Roll Over Beethoven: 6 Modern Deaf Musicians

Image credit: 

Famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven began to lose his hearing around the age of 25. By the time of his death, he was completely deaf. But that never stopped him from writing some of the most beautiful music the world has ever known. Beethoven is proof that music isn't just in the ears, but comes from the heart and from the soul. His legacy is carried on today by many deaf and hard of hearing musicians, including these six performers who don't need to hear to express themselves through song.

Mandy Harvey

Jazz singer Mandy Harvey always had a hearing problem. In her youth, she'd had infections that affected her hearing, but only to the point that she had to sit at the front of the class in order to understand the lecture. Her hearing loss was never enough to keep her from pursuing her passion - music. When she entered Colorado State University, she had every intention of becoming a vocal music professor upon graduation. That is until her hearing began to rapidly deteriorate, and, despite medical treatment, she lost hearing in both ears during her Freshman year.

For the next year she was plunged into a deep depression, but she eventually came out of her funk when she realized she could still play music on the piano and use her perfect pitch to simply remember how to sing the notes. While Harvey says her hearing loss is categorized as "profound," meaning she can only hear anything over about 110 decibels, she is still able to "feel" the music as so many deaf musicians can, by sensing the vibrations of the bass and rhythms. She also uses her talents as a piano player to watch her favorite accompanist, Mark Sloniker, as he hits notes and chords to help her stay on cue. It's through these adaptations that Harvey has launched a career despite her hearing loss, releasing her debut album, Smile, in 2009, and performing a weekly gig at Jay's Bistro in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sean Forbes

Sean Forbes has been deaf as long as he can remember. He's also wanted to be a musician for just as long. Forbes became profoundly deaf when he developed a severe illness at only one year old. However, both of his parents played in bands, so music was a constant part of his childhood, whether it be from an instrument or from the stereo that was playing hits from The Beatles and Motown. Attracted to the vibrations from the beat, he first started playing the drums around the age of five, but moved up to guitar and bass by the time he was 10. The rap thing came later, though with the genre's use of room-shaking bass, it should come as no surprise he'd gravitate towards the music. After shooting an American Sign Language music video of fellow Detroit rapper Eminem's Lose Yourself, Forbes got noticed by Eminem's studio, 54 Sound, who helped produce his debut EP, I'm Deaf. (You can check out the music video for the title track here.) The EP helped Forbes gain the attention of BMI, who signed him to a record contract earlier this year.

But for Forbes, his career doesn't stop at a record deal. He has also turned his attention to other deaf artists by starting a non-profit organization called D-PAN (Deaf Performing Arts Network). D-PAN helps find and promote creative opportunities for deaf artists in a variety of fields, as well as produces American Sign Language videos of popular songs so that everyone can enjoy the music around them.

Beethoven's Nightmare

For three teenagers attending Galludet University, a school for deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C., it wasn't their disability that brought them together, but their love of rock 'n' roll. In 1971, Bob Hiltermann (drums), Ed Chevy (bass guitar), and Steve Longo (guitar) had dreams of playing on stage - and they weren't about to let their deafness hold them back. The trio soon formed Beethoven's Nightmare, the first all-deaf band in the world. With a show featuring screaming guitars, screeching vocals, and plenty of attitude, the only thing separating them from a "normal" band has been their use of sign language on stage.

Over nearly 40 years, like so many bands do, the group has broken up and gotten back together a few times, but they're here to stay since the release of their 2006 debut album, Turn It Up Louder. In support of the album, the group has been making special appearances at conferences for deaf organizations, as well as playing gigs at night clubs across the country. (Watch a clip from a gig here.) They have also been featured in a documentary currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, See What I'm Saying, which highlights the struggles and triumphs of deaf performing artists.

Janine Roebuck

Progressive deafness ran in the family, but Britain's Janine Roebuck wasn't worried. She'd never had problems before, so she continued to pursue her love of music. However, while she was studying at Manchester University, she noticed that some sounds were starting to fade. After a hearing test, she was told, "Sing while you can, because you'll never have a career in music." Despite the prognosis, Roebuck continued her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire and the National Opera Studio in London.

For 10 years, she kept her hearing loss a secret from all but her closest friends. She didn't even tell conductors, because she was worried about losing roles, or worse, getting roles simply because they felt sorry for her. So she found ways to hide her disability and adapt to her hearing level as it deteriorated. However, the stress of keeping up her charade became too much and she finally decided to get fitted for hearing aids. She was surprised to find that, rather than be scared off by her disability, many conductors were inspired by her courage, and her career has continued to grow. Shortly after she made her hearing loss public, she began working with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), the UK's largest charitable organization working for the deaf and hard of hearing. She became a trustee of the group in 2007 and has become one of the most vocal and respected proponents for the deaf community of Britain. You can watch a clip of her performance at the 2009 AMI Awards here.

Dame Evelyn Glennie

Every musical genre needs its outsider. The person who breaks the rules and breaks new ground for everyone else. For deaf musicians, their rebel without a cause is Scotland's Dame Evelyn Glennie. Not only is she the first professional solo percussionist, but she has also been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Glennie is without a doubt the best-known deaf musician in the world, with a résumé that includes a Grammy-winning album, 25 solo albums, and more than 100 performances every year in venues all over the world. She has collaborated with some of the best orchestras and artists in music today, including such notables as Björk, Sting, and pianist Emanuel Ax. She released a Grammy-nominated album with banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck and even played a brief stint with a certain Grouch on Sesame Street. For her contributions to music, she has been awarded the title of Dame Commander, nearly the highest order of British chivalry.

However, if you visit Glennie's website, you probably won't even find a mention of her hearing loss. While she doesn't hide her deafness, she also doesn't promote it, preferring that people look beyond her condition, which she sees as "an irrelevant part of the equation." This preference has meant an uneasy relationship with others in the deaf community. She has been vocal about her refusal to learn sign language, as well as her belief that deaf children should not be sequestered into specialized schools. It is her belief that teaching deaf people that they are different is hindering them from achieving greatness. However, as the years have gone by, life experiences have helped her see some things in a new light. In 2008, after resisting for three decades, she started learning sign language, saying, "Your life changes and the choices you make change. I have a different view now, and I think it's good to keep an open mind."

The Hi-Notes

The future of deaf musicians is brighter than ever. Thanks to the UK charity group Music and the Deaf, kids are getting the chance to play as part of two musical groups – The Deaf Youth Orchestra and The Hi-Notes, which specializes in student-composed pieces.

Headed up by Danny Lane, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, the eight students that make up the Hi-Notes collaborate and experiment to write songs that are truly from the perspective of deaf musicians. Their songs are often experimental in nature and composed for the vibrations and sensations the young musicians receive as feedback, but also pleasing to the listening audience's ear.

In 2008, the Hi-Notes were chosen to take part in the Music for Youth Schools Prom, an event bringing together the best and brightest young musicians from across the UK. These artists are given the chance to perform in front of thousands of fans inside the Royal Albert Hall, a legendary venue known as one of the cultural centers of Britain. Under the direction of Lane, the Hi-Notes played their own piece, "Tutankhamen's Curse," an auditory exploration of the discovery of the boy king's tomb, receiving a rousing applause and breaking new ground in the art of deaf music. You can watch their performance here; it starts around the 3:45 mark.

More from mental_floss...

September 13, 2010 - 5:00am
submit to reddit