The story of Beethoven shows us the deaf and hard of hearing can hear and make music. After the composer’s hearing began deteriorating in his 20s, Beethoven listened to distinguish notes by attaching a rod to his piano’s soundboard which he would bite when playing. Today, musicians and educators are developing more techniques to help the deaf enjoy music. In Louisville, some are even teaching preschoolers how to sing. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
Evelyn Glennie is a Grammy-award winning percussionist who’s worked with banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and the Icelandic singer Björk. Several years ago, Glennie spoke about how she and one of her first music teachers negotiated her learning process.
“My teacher said, ‘Well, how are we going to do this? You know, music is about listening.'” Glennie explains. “And I said, ‘Yes. I agree with that. So, what’s the problem?’”
You see, Glennie is deaf. She doesn’t like people to define her that way, but often gives talks about hearing and listening. She says she and her teacher worked to heighten their sensitivities to vibrations and to be aware of sounds that she could hear.
That lesson isn’t lost on Louisville’s Heuser Hearing & Language Academy. Here, students have gotten music therapy training for years, and many of them now have surgically implanted electronic devices called cochlear implants, which enhance sound for people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. And this year, the children have a been participating in new music classes for preschoolers.
“Good afternoon. My name is Daryl,” says a classroom visitor. “And I play the tuba. Have you guys ever seen a tuba before?”
Daryl Johnson of the Louisville Orchestra plays and lets the children touch and play his tuba. One boy even sticks his head into the bell. It’s part of a program developed by the orchestra’s education director, Deborah Moore. Through the school year, she and other orchestra staff have taught students about instruments and how to sing — on pitch.
In 2007, the orchestra got a $25,000 grant from the William M. Wood Foundation, but Moore didn’t have a blueprint for teaching music to deaf children. So, last year she created lessons. They used gestures and illustrations that showed things going up and down. And, during classes for these preschoolers, she linked them to the rise and descent of sound. Right away, she saw results.
“After a couple of weeks, some of the older kids were starting to sing on pitch,” Moore says. “They were not just signing their name but actually singing their name.”
In the classroom, the lessons start with song. Moore sings a question: “What’s your name?” A five-year old Lilly Boling answers by singing on pitch, “My name is Lilly.” “Hello, Lilly,” the whole class sings.
Moore also coaches the children to sing high and low while sweeping her arms in the direction of their voices. She and an assistant have taught them nursery rhymes and the fundamentals of reading music.
Sydney Creason has been a teacher at the academy for eight years and remembers when classes started last September.
“They could not even get them to imitate a vocalization,” Creason says. “Now, they can go from high to low and from low to high and I — I’m amazed at that.”
And many parents are amazed. One mother says her son now hums himself to sleep. Another tells me her daughter now sings words to songs she hears on the radio.
“Children who are deaf get different information and different feedback from the world around them,” Darrow says. “But neurologically, you know, they’re equipped the way all children are. And so they can learn in the same way that hearing children learn, but their going to need more support.”
Darrow says she would like to see more children get the kind of music education the Louisville Orchestra is providing. She says while she’s never encountered a program like this one, other educators could learn from it.
The Louisville Orchestra’s Deborah Moore thinks so, too. But there is still more work to do.
“Next year, I think we’ll be closer to getting to that point where we have so much documented that we might be able to be helpful to another organization,” Moore says.
But that will depend on funding. The orchestra has applied for grants and is now waiting for replies from donors.