Monday 19 June 2017

Deaf Girly and classical music

I didn't know I couldn't hear until I was 10.

I have this really clear memory of seeing two girls signing to each other in a garden centre when I was about six years old and being fascinated about the idea of being deaf... little did I know, I already was.

I didn't know that birds sang or green men beeped or that song lyrics were meant to be understood. I thought dictation was a creative writing exercise and the challenge of French listening was actually hearing the words not understanding them.

So at six years old, I had only one ambition – to be a professional violinist. I was sure this was going to be my chosen career path and was determined to play with or without a violin, which is why my mum found me trying to play her guitar under my chin with a pencil on one occasion.

And after every single classical music concert my rents took me to, I fought my way to the front and wanted to say hello to the lead violinist every time, to tell them I thought they were amazing and I was going to be just like them.

For my seventh birthday, my grandparents bought me a tiny second-hand violin and lessons to go with it and I was smitten. But I did find it hard. I remember wondering why the sound ran out when I started to learn positions and why my teacher used to tell me I was out of tune, when I couldn't hear it. But I still didn't know I was deaf.

At 10, I got my second musical wish and took up the flute. With ready-made tuneful notes, I found this instantly easier and skipped the grades as I made progress. But this was also the year I was told I was deaf.

But I didn't feel deaf and there was no way I was giving up music. I was aiming for Grade 8 in both the flute and violin, but gradually it became apparent that the violin was not going to happen. I remember crying in lessons, trying to play my Grade 6 music but not hearing it, trying to feel what was going on but not having a clue.

Devastated about the violin, I tried the viola – a whole new clef to contend with. And to be honest, my resentment that it wasn't a violin meant my time with this instrument was short. And then, after discovering one in the music room at my school, I picked up the double bass. And I fell in love. It was rich and deep and wonderful. I could hear it and play amazing things again. And I did.

But then the double bass at school was stolen... a drunken man phoned the police and told them he'd seen someone running up the road with a giant cello and they hadn't believed him. And that was that really. Double basses are expensive you know. Plus I had a mini. And I was heading off to university.

In my flute lessons it was different – sure, a lot of it was out of my frequency, but I could feel it through my diaphragm and so long as I got this, the fingering and a collection of other things right, I could hit the notes. I made Grade 8, I did my Performance Recital Certificate. I felt like I'd beaten my deafness.

I should also point out I had an amazing teacher who taught me how to visualise sound. I can still do this even now, which is how I hear in my head when something is described to me or transposed into a frequency I can hear.

However, in my twenties, I went through a similar grieving process with my flute that I had done with my violin. I cried tears of frustration in my lessons as music sailed out of my frequency and became nothing. And then I stopped that, too. Playing music at that point only seemed to remind me what I had lost. I even stopped going to concerts for a while. They made me too emotional.

Anyway, for Father's Day this year, I told my Pa I would take him to a classical music concert of his choice in London and sent him lists of the various ones that were going on. He finally selected one that had a programme he would like, but also had a programme he thought I might hear OK. The Mozart by Candlelight was quickly dismissed. I can hear about 10% of Mozart I reckon.

So we headed out to see Fulham Symphony Orchestra to enjoy works my fellow deafie Beethoven and a 20th-century composer called Walton. The Beethoven – Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello – featured the Linos Piano Trio and was absolutely amazing. The cello –  the only one of the trio that I could hear had the most amazing part and sang out over everything, giving me quite a lump in my throat, and as I was sat on the side of my beloved double basses, I also had them guiding me through the musical score. And I felt happy.

The Walton – Symphony Number 1 – however I struggled with. There was no single instrument leading the melody in my frequency and so I struggled to find coherence over the noise of the timpani and the brass. It made me realise that I do best when there's a musical work written for orchestra and one other musical instrument – preferably in the bass clef. Cellos, bassoons, double basses, but also brass, which all seem to be more audible to me.

But what was lovely, was how much it reminded me of my childhood. Of going to concerts with my Pa. Of him sharing his encyclopedic musical knowledge with me and teaching me about the composers behind the score. And for a moment again, it didn't really matter that I was deaf.

Recently I have been wondering about playing my flute again. Wondering about finding a second-hand double bass to try. Wondering if I should let music back into my life a bit more. And I think I'm going to. First step, Suite Antique by John Rutter for my flute – it's not difficult, but it's beautiful and a lot of it is in my frequency. It was also the music I played at London Aunt and Uncle's wedding when I was 17.

I will never be a concert violinist though... but that's OK. I've got to do some pretty amazing things instead. And should I ever get hearing aids that give me back higher frequencies in the correct pitch? Look out world, DG the violinist will be back.


Fulham Symphony Orchestra said...

Thank you so much for writing about your experience. It's lovely to know when our music has touched someone. And this post has certainly touched us! Best of luck with the flute and bass, and we hope we'll see you again!

Linos Piano Trio said...

Thank you so much for your moving words. We are very touched that our performance meant such a great deal to you. We wish you all the best and hope you come to see us at another one of our London performances! We'd love to meet you.

Unknown said...

I can really relate to your deafness. Now wearing 2 hearing aids, and until 2 years ago I was 1st horn in FSO.

Me said...

Hello FSO and Linos Piano Trio – you will definitely see me again :0) and Andy, are you still playing the horn? Really hope so...

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