Music! Oh, how I love music! Deafness doesn’t seem to mix with music, does it? I am sure that is what you are thinking. Many Deaf would agree. Add to that fact that I am also blind, and many might think I don’t have any clue as to what is going on around me. I assure you that is far from reality. Two senses are gone or mostly gone, but I have three others. I have the sense of smell, touch, and taste which are not superhuman in strength, but my brain has a lot of room to use them, since the usually predominant sight and sound are missing. The world around me is an active place, and I can sense that world. I must say that my favorite experience is anything musical. I want it all, and I want it strong – which doesn’t have to be loud, but sometimes it is.
I am DeafBlind, but music is and always has been an important part of my life. My first real memory is of a big, almost empty room in one of the parsonages we lived in for a few months where Mama had put some toys and a kiddie record player and kiddie records on a little play table. I probably played with the toys, but I only remember spending lots of time playing that record player with those Bible songs for kids records and other children’s song records, singing as best as I could. I remember straining to understand the words and sometimes just making my own up to the music. I remember turning the sound up as loud as it would go and still straining, so I would lean near the speaker. It didn’t take me long to be fascinated with not only the sound from the speaker, but also the tickling vibrations I began to feel. I started then touching the speaker to feel the music.
I also remember trying to get every note right. Why that was important at age three, I don’t know, but it was to me. I never gave up my love for music, but I had to learn to find the words from other places as I grew up, because I could never understand them when played even as loud as I could make speakers go. Getting hearing aids when school started helped some, but not much for understanding words in music. As a driving-capable teen with hearing aids and eventually an FM system, I blew the speakers a bunch of times (especially in the back), but I never noticed because I couldn’t hear the sound from the back at all. I still sang away. I didn’t damage my hearing with music, though many teens did. I was losing my hearing from birth because of a genetic condition called Usher III. Ear infections from allergies and vertigo took it away faster than Usher did, though, I am sure. I wore hearing aids from a young age, considered deaf by lack of frequencies of all speech tones by my teen years and profoundly deaf of all frequencies by young adulthood. Music stayed with me, though. I just learned to feel it through my bones and turn that vibration into sound that was almost as natural as what I used to hear.
Because of my own love of music, I encourage all my students including the Deaf and DeafBlind to explore sound and music. It doesn’t matter how they sense it. Music is good for you. It has benefits both mentally and physically, according to research. Physically, it can ease pain, increase motivation, improve performance, increase endurance, improve sleep quality, and through emotions, improve blood vessel function. Mentally, music reduces stress and anxiety, improves cognitive performance, alleviates depression symptoms, eases recovery after surgery and stroke.
I encourage that exploration even further through music education because research also shows that the brain is enhanced by music knowledge in many ways. Memory is boosted through the rhythm of music as it stimulates several parts of the brain. Language skills are enhanced as well as core subjects by the skills learned in music that can be applied to other areas. Even intelligence tests have shown music instruction can increase the scores by a few points. Studying music helps the brain comprehend speech in noisy backgrounds as it teaches the brain to differentiate between tone and pitch. Music instruction also helps build skills that are useful in math, and students of music tend to have higher scores in both English and math standardized exams. The studies are too numerous to ignore. It doesn’t matter if your child becomes a Diva or a Mozart or not. The experiences will have far-reaching effects on the brain’s development and the child’s future.
Yes, I realize that all the studies are done on children who can hear and probably who can see, but from my own experiences and the experiences of my students, I can see the benefits, though possibly fewer or smaller, are still there even if the sound isn’t heard with ears. Deaf and DeafBlind students, especially from an early age, will have experiences that help them to realize that there is an aspect of the world that exists that they can’t hear or see. They can learn, by feeling vibrations of instruments and of people’s throats, that something happens when you strum a set of strings or tap a drum or press a key on a piano or push air out of your mouth in a different way. They can learn that talking and singing not only can be done, but are different from each other. When they learn to make that music and can control it, they gain even greater knowledge about the world around them. No, not all Deaf and DeafBlind children will learn to sing or even talk, but the ones who can might find the task easier to accomplish as they learn to distinguish better between tone and pitch. If not, they will grasp the concepts better and can later better understand the study of science in school. Lessons on sound waves won’t be as foreign. Whatever the student can gleam from the experiences will be worth the experience, so we shouldn’t dismiss music as unnecessary or unwanted in the educational life of the Deaf and DeafBlind.
One of my students in particular could feel his parents talk as they held him. He began reaching to feel where the vibrations were coming from and found the source near their face. He would lovingly touch their lips. Now they let him feel their faces and throats as they talk or sing. We then began letting him feel instruments as they were played and speakers playing music of all kinds. Shayne Patrick now insists when he and I do FaceTime together that I sing and play my guitar, so he can feel the speakers as I sing “Jesus Loves Me” and other Bible songs. He also uses Kinderbach Music program and iPad app to take his love for sound vibrations to the next step- playing his own music. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t talk or sing and may never ,or that he may never learn to play songs like others. What is important is that Shayne Patrick is learning as he explores the world of sound without hearing and that he loves doing it.
