Making the grade
“How do you play the flute?” “Can you hear the music?” “Do you feel the beat?” “Is it vibrations?”
These are the most common questions I get when they realise that I am a musician with hearing loss. Since there are so many influences and factors, to help me write it up I shall focus on making the grade.
I benefited from doing a lot of flute exams when I was learning the flute. It gave me structure and framework, motivation to practise, feedback from the examiners and looking at music repertoire that was suitable for my level at each stage. I did the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) which is the probably one of the most recognisable exam systems in the world. There are 8 levels with grade 1 being the beginner’s level to grade 8 being most advanced, finishing off at diploma level. They also have aural (listening) assessments slightly adapted for Hearing Impaired Candidates which made it possible to take part too.
I started the flute at 12 years old when I was at Mary Hare Grammar School for the deaf. I wore my analogue hearing aids full time. My aids were regularly maintained and checked and I always listened very carefully and clearly with them.
At my very first one to one lesson with the weekly visiting flute teacher, Miss Pickering introduced me to a bright orange book called ‘Tune a Day’ by Paul Herfurth. The first thing to do was to be able to produce a clear sound from the headpiece alone. It was so difficult at first because I kept feeling dizzy from all that blowing. I remember feeling so discouraged by it but suddenly a full blown sound appeared at the third lesson! It was such a great feeling to finally master a simple sound on the headpiece that was very clear and focused.
We then moved on to rhythm. I can never forget all the ‘T’s written on top of each note all over my book until about lesson 40. It’s not that I was forgetful; she made a big fuss about tonguing (T) each note – just like with spoken language we use our tongue to articulate sounds. Can you imagine talking without your tongue? Your speech would not be very clear.
Moving on to the next part was to put the whole of the flute together, understanding posture and managing the keys with my fingers along with blowing the flute to produce notes. As I already had experience in reading music from piano playing; the tonguing helped to make each note and rhythm sound very clear together with careful listening with my hearing aids on. Phrases and breathing were the next important bit, and soon enough I found myself enjoying simple tunes and well known songs fromthat book. Phrases were like talking, questioning and answering, you have to make a sense of what you are playing, just like in a spoken conversation.
In comparison to the piano, for me the flute was something I had to work harder on – it was my responsibility to make a sound, it was more physical with using my diaphragm and the breathing system and I really did focus on listening to each, and every note it produced.
A year after I started the flute I was at grade 1 level and passed with merit. By the time I left school six years later I was so close to getting a distinction for my grade 8. I earned my title when I did the ABRSM’s Flute Performance Diploma in 2005.
Flute practising required time, patience and intelligent work. I practised very regularly in the early days and increased my practise time when I was doing A Level music at sixth form. I’d get up at 7am to practise in the school hall while the cleaners were about. When I was in year 12 and 13, after school and in the evenings practically everyone knew where to find me, I’d be in Carnarvon Centre playing till it got locked up at 10pm at night. I’d play for 2 – 4 hours. At one stage the Deputy Head teacher came up to me and had a serious discussion about needing to balance my other subjects. I just nodded my head and put the flute away but returned to my habits again the next day.
I also never forget that I was sharing a building with about 14 other roommates that were all deaf and no care staff. So if I couldn’t sleep I’d practise happily and loudly at 1am in the bathroom with the lights on without waking anyone up. That was my relationship with the flute.
I wore my hearing aids all the time. Without them I cannot hear anything at all, not even the fire alarm. My hearing loss is so profound (110db loss in both ears). Analogue hearing aids are the ones I use, as it basically amplifies sounds. Some people call it ‘sound junkies’ but I don’t believe it to be strictly true. Digital hearing aids were introduced to me in 1996 – I remember the year very well as I was about to fly to Russia to perform Handel and Bach at the Grand Hall in Moscow. I rejected the digital aids straightaway. I could not believe or accept the limitations and the weirdness that came with it. It was such a nasty shock. At least once a year I would give things a try at audiology. But to be honest, after so many attempts and the number of times I sat in the audiology room trying to accommodate the changes, it was never right. Sounds in the high register were cut off; if I played very quickly the digital hearing aid would still try to process sound memory and clash by overlapping each other. The flute stopped showing its tone colours – it was all in one platform, very dull.
My understanding of digital hearing aids is to provide more clarity in speech sounds for the general deaf population, and to control loud volume. So with them and when I made a ‘loud’ sound on the flute the digital aids stopped that from happening and it crunched it down to a softer sound. They even dismissed the higher frequencies that come with it. So imagine slamming the door really hard for an example it’d be loud and hurt your ears. With the digital aids you’d get a lightly ‘tapped’ sound.
Now back to the flute and wearing my analogue hearing aids. I had the determination to succeed because I really enjoyed learning the language of music and the flute simply is a beautiful sounding instrument. Through playing I was exploring music of many cultures, playing my way through history – the baroque, classical, romantic, modern, pop and jazz eras. I so enjoyed rhythmic ideas and themes, the range of notes, changing tone colours (from sad/warm/happy/bright etc). It gave me scope for creative ideas.
When I was learning the flute, I never let my deafness get in the way. I always looked for ways to overcome small and big challenges in music performance. I also knew very early on that after secondary school I’d be heading to a Music College where my instrument would be the main subject. I had the same ambition as many other budding flute players, and never saw myself any different.