As part of my research on how to make music accessible to children across the hearing spectrum, I reflected on my own experiences and how they enabled me to access music. I remember growing up with the belief that I could do anything that I put my mind to if I am willing to put in the hard work and adapt my skills. A key figure that helped me to believe in this statement was Dame Evelyn Glennie, a world-renowned solo percussionist, who also happens to have been diagnosed as profoundly deaf at the age of 12. She was determined to pursue music and learnt how to listen to sounds through her body, rather than through her ears. Dame Evelyn Glennie describes her body as a resonating chamber that allows her to register rhythms, textures, dynamics and so on. In interviews, Glennie often thanks her Percussion teacher, Mr Forbes, for being open-minded and creative with his teaching methods. Together they explored how she could develop her senses. Glennie learnt how to recognise pitches by playing them in isolation and registering the feelings they produced, by identifying which part of her body feels the vibration and for how long. In her information booklet titled “Deaf, Music and Sound” she says: “The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest”.
Here is a great video where Dame Evelyn Glennie describes how she feels sound:
I found this interesting because I also try to recognise sensations when I sing. I do this, because I find it is hard to rely upon what I hear through my ears. My ears hear my voice through air conduction, (when the sound I make travels from my mouth to my ears) and by acoustic feedback, (when the sound I make reverberates off the walls back to my ears). Both air conduction and acoustic feedback come too late to be of help. The sound has already left my body. In addition to this what you will hear can be affected by changing circumstances such as where you are singing, what costume you are wearing and your position in relation to the accompaniment. Another reason that explains why I cannot rely upon my hearing myself, is the fact that there is a muscle in my ear called the tensor tympani; this muscle protects the inner ear from loud sounds. When I sing high notes, the tensor tympani muscle is automatically triggered to protect me against my own voice. It gives me the illusion that my voice is soft, small, quiet. However, people listening to me will hear the opposite. So if I were to rely upon hearing my own voice when singing very high, I may incorrectly deduce that I need to be louder. As a result, I may increase my energy when starting this note, “pushing”, which interrupts the vocal chords natural ability to produce the pitch efficiently, resulting in the note cracking or negatively impacting it’s resonance and projection. That’s why I think it is important to sensitize myself to inner hearing and work with coaches, teachers, and friends to guide me on my external sound.
When I am singing, I try to focus on listening to my voice inside my head by recognising sensations. I do this through feeling air, tissue vibration and bone conduction. For me, low notes I feel in my chest, neck and chin and high notes on my hair line, top of my head and the tops of my ears. One of the challenges I am working on now, is recognising the sensations I feel when I am singing with a low larynx and when I am singing with a high larynx. In operatic technique, it is more desirable to sing with a low larynx, so being able to recognise feelings that are consistent with singing with a low larynx will help my singing.
Dame Evelyn Glennie actively encourages people to re-imagine how they listen. I wondered if this way of thinking could enhance how children experience music. When I visited her website, I saw that she offers online individual and group consultations. I got in touch and asked whether she would consider exploring how to make music accessible to children in an interactive show format. I was aware that I wanted the children to get involved in the performance, but I wasn’t sure which instruments to use or whether my activities would work. Dame Evelyn Glennie was able to immediately suggest and demonstrate instruments that would be accessible to children. Together we brainstormed multiple practical tasks and explored how my initial activities could be improved to encourage children to listen and create music by reacting to all of their senses. These discussions have not only enhanced my research but provided momentum for the next stage of development.
I will leave you with her TED Talk, where she demonstrates and discusses how listening to music involves much more than simply relying on your ears.