Many Deaf and DeafBlind will read this and shake their heads and think, “I don’t care. I don’t have any interest in sound or music.” That is fine, but if you have never experienced music to a great extent, you can’t say it couldn’t benefit you at all. Many Deaf love to go to parties and dance where the music is loud as possible and the speakers are often turned down to touch the floor. You can feel the music pounding through the floor, the tables, your chest, and all over your body actually. Others go even further with music. Sean Berdy, profoundly deaf since birth, is an actor on the ABCFamily television series Switched At Birth. His character, Emmett, plays the drums and loves to listen to music with headphones. According to Sean Berdy’s web site, he loves music and tours the country with a highly acclaimed musical group, so music isn’t just part of a role for Berdy. It is part of his life even as a Deaf person. Helen Keller worked her entire life to speak. Helen was never completely satisfied with her results, but few knew how to help her. She even loved feeling music and tried to singm according to her autobiography and preserved photos of her life. Music can be a personal choice for a deaf person. Many can find the soothing and thrilling vibrations it can bring to life.
Music is and always will be a major part of my life. I can’t imagine life without the rhythmic vibrations of music. Though I honestly don’t miss other sounds, I do miss music heard with my ears at times, but I don’t miss it much because in many ways I still have it just as well as I always did. I do “hear” music when I feel it. I still remember hymns that I learned as a child with the little bit of hearing I had then. I treasure them and still sing them often and can feel them and hear them in my head. Even after I had lost all my hearing, I could see enough to find the pitch visually as I watched others sing. I watched not only their mouths but their throats to see how they produced the sound. It was something I just learned naturally growing up as I was losing my hearing. I could tell you the note and sing it. I also could tell you people’s accents based on the forms of their lips and where I saw the sounds being made in the throat if I was familiar with other people from the same area. I can tell you many of the dialects even of those from Britain. Watching television with the mute on (not that it mattered to me), I could not only read their lips, but I could also describe their voices and accents. I could hear the sounds in my head almost as if I could hear them with my ears.
After a time without sight, I could only sing music that I remembered. I didn’t know how to teach myself new songs. The old music was satisfying for a time, but the ache to explore new ways and new songs continued to grow. I found myself feeling the vibrations through headphones, listening to the old songs I knew, and wondering if I could learn to distinguish the notes from new songs. After coming across the lyrics of a song that really touched my heart and expressed feelings that I had felt for so long as I experienced the good and bad of life, I decided to try. I really wanted to sing those words myself, so that I could express the feelings I had within. That is when the experiment began. I was going to learn to sing “He Knows My Name” by The McCrae Family. (There is another song that has that name but it is also called “I Have a Maker”by a different artist. I love the song, but the one I chose is different, and I really connect more to the words of this song.)
The experiment began with me finding the music on YouTube®. There were several versions, so I found the simplest one I could. It happened to be sung by a young boy named Travis Clark. He played the piano as he sang in tones that I could better feel than the versions with lots of accompaniment and different instruments at once. I listened to them all over and over to get the feel of the song. There was a guitar version that I liked, too, sang by a youth pastor. The guitar music was different. I could tell it was a guitar, but I needed something stronger and clearer to find my soprano voice. That is why I settled on the piano version. Travis Clark sings the song in a lower key than I do, I think; but it was a big help in getting the initial melody down. I then found the notes online. I used to read music, but without sight, I can’t now. I haven’t learned Braille music code, yet, and may not simply because I have so much still to learn about ASL, Braille, and daily life as a DeafBlind person that I just don’t want to give up the time to it. Fortunately, there are people out there who will write the notes to songs in text that I can read in Braille, so I could play the notes on my piano. Then began the task of listening and playing as I felt the vibrations. It wasn’t quick, believe me. Months later, I am still learning the small, less-distinct changes in notes, but I think I can sing it for the most part and sign in ASL to express my heart to the only one that matters, my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Knowing Him as I do, I know He loves to listen no matter how I sound. I learned that from my daddy, a preacher, who can’t carry a tune in a bucket as they say, but He would sing hymns loud and strong for his Jesus no matter how much people snickered or got frustrated because they couldn’t stay on key. Thank you, Daddy, for that lesson.
The experiment continues, but if you wish to hear me I have video-recorded it twice. (To make sure I wasn’t violating copyright law or hurting an artist financially, I purchased two copies of the music in different keys, though I can’t use them.) First is just me singing, and the other is with me signing in ASL along with singing. That isn’t easy to do, and I have no experience with ASL music other than my own signing for myself as I express love and devotion to my Savior. Please don’t expect a great voice or an experienced singer or signer. I am none of those. I wouldn’t have shared at all fearing that it wasn’t good enough or that I might look like I am wanting attention, but too many friends (and even a neighbor) said I need to show what is possible. Those who are disabled have many abilities and are very capable of learning. It is for that reason that I am sharing and for the glory of God.
My version without ASL
My version with ASL
Links for “He Knows My Name” videos by true artists (so you know what the song really sounds like):
- The McCraes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dasdVWMjlzM
- Travis Clark Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdoFu6LTyQs&list=FLvDP1ShqfLoWZgcWQFr4Odg&index=3
Links to start your research on the benefits of music and music education: