Why deafness isn’t a barrier to enjoying music… and how to encourage accessible sessions for deaf people 

As I’ve discovered on my own journey, being deaf doesn’t mean you can’t have a relationship with music.

I actually believe a persons affinity with music does not depend on their ability to hear sound. Music in its simplest form is vibration. Vibrations are heard but they can also be felt, and they can also be seen.

So really, music is most certainly not exclusively for hearing people. But as traditional music or dance classes stand, deaf people – and deaf children in particular – are not being given a fair chance to access these. 

And even now it still surprises people when I tell them I work with music, given how profoundly deaf my ears are. Sooooo deaf that I wouldn’t hear my own voice screaming – and believe me, I’ve tried 😉

But this is where I hope we can continue to break down misconceptions. Despite my ears, music makes a lot of sense to me. And my daughter, who is also Deaf seems to have inherited the same inner rhythm. 

My family joke that all the Withey women are born dancers, and it seems that to some extent it must be true. Rhythm is in our blood, if not in our ears. 

So throughout my musical career, I’ve developed a system that has seen deaf adults and children discover and develop a love for music.  

I remember teaching a signed song workshop and a young boy, a native BSL user, sat arms crossed in the front row. He didn’t seem very happy to be there. 

I asked him what was wrong and he told me that there was no way he could take part because he was ‘too deaf.’ Not like the others, he added. 

On the other side of him were a trio of deaf children who didn’t use sign language and were warbling Katy Perry’s “Firewooooooork” at the tops of their voices. The BSL boy had no idea what the trio were singing, he couldn’t hear it, he couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t see it. So he concluded that music was definitely not for him.
On I went with the workshop. Now in the sessions I deliver, I always use my very trusty, and very heavy boombox. (Note to self: I really need to get a trolley to lug it to sessions in future…)

It’s loud and clear enough that those with hearing aids can pick up its sound, and its powerful enough that you can feel its vibrations pound. 

The first task in my session was to retell a lyrical story. Participants can use their voices or they can use BSL – whatever they fancy. And I noticed the young BSL boy coming out of his shell. He had a story to tell and he wanted to express himself. 

Working on a basic beat to accompany the lyrics, the young guy came and sat beside me so he could feel the “booms” from the speaker. He continued to sign his short verses, stamping his feet whenever he felt the “booms” as he watched the visual metronome from my hands indicating the pace of the piece. 

At the end of the session small groups were invited to stand up and perform their pieces if they wished. This young BSL boy who was initially sulky and reluctant to take part asked me if he could perform solo. He took centre stage – alone! – and revelled in it. 

This little success story showed me that deaf kids are still being made to feel that unless they can sing with their voice box, they’re not really singing at all. But when they’re given the opportunity to express themselves in a supportive environment using their preferred language, they can truly shine. 

There are countless ways to make musical teaching more accessible. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me… 

  1. If you’re playing music – get the best equipment. No playing from iphones or laptops or through tiny speakers. Live instruments are great for visually and physically learning rhythms and amplified speakers are best for feeling vibrations and super sonic sound!
  2. Explore basic beats and demonstrate these physically. Offer participants the chance to copy and create their own. Use claps, stamps, head nods, dance moves, pounding of the fists. Encourage the exploration of pace and basic beats before moving onto syncopated rhythms.
  3. BE the music. If participants cannot hear or feel the songs, you will have to show them how it looks. This means visually demonstrating the songs beat, mood, and lyrical rhythm. If you’re focusing on the storytelling then your task is to infuse a visual meaning along with the musical structure of the vocals. No easy task, but definitely not impossible. 
  4. Project lyrics for students to see. Projecting these while demonstrating the rhythm of the vocals (by lipspeaking or singing) can help those who use speech/hearing aids to pinpoint where the lyrics are in the music. You can also use visual projection for BSL users and not giving out handouts leaves everyone handsfree! 
  5. Finally, get to know who you are working with. Find out what works for them. They might offer you insight themselves! Make room in the session for exploration and freedom and most importantly – let go of all assumptions. 

During my University Studies, my dissertation argued that rhythm is innate and it’s acquisition is not dependent on sound. I have met enough deaf and hearing people to support my belief that it’s not deafness that is a barrier to being musical, it’s deeper than that. It’s something in your soul. (Oh gosh, I’m going all corny again 😜)

Given the right environment and opportunities to access musical training, Deaf people can succeed in this field. Even if – like me – they can’t audibly distinguish a flute from a clarinet. It might mean doing things differently, but whatever works! 

I’m thrilled to see organisations such as the NDCS with their Raising the Bar initiative, celebrating and supporting young deaf musical artists. I hope opportunities for deaf young musicians and performers can eventually be mainstreamed and not such an rarity. 

And as for the tone deaf, two left feet, not-a-musical-bone-in-my-body folk, well there’s plenty of other careers to choose from ☺️

 

 

 

 

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