My deaf love of music | theunderargument.com

My deaf love of music

My deaf love of music | theunderargument.com

By E.B.

I’ve always had two big passions in life; helping others and music. So discovering music therapy was like finding my true calling. Finally, I had a way to use my love for making music to help others. But there was one obstacle in my way: I am deaf. I’ve been deaf from birth, and I’ve never been given a medical explanation. “Just one of those things”, the doctors have said; my genes just decided to have severe hearing loss in my right ear and moderate hearing loss in my left ear. No one else in my family has hearing loss, so it’s like I was born to be an outcast.

Following the advice of a specialist, my parents decided to raise me without disability aids, no hearing aids, no sign language, and no special support other than speech therapy to get rid of my lisp. Being raised in the hearing world, I learned to adapt to it. It was well-intentioned and had benefits, but it taught me to hide my disability so I could appear like everyone else. As far as I was aware, I just wasn’t functioning as well as everyone else. I didn’t even meet another deaf person until I was 23. In my world, I was defective. 

One benefit to this “just don’t be deaf” upbringing is that I was never scared away from pursuing music. But I had to learn to adapt to the music: I would push my bare feet against the board of my family’s upright piano, feel each note’s vibrations, and hold the saxophone close to my chest to feel the bell shaking. From the outside in, I was enjoying music like everyone else. But my disability became impossible to hide once I started studying music at University. Suddenly my inabilities were highlighted: if a lecturer asked me about the effects of stereo recording: “Actually, I can’t hear any of the music coming from one side, so it doesn’t work on me, ma’am.” If the question was how it felt to hear the differences between the sound of an orchestra’s left and right-hand side: “I wouldn’t know, sir, I don’t have sound direction.” If an exam question asked me to pull out one specific melody from a group recording: “I can’t make out individual sounds, I hear sounds like one big block, so this is not possible.”

Everyone knew I was disabled now. Responses seemed to fall under three categories: questioning, condescension or pressure through heroisation. I got everything from “but you don’t look/sound deaf” to “you poor thing, you’ll never truly appreciate music” to “you’re like Beethoven or Evelyn Glennie! You’re an inspiration!” I had to take audio exams in separate rooms; people asked to try on my hearing aids; I was laughed at for taking my shoes off for a piano performance. I was othered for not hearing. One lecturer changed everything when he introduced me to graphic scores: instead of the music written as art, the score itself is art. Suddenly there were ways to experience music other than listening - something I had never considered.

I became fascinated by how we see and feel the music, incorporating that into the pieces I wrote. I developed this further when I started a masters in music therapy, taking my ideas and applying them to how I can help others. All this work taught me a valuable lesson: I didn’t experience wrong; I just experienced it differently. And how I experience music is just as valid as everyone else.

My musical world is just as valuable as everyone else’s, and I’m now using my musical experience to validate others. Others are tuned into hearing the music, but I am tuned into feeling it, to seeing it. And now, through music therapy, I am showing other deaf people how they can access the musical world in their own way. We don’t need to fit in with the hearing world to love music. Deaf musicians, composers, and music lovers, we belong in the musical world in our own way, and no one should tell us otherwise.