My son Harry is 8 years old and wears hearing aids in both ears. He is profoundly deaf in the right ear and has severe/moderate hearing levels in the other ear, ranging from 60 decibels for the low frequencies then a steady upward rise to a mild hearing loss for the higher frequencies. This means that in his natural “good” ear, he struggles to hear low sounds, such as men’s voices, and has difficulty with localising sounds too. Genetics play a huge part of this as his father has waardenburg syndrome, which is one of the most common genetic reasons for deafness as it is passed down. The formalities of his hearing levels were realised after his glue ear operation at 3 years old and the left ear makes a very gradual decline over the years too.
From the moment I was told that he had failed his newborn hearing screening tests, in my heart of all hearts, I knew that he was going to be alright providing that he had access to language through visual communication such as using sign language, demonstrations, speaking clearly, writing things down etc. and reaching out to agencies for support where necessary.
He wears Phonak Crocs/Bolero hearing aids in both ears and his fantastic bright green and white marbling effect colouring ear moulds were chosen all by himself. Each time we go to hopsital, he has a choice to mix and choose colours! The right hearing aid does not give him any sound input because he has no residual hearing there. Instead, that hearing aid serves as a device to pick up sounds and pass them over to the left ear, giving him a universal coverage of sounds around him. It does mean that he sometimes does not localise sounds very well but if his friends are talking to him on the right-hand side, he should receive this sound information.
Harry has always had exposure to music since he attended Rhythmtots, a children’s music group run by my mother, from just 5 days old. He became a fixed and regular member with me every week of term time, until he started school. Before that, he also accompanied me at work when I was running creative music classes for deaf pre-schoolers in various locations around Essex for a number of years too. By the time he was 5, I showed him the violin and he had a play with it, but was not terribly interested – yet.
Last year when he was 7 years old, I thought that I would try again. A peripatetic violin teacher arranged by Essex Music Services visits his school weekly, and for a term I booked lessons for him as a trial. To my family’s surprise, he immediately took it on board, and the teacher introduced a book called Violin Star One by ABRSM. It has beautiful illustrations which Harry likened to Quentin Blake drawings. He would talk about these colourful pictures and play them relating to these pieces. I think it worked really well!
He continued to make weekly progress and my father subsequently decided to buy himself a violin on eBay in order to learn and play along with him too. My father Roger has a natural affinity for stringed instruments and plays everything from classical guitar professionally to the mandolin, ukulele, bass guitars, cellos and more. So when I come to my parent’s house to do flute teaching on Saturdays, Harry is also able to learn and practise violin with my father.
As the year went by he made astounding progress. With his natural timing for pulse and rhythms on top, he can play along with the CD and along to YouTube accompaniments – with the support of my father or family member occasionally conducting with him to keep him in time. His musicianship is extended to piano lessons with his uncle Edward, after school African drumming club and a weekly music theory club at school.
Harry is not short of role models either, he has also had some violin lessons with professional musician, Eloise Garland – who often pops round and supports him with his violin practice. She is like Harry with some hearing loss too, and wears hearing aids with pride. Harry was also selected to take part in the National Deaf Children’s Society weekend event ‘Raising the Bar’ a nationwide charity that brings deaf children who are passionate about music, dance and drama into working with professional teachers and other young deaf children also doing music. It was lovely that he came to work with me and also met Danny Lane – another deaf musician. He made friends with Issac, another boy who has a high-frequency hearing loss and the ability to play the violin so well. He was a year older but Harry was very inspired and looked up to him during that weekend.
A month after that, I took him to meet Liz Varlow – a professional viola player for the London Symphony Orchestra. Liz just happens to be profoundly deaf since the age of 18 and is an orchestral musician travelling all over the world. She does not wear any hearing aids or anything and performs in silence filled with so much knowledge and ‘a know how’ to perform with orchestras to an exacting standard.
Harry and Liz played an excerpt of William Tell by Rossini, effortlessly and easily as if in a conversation from memory.
Deafness is not a learning disability. My expectations for him and his hearing brother Benjamin with learning music are normal. He learns in the same way as teaching a hearing child – with reading real notation, rhythm, tuning and pitches. He does not realise that the outside world’s actual perception of music and deafness is generally misunderstood, but instead he is in an environment where he is positively encouraged and supported to play and enjoy music. He has a thirst for knowledge and a passion for learning; his other interests include karate, swimming and history – and nurturing an encyclopedic knowledge of reptiles and rare insects!
In early winter 2017, Harry was invited to speak about playing the violin on BBC4 radio with presenter Eloise Garland. He did not really pay much attention about his deafness, he spoke in a very matter of fact way about learning and playing the instrument. My father also said a few things on the radio too, he said that music teaching needn’t be any different to teaching a child with ordinary, normal hearing. Also, music is good for you, and good for everyone.
Well done Harry, you’ve only been playing for 12 months, so here’s to another exciting year of more playing!
Playing with friends – with Sophie Wiseman* and her brother Luca on the cello.
*Sophie has hearing loss, with only one ear remaining and wears baha implants.