My childhood: Music and Deafness
My music education began at home. My parents are both very musical – back in the 1980s when I was tiny my father was a primary school teacher and gave guitar lessons privately at home but a few years before he married my mother he toured around Germany with a band called ‘The Snappers’ as a lead guitarist and songwriter. My mother was a nursery teacher and felt very strongly that singing and music making sessions for the children in her care were an important gateway to learning language, social skills and the world around them. My three brothers (all hearing) were committed choristers at the Cathedral from a young age for a good ten years. We all received piano lessons and would compare our books and the different stages we were at.
When I think about my childhood growing up in London my mind takes me back to playing with my brothers in the garden, hide and seek, homemade birthday cakes and parties, visiting London Zoo and Kew Gardens. But most of all – a lot of concert halls! Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall, The Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall at the South Bank, to name a few. I remember the sheer size of the buildings, the rows of seats, the lights, the elegant walls, window decoration and the way people behaved. We had to sit very quietly, behave appropriately during performances and dress up nicely. I remember that despite my age I was always totally focused, in awe of the orchestral musicians playing for 2-3 hours at a time without looking worn out. The singer’s facial expressions were something else, especially during a sorrowful song. I remember how the conductor’s wildly waving arms magically influenced the way the musicians played. I would scan the room watching the audience’s face, trying to assess whether they were enjoying themselves or if they had fallen asleep.
Although as a little girl I was very good at singing basic nursery songs and playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the piano, I instinctively knew that the power of music was anything from being a simple happy-clappy tune at home but something compelling and powerful that attracted people from all backgrounds to fill up an entire concert hall – I also knew it was a huge money spinner.
My parents found out I was profoundly deaf at the age of three. They realised that I wasn’t talking clearly and went on from there. The hospital gave me hearing aids to amplify sounds. I was a good girl and wore them all the time. I remember having speech therapy, though only for a short period of time. Music taught me a lot about hearing and listening.
I went to a local primary school without any specialist support for deaf children. I remember sitting in the middle of the classroom (no– I wasn’t right at the front to see the teacher) and I would not have a clue what was going on, or what the teacher was talking about. I would stare at the class wall and look at the pictures for information and connect the words to the pictures e.g ‘TUESDAY / CLOUDY AND RAIN’ and noticed the change in words and pictures the next day. When I was tidying my parents’ loft a few years ago I came across my school reports and teachers would write that I copied everyone’s work. I do remember being desperate to learn but I was a quiet school child and did not really speak out anything to anyone. As I could hear and speak pretty well I think everyone assumed I would get by.
I suffered from psoriasis (a reddish skin condition/eczema) at the age of 6 and 7 years old from all the stress I was dealing with being confused at school and the outside world where everyone spoke fast. I never had sign language and never really met other deaf children. However despite all the stresses I had, music was like my friend: it was always there for me and with learning the piano and doing well with it, I felt like I was given something. It gave me so much self-worth.
We moved to Chelmsford in 1990 when I was 10 years old as my father had a really high up position with Essex Music Services. My mother joined a new Baptist church and my three brothers became choristers at Chelmsford Cathedral. With my Mum’s church I joined the Girls Brigade and soon became a member of the marching band where I played the drums. It was brilliant! There were no music to read and everything was from memory. We’d play one theme to another and marched around the town for 15 minutes with all sort of rhythmic tunes along with bugle calls. There was a lead drummer who had the biggest drum that would keep everyone marching in time with the loudest thumping beat. I’d always known the importance of pulse but this was different, a tangible, visual way of expressing how imperative pulse is in music – the most basic foundation of them all. From that point on I knew as long as you have a pulse, rhythm can just float, tease, stretch, play on top of it however it likes. So exciting!
By the time I arrived Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf my interest in piano lessons waned, I can’t exactly remember why but it just did. However the flute caught my eye one music lesson on a cold January day in 1993 when the music teacher took one in its case off the shelf and placed it on the floor along with the clarinet, saxophone, drums, violin, etc and said ‘Pick up an instrument and have a learn!’. I picked the flute up and instantly knew it was special. It was pretty, silver, slim, and I had heard it produced a beautiful sound, so clear and catching. My music teacher then arranged flute lessons and everything snowballed from then.
Mary Hare is a boarding school and playing the flute brought me so much happiness, it gave me an emotional and creative outlet especially since I was dealing with homesickness as I would be away for 2-3 weeks at a time. Being in touch with my family via the minicom (text phone) and letters wasn’t quite the same.
I was lucky that I was very good at flute practising; it had to be with sensitivity, intelligent work, letting my fingers dance on the keys, play as if I was singing and always listening to my sound, making sure it was good and clear. I learnt this all from my flute teacher, my parents, my brothers and most importantly: the professional musicians at the concert halls I’d been so fascinated watching as I grew up.