateral hearing loss. I have a reverse slope audiogram which is quite rare. My high frequencies are fine, it is my low and mid frequencies that are affected, making it the opposite of the hearing loss experienced by most people. The reason for my hearing loss is currently unknown – at first Meniere’s Disease was suggested as my Grandfather  suffered the disease, but I haven’t shown enough symptoms to receive that label. Perhaps Auto-immune? Allergies? Or just plain bad luck and a genetic malfunction. Without a label, its tricky to map out the rate of future deterioration. I hope it is slow- even better, stopped.

As I prepare to have my first hearing aid fitted, I thought I might write about my experiences along the way.

I have ridden an emotional roller coaster this year trying to wrap my head around what this means. I have and continue to grieve music lost and fear the possibility of losing more in the future. At times I am filled with anxiety about my career – what on earth would a deaf music teacher do? But grief and anxiety have also been accompanied by a strange excitement and thrill about what might be around the corner- life has me in it’s grips and I have absolutely no idea where it will take me! At my desk I have a book of poetry propped up to remind me of this: Clive James’ Sentenced to Life. The title of the collection, taken from his poem of the same title has become a bit of a motto this year.

My passion for Music Education has grown immensely as I have wrestled with my new reality. For it is my musical literacy and knowledge which brings lost notes lingering in the shadows into full light. Thanks to my many teachers I will be able to read, play and enjoy music for the rest of my days. Missing pieces in the puzzle I hear, are filled, perhaps not perfectly but filled all the same to create a whole. I trace the patterns and sense musical gestures- my mind and memory completing soft and gentle harmonies lost on my ears. Without my musical experiences from a young age, this would not be possible.

Overwhelmingly I have felt gratitude. Gratitude because if my hearing disappears tomorrow I have had thirty years of a life brimming with it. I have studied it day in and out, working diligently at it’s craft. Through it I have learnt much about the world, humanity and myself. It has nourished my spiritual and emotional life and been fertile ground upon which many of my dearest friendships have grown.

Music is a gift and one I have enjoyed receiving over and over. Alon Tal, Grade Two was right. Music is magic, it has made my ears bigger. I am so thankful to share in it.

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So the palm faces

For Christmas my brother Nathan gave me Lucky Day, a book of poems by Richard Price. A fabulous gift!

I happened upon Price’s poetry whilst hunting for another poem online. I read a little of his background and I was hooked. His collection of poems “Hand Held”, I found particularly moving. Price has a daughter with Angelman Syndrome, and this collection explores the triumphs and difficulties of life with his daughter Katie. As Katie is non-verbal, sign language plays an important role in their communication and understanding of one another.

Below are two of his poems which reflect on formal sign language and non-verbal communication.

So the palm faces 

adapted from The Dictionary of British Sign Language / English

The left hand is held so the palm faces the signer,

the fingers pointing right.

The right hand is held palm facing the signer,

fingers pointing left.

The hands are held in front of the chest, at an angle

so the fingers are all turned up.

The back of the right hand is held

against the palm of the left.

The hands remain together

making a short movement towards the signer

so the right palm touches the chest.

affection

love

The taps just flow hot and cold

Tonight, we dribble, we slur, we stutter-

mumbler Price, and his priceless daughter, the spit.

Mute? Don’t mention it- we hardly ever.

We just mutter and gasp, and laugh-

Katie’s singing when she’s bah-ing in the bath,

and we are champions of grin, champions of lisp.

We are champions- of the trembling lip.

Let’s dry yourself now.

Here.

The simplicity and beauty in So the palm faces did a real number on me. As I reflected on my struggles and impatience in learning a new language, I was reminded of Auslan’s beauty and was filled with fresh desire to get back to practice! The context of Price’s connection to sign language- communication with his daughter who has intellectual disabilities was further inspiration for me to keep learning.

One of my greatest concerns living with hearing loss, is the added difficulty in understanding my Uncle Peter who has an intellectual disability. We have a very close relationship and often go travelling together, exploring various Australian destinations as well as enjoying overseas adventures to New Zealand and the UK. (We are currently planning our next trip to Sweden!) My hearing has been vital in communicating with Pete as his literacy is limited and his speech quite difficult to decipher. Further, Pete and my involvement with local L’Arche communities involves communication with many friends who struggle to speak and be understood.

Reading this  poem and thinking over my friendships with people who have intellectual disability, I was made aware of how much informal ‘signing’ already takes place. I am forever astounded at Pete’s creativity and patience when communicating with me. If I don’t understand what he is saying, he will act out the motion, or grab his Ipad to show me a picture. Our friends who are non-verbal at L’Arche use touch, pictures, informal signs and gestures for communication. This is exactly how my Auslan teacher instructs our beginner classes! It is a reminder that language is shaped by the needs of the community and it is not only the Deaf who use sign to communicate.

