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14 March 2013

Are our ears enough?

von Philharmonie Luxemburg

Among the trillions of things that we take for granted our five senses are probably on top of the list. We even go as far as building temples dedicated to sounds and listening, called concert halls. Does that mean that deaf and hearing-impaired people are excluded from them and excluded from the whole listening experience? Only if you think that music is heard and perceived in the exact same way by everybody.

Leif Ove Andsnes began his «Beethoven Journey» in August 2011. When you take on a journey centered around a composer who gradually lost his hearing from the age of 20, it is only logical to take an interest in how music is perceived by hearing-impaired people. Together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra Andsnes organises workshops for hard of hearing children exploring how they can engage with music when they can’t really hear it – at least not with their ears.

The Telegraph reported on the Feel the Music project when it stopped in Cologne. Squeezed under Andsnes’s piano the children can feel the instrument buzz. Their impressions are all about how music is made of vibrations and how their whole body can feel them. "I feel them in my stomach," says one. "It makes me tingle," says another.

These are impressions that Dame Evelyn Glennie can certainly relate to. She lost her hearing between 8 and 12, which didn’t prevent her from becoming the first full-time solo percussionist in music history. She gave an inspiring TED Talk in 2007 during which she explained that when she started learning timpani and percussions her teacher asked her: “How are going to hear this? How are you going to hear that?” She asked him: “Well, how do you hear it?” to which he replied that he heard it through his ears. “I think I do too,” she answered. “But I also hear it through my hands, my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs, and so on.” Her point is that it is possible to connect to the sounds far more broadly than simply depending on the ear if you want to truly listen.

It is difficult for hearing people to understand what it's like to be deaf. But if there is one thing that the Feel the Music project and Dame Evelyn Glennie’s testimony make clear is this: when we are lucky enough to have two fully functioning ears we just work from the assumption that they are enough and that they will do the job just fine. But maybe we are too closed-minded about this.

Let's finish on a scoop: the EME Foundation, together with percussionist Robert Bodja, is currently working on an intergenerational project involving seniors and hearing-impaired children. The final show will take place on July 11th in the Espace Découverte. Be sure we'll tell you more about it soon!

Julie