By Austin Bowley
Despite the common belief that experiencing music is a privilege only for people with fully functioning hearing faculties, we use more than just our ears in the musical experience. We dance; we feel the beat within us. In my voice lessons at Davidson, I am told repeatedly to let my body convey the meaning and stop worrying about the sound I produce!
Furthermore, we have examples of deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH) musicians throughout history and the present. Beethoven composed with a hearing impairment that worsened through his life, and Evelyn Glennie is a well-known and highly successful contemporary Deaf percussionist.
These examples demonstrate that the DHOH community does not have to be excluded from experiencing music or being musical. So how, then, do DHOH people experience music and become musicians? It turns out that in order to become a musician, whether someone is DHOH or not, practice is key.
Music educator Robert Fulford, in “The Formation and Development of Musical Identities with a Hearing Impairment,” shows that as opposed to learning by sound, DHOH pupils may learn note names through visual puzzles or pictures, pitches by feeling the speeds of vibrations, or musical technique through metaphors such as tone color.
Pulling evidence from his interviews with DHOH musicians, Fulford comments on the power of visual cues and gestures to learn, for instance, how long to hold a particular note on a violin or find the beat from a conductor.
While the DHOH community continues to find ways to participate in music, their inclusion demands that we revisit the definition of music. Does music require sound?
Apparently so, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes “sound” as a central part of its definition of “music,” but a Deaf musician like Evelyn Glennie complicates the dictionary definition.
Perhaps a more inclusive definition should focus on physical vibrations, emotions, and the abstract form of music instead of the sound produced.
Austin Bowley is a senior at Davidson College.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.