I am so grateful for this collection of poems. “Mumbler Price, and his priceless daughter”  have reminded me of the broad language already at play in my community of family and friends. I have found the beginner Auslan course quite challenging but learning to sign, and communicate creatively and patiently are lessons that Uncle Pete and L’Arche have been teaching me for a long time.

Learning to be a more present listener, attentive observer and creative communicator are very long and very slow lessons- but I know I will get there thanks to my wonderful teachers.

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Kickin’ round Cambridge with Uncle Pete on holiday, Dec 2014.

Song Without Words- an excellent memoir by Gerald Shea

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there isn’t a great load of books to read about the relationship between Music and Deaf culture, nor about deaf/hard of hearing students learning and playing music. When I stumbled upon this book, it grabbed my attention because it’s title is borrowed from the composer Mendelssohn’s work of the same name.

Gerald Shea is not a professional musician- he is a lawyer, who discovers that he is partially deaf in his mid thirties. He is however a music enthusiast who plays piano and is a keen singer. Shea’s memoir is entertaining and well written, providing great insight into the invisible struggles of people living with different levels of hearing loss in an oral culture.

Whilst Shea lost his hearing aged six due to Scarlet Fever, he was not diagnosed until he was thirty four. He survives through what he terms his “language of lyricals”. Hearing only vowels he would make out words through lip reading, awareness of gesture, and following the meter and contour of the lyrical thereby unlocking it’s meaning. At times when recounting conversations he transcribes his lyricals, sharing his methods to uncover the intended meaning. Shea’s reflections on the poetry of these lyricals are both beautiful and compelling, making connections between his perception of the language around him and the poetic language of James Joyce.

He writes:

“There is poetry in lyricals as well, though they are not a formal language. They have an intrinsic unconscious beauty, one that writers of our spoken tongue consciously seek in their own prose or poetry. They are the reverse of writing, such as James Joyce’s “the berginsoff, bergamoors, bergagambols, bergincellies, and country-bossed bergones,” in which the word variations that I call lyricals are planned. The partially deaf have, as I read one day after setting down my lyricals here, our mourningsides for the artist’s of a thirsty mournin, our tie tear wassails for Joyce’s “wassaily Booslaeugh,” our clearasil sung for his “clear all so”! There is a common grace at the artist’s end and our beginning. We start with our lyricals, and Joyce leads us to his. Each of us has or is given his ultimate tongue; a poet’s words become fixed as poetry, and our lyricals are transformed into a common prose. But I envy Joyce and other writers the luxury of their deliberate wordplay, for lyricals are not a conscious poetry, and when they arise in the commerce of necessity, they can be a hellish experience.”

This topsy-turvy experience of language is indeed poetic and I imagine incredibly tiresome. My personal experience is very different from Shea’s as my loss is not as severe, also hearing in complete inversion having lost the opposite end of the aural spectrum. As I hear consonants clearly and struggle with soft vowels, hearing and understanding others is relatively easy providing there is not too much background noise. But in noisy restaurants and classrooms I experience similar difficulties, my mind racing to sort through rhymes, reading gestures and lip movements in order to glean understanding. I hope that Shea’s reading of poetry into these moments, might ease my frustration, even if only a little- when I get lost in translation.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I was impressed with how Shea weaves his personal and professional narratives into his reflections on hearing loss. Whilst the book has much to offer those with a dodgy audiogram reading like myself, it also has much to teach those with perfect hearing who wish to understand more about what life is like living with hearing loss. Perhaps most importantly, the memoir champions life despite it’s difficulties, an encouragement every person needs for a reality we all share.

My highlight in reading this book is Shea recounting a conversation with a hearing specialist following an impromptu performance of the first of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”:

The specialist begins,

“I—have a theory about the deaf and music. To take a preeminent example, you can hear Beethoven’s deafness in his music.” “The low notes—” “Well, they’re certainly there, but it’s perhaps not so much the lows—it may be the highs that you have to listen for—that he heard with such difficulty, that he missed so profoundly. Music for the deaf, for the partially deaf, in my clinical experience, appears to supplant the music others hear in words themselves, the fullness of each word and of all of them together. Music is not a language, but it has overwhelming immune if a tic fours.” a tic tic icatica icative imunica—communicative force. “Mendelssohn himself said it about what you just played. When a friend offered to write words for it, he emphasized that the music expressed ideas not ‘too indefinite’ to put into words but, on the contrary, ‘too definite.’ That’s why you find it—why Edison, to take another example, though he was not a musician, found it—” “Irresistible.”

Throughout the memoir I was reminded of my late grandfather who wore hearing aids for most of his life, and in later years- a cochlear implant. Exhausted, he would often turn off his devices in noisy environments and give up trying to converse. In quieter spaces, he would work away at his own broken lyricals, piecing together my stories from school and asking me to repeat my questions loudly and directly into his ear before he could answer. The above excerpt regarding the role of music for the partially deaf is particularly meaningful in memory of my Pop. Despite Pop’s difficulties hearing, visiting my grandparents would always begin with opening the car door at the curb and hearing opera resonating from deep inside the house. Following the music I would find Pop sitting in the lounge room bent over the latest Limelight magazine, that irresistible music coating every wall of the room and feeding every fibre in his body.

In praise of the internet…

Some people have great self discipline and patience when they are awaiting medical results. They can push it out of their mind, and just get on with life in the meantime. They find a lump, and it is just a lump until the doctor gives the verdict. Their headaches are likely from dehydration not a brain tumour and their sore foot just needs a rest and not amputation.

I wish I was that person. I am the furthest thing from it- a complete hypochondriac who rips open X-rays and MRI scans addressed to the doctor and lives for self diagnosis via Web MD. My housemate Phillippa is probably the only other person who can rival me in this. On the occasions we have shared sickness, you might find us curled up on the couch diagnosing one another with the most awful possibilities and approximating how many months, weeks or days we have left to live.

With such tendencies, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that after my diagnosis, I again turned to trusty Web MD to solve the mystery since I had to wait for 3- 4 months to see the specialist. In those months I spent every spare minute searching for symptoms and looking for a label. Perhaps this is the first time my anxiety was truly valid. I need my hearing – for work, for music, for me.

My anxieties were many. Beyond the obvious concerns of what ghastly disease has caused this, I had many concerns about my future. What will I do with my life? How will I experience music- perhaps my greatest joy? Will I even be able to learn Auslan having failed miserably at my attempts to learn German and French?

I began to form back up career plans where hearing is not necessary: professional dog walker (probably the second best career after music), instrument repairer (but as I was not so kindly reminded by my housemate -I can’t even build an IKEA desk), or perhaps a tea connoisseur (not too shabby a choice!)

I read everything I could find about the experiences of musicians with hearing loss. The trials and tribulations of fitting hearing aids or learning to listen through a cochlear. I discovered that going deaf is far from the world becoming silent- in ways it becomes noisier thanks to tinnitus and it’s piercing ringing. The tinnitus that plagues me rustling away like shiny tin foil before striking strong and sustained bell tones would likely become more prevalent drowning out any pleasure found in silence. Perhaps the worst possible thing I did was listen to a piano played through a cochlear simulator. That left me in utter despair.

It was hard to be positive when everything I read seemed like a terrible battle which you ultimately lose. A year prior I had written a paper on disability, completing ethnographic research into L’Arche communities (people with and without intellectual disability living in intentional community) in conjunction with the philosophy and theology of the federation’s founder Jean Vanier. My time spent with L’Arche and the study of Vanier taught me much about how society disables a person rather than the loss or impairment itself. I knew this theory well- I understood it and I believed it. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that my case was different- good hearing is vital to engage with and enjoy music.

My frantic internet search revealed many awful realities but eventually uncovered a treasure- a treasure in the form of an essay which I read a thousand times over. An essay which filled me with hope, wonder and intrigue.

The essay “The cochlear switch” https://aeon.co/essays/a-deaf-musician-and-poet-receives-a-cochlear-implant written by musician, music educator and poet Josephine Dickinson yanked me from gloomy despair and filled me with encouragement. Perhaps it is because she is so wonderfully gifted with words, and poetry is perfect for engaging with paradox. Her writing filled me with energy for the future, and a musical one at that. I had found a fellow traveller: someone who loves and teaches music, and does so profoundly deaf.

Armed with this essay, I began my quest to pursue music despite my hearing loss. I read about the work of Danny Lane and the charity “Music and the Deaf” in the UK, I made contact with Karen Kyriakou a Melbourne based musician and educator who specialises in teaching music to the deaf and hearing impaired, I watched deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk on repeat and I listened to a stack of late Beethoven.

It is true that the internet has caused me endless anxiety from self diagnosis on WebMD. It has destroyed true community and friendship as we settle for speedily scrolling through facebook feeds and it streams music into our ears at ridiculous volumes, deafening us. The internet has left us worse off in many respects. But here, the internet has won. A sheep farming poet on the other side of the world posted an essay about music, and it helped me to get up and start walking a path toward hope and purpose.