by Madelynn Willingham | 7 October 2021
For our last research paper of this class, I decided to investigate how the D/deaf experience music. When people experience music, they typically use the sound of the beat and the flow of the lyrics to determine whether they like a song or not. However, for people who have experienced hearing loss or have been deaf their whole life, how would they experience music? Experiencing hearing loss or having been deaf from birth, can affect each individual person differently, but whether it’s through vibrations, dance, sign language or rhythmic instruments, there are plenty of ways they can feel the power of music.
Hearing people tend to assume that the Deaf community cannot experience music, because they think that there is only one way to enjoy music, and that is by listening to it. However, just because the Deaf community cannot hear the music, they get to experience music in amazing ways that hearing people rarely get to see.
For over eight years, The Mahler Orchestra has been introducing Deaf children to the wonders of classical music, as part of their ‘Feel the Music’ program. This amazing program offers workshops all over the world, where they give children the opportunity to experience music with a full orchestra. These extraordinary musicians have found some out-of-the-box ways to make the experience accessible for these children. The kids can physically touch different parts of the instruments and feel the sound they produce, as well as watch how the movements of the musicians create the rhythm and emotion of the music. They even have a chance to conduct the orchestra themselves.
People throughout history have come up with many creative ways to feel a stronger connection with music. Beethoven, as he was losing his hearing, would hold a pencil in his mouth and touch the other end to his piano so that he could feel the vibrations of the notes. Many deaf artists perform barefoot so that they feel the vibrations through the floor, and Mandy Harvey is no different. Mandy is a deaf singer who lost her hearing at the age of 18, and taught herself how to “feel” the music with her feet. She performs barefoot so she can feel the drums through the floor, and the bass through her chest. If a saxophone player is preforming with her, they will stand next to her with the saxophone touching her arm.
The beauty of music isn’t only heard or felt, it can also be seen. At concerts, American Sign Language interpreters translate more than just lyrics, they interpret emotions. Performance ASL interpreting requires a high level of preparation and creativity, and Natalie Austin uses her whole body to communicate the emotion and feel of the song to everyone around her. She allows Deaf and hard of hearing people a way to enjoy the music at the concerts she interprets for.
When I first began to learn American Sign Language in 2012, it was just for fun and a way to meet new friends. However, as I began to learn more about the language, I started falling in love with how beautiful music became when it was given a “face” so to say. As I learned morse about signing, I became curious about how music was translated and began translating music for fun myself. Now I translate music for our church and bring joy to those who have a hard time hearing the songs we sing. Signing for me isn’t just a language, it is a form of worship.