If there's one thing I know I deafinitely cannot hear, it's whistling. And I know this because FJM whistles a lot and to me, it looks like he's pouting. His tunefulness is wasted on me.
But last night for some bizarre, unknown reason, I decided to try whistling as we were clearing up the kitchen before going to bed. I couldn't hear myself, but what I could feel was the sound vibrating on my lips, so I was pretty sure I wasn't just blowing out air!
Then FJM stopped and stared at me. Turns out that even though I cannot hear myself whistling, I can whistle in tune. Amazing eh?
But how can I whistle in tune if I've never heard whistling and I don't know what it sounds like?
I think the answer lies in the fact that I played the flute for 15 years. I took up the flute about six months before I was told I had was deaf. I had been desperate to play the flute since I was about 8, but my amazing flute teacher said I couldn't learn until I was 10 because then I'd have the reach without constricting my breathing... and I already played the violin (badly – now we know why) so my rents were also keen to keep the costs to one instrument for few years longer.
I should point out that at the age of 10, I didn't realise that you were meant to hear every sound that came out of musical instruments. I thought that was part of the challenge. Just like I thought you had to make up your own lyrics to Kylie songs, which might explain the first I got in the poetry module of my degree 11 years later.
From the moment I took up the flute, I loved it. I thought music written for the flute was amazing. Saint-Saens, John Rutter, Reinecke... the list was endless. All pretty and lilting, or telling a story. But I also loved the Bach technical studies. Hell, I even didn't mind scales (that much).
As my hearing took a dip – in the summer after my GCSEs – I noticed that there was a large range of my flute I could no longer hear, which was challenging as I was getting good at that point and many of the pieces had technically difficult high sections, not to mention the three-octave scales required to pass Grade 8.
I did pass my Grade 8 – but it was a pass, which was gutting after the distinctions of the early years when everything was on the lower octaves – and I remember the examiner looking at me with fascination as I did the hard-of-hearing specific aural tests and then belted out a C chromatic scale for three octaves.
My flute teacher was amazing. She taught me to visualise the sound. I knew what middle C sounded like, so I should visualise C three octaves higher and adjust my diaphragm and lip shape accordingly. We played those high notes over and over and over, until my brain eventually knew – from my diaphragm, the vibration on my lips and her confirmation – that sound was coming out. Not a dodgy harmonic, but the pure sound.
Sure, when I did my recital certificate a year later, we modified some of my pieces as I was struggling to hold a high note for more than four beats – partly due to sheer insecurity that no sound was coming out and I was just blowing silently down my flute like a lemon – but for the most part, I learnt to play my flute without hearing the top one-and-a-half octaves.
When I moved to London, I found another amazing teacher and for a while, I picked up my flute again. I was deafer then. More of my flute was out of my reach. And gradually I realised that playing the notes for other people wasn't enough anymore, I missed hearing them. I missed being a flautist. I felt like a mime. And it wasn't right that I was paying £40 an hour to cry about my sadness of not hearing the flute anymore, which was what was basically happening in most of my lessons.
It's been eight years really since I last played my flute. It sits under my bed, next to the pile of treasured flute music – covered with pencil scribbles of BREATHE and pause and DIAPHRAGM. And it will probably sit there for a while longer.
But yesterday, as I whistled, in tune, I couldn't help but feel a little bit happy that deaf old me could whistle in tune, and I think I've got the flute to thank for that. The diaphragm, the imagining the sound, the lip position... it seems it's a transferable skill. Although I don't think I'll be doing my Grade 8 whistling anytime soon.
Happy Thursday peeps
PS. If I EVER get a smidgen of my hearing back, I am totally taking up the flute again. Look out world!
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