12 June 2023

Music and belonging

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Watch our short film in which Jane reflects on why, as a deaf person, being part of a musical group is so important and beneficial. 

For a short period music gave me my livelihood. My first ‘proper’ job was in an orchestra. And up to that point music had been the most important thing in my life – at the heart of friendships which have endured for over 40 years.

Becoming profoundly deaf aged 26 felt like a heavy prison door closing on part of my soul. The brightest light was extinguished. I needed my hearing to play and to appreciate music. I won’t even try to describe how painful this was at the time. Much emphasis is rightly put on communication issues for D/deaf people; other aspects of what make life worth living are often ignored – yet they are vital.

A 2022 review of 26 studies which involved almost 800 individuals found that music-making and listening strongly linked to positive changes in health-related quality of life. If your life has been significantly altered by a new disability or health condition, the need for such positive changes – especially to your mental health – is likely to be even greater. 

Fast forward to this year and I have been playing in amateur orchestras for over 20 years. The 6 years in the wilderness without music were the worst. Finding a teacher who was a deaf professional player gave me my first glimmer of hope. Perhaps there was a way to get back to music. It would be a different  experience, I realised, but still music.

Don’t get me wrong, this was no Hollywood style positive transformation, no sudden clicking of a switch. It took time, nerve, effort, doubt (lots) and persistence – over several years. In a recent rehearsal it dawned on me. I was in the middle of the music again. Part of something. Contributing. Hearing a bit through magically powerful hearing aids. And loving it. You can never ever switch off and just relax as a deaf member of the group. You have to be on high alert for various reasons – unexpected changes to speed or dynamics; everyone except you knowing that we are not doing that repeat! But you are there. You can enjoy it. And that is what counts. 

I have had several people ask me about playing ‘How do you do it?’. There’s a technical answer - which was that I had to learn to trust my physiological memory (my hands, muscles and brain knew what to do). But the more important answer is psychological. To play in a group when you are the only one who cannot hear demands very high trust.

At that moment in the rehearsal something dawned on me. As a deaf person I am so often the outsider looking in – trying to get access to complex, often random conversations and communication and often doing it with sophisticated guesswork. But sitting there playing from sheet music, I realised I was on the inside. I was part of the team and I belonged. But more than that, those couple of hours offered a respite from what could be a confusing and complex outside world. Here are several things that musicians can get from taking part:

  • Diversity at its best: Amateur groups usually include people with quite a wide range of talent and competence at their instruments (or singing). The sum is much greater than the parts. Stronger players support less confident ones and the end product can be impressive when we work together well.
  • We play in time (mostly!) – we breathe and move together – going at the same speed, as directed by the conductor. How much of life is led at different speeds and what confusion can this cause sometimes?
  • We do it because we want to. Nobody pays us and there are no targets or objectives, unless you count giving the best performance we can in a concert. It’s doing something for the sake of it which feels so positive and motivating.
  • We can’t be distracted. Though I have seen brass players checking their phones in sections of the rehearsal when the strings were being grilled, when we are playing, we cannot do that. We have to count, concentrate and make sure we play to the best of our ability.
  • We connect without speaking. We follow the music. We achieve a deeper connection. This is teamwork taken to a higher level. 

When I got back to music, I also returned to myself. The prison door was ajar and there was some light coming in again. We all need ways to do this, whatever our situation. Make sure you find yours.

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