Can't stop the music

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Attitudes to deaf children making music are changing and many now become outstanding performers, as Karen Gold reports

If it wasn't for Evelyn Glennie, the phrase "deaf musician" would still be an oxymoron. "A lot of deaf children have been excluded from music lessons in the past," says Paul Whittaker, profoundly deaf pianist and organist, founder and artistic director of the Huddersfield-based charity Music and the Deaf (MATD). "People thought teaching them music was a bit of a waste of time."

Now many, though not all, schools accept that they should offer hearing impaired children access to national curriculum music, whether in a specialist or mainstream setting, he says. The difficulty is that deaf children, particularly on entry to secondary school, may be a long way behind their hearing peers not only in grasping the complexities of pitch, but also of rhythm. So their music teachers ring MATD to ask for help.

Over the past three years Paul and MATD's education project manager Danny Lane, a trumpet and piano player, have been running school-based demonstration workshops, teaching music to deaf and hearing children together. Now they have produced two teaching packs, one for key stages 1 and 2 and the other for KS34, containing lesson plans and materials which can be used solely for deaf students or for mixed groupings.

Rhythm is the jumping off point for making deaf children believe they can make music successfully, he argues: "With any group that I'm working with I start with some kind of rhythm game, because rhythm is the foundation of all music. Rhythm is physical and visual. You can see a rhythm; you can pass it around a circle or a group."

You can also write it on a whiteboard, and demonstrate it on your own body or somebody else's, as music co-ordinator Trisha Henley does with a KS4 class at the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate. Tanika, Tom, Francis and Daniel all have learning difficulties as well as hearing impairment; all are working on calypso rhythms in preparation for a Caribbean concert.

"Long, long, short," says Trisha, demonstrating the length of the notes by stroking her forefinger from wrist to elbow twice and then hopping it over her wrist. The students watch and imitate, on metallophone and tambourine.

It is tricky and needs lots of repetition, but gradually they begin to internalise it, grinning with the pleasure of mutual synchronicity.

"Music is a very physical experience for them" she explains. "We have a music and dance club once a week, when they get their whole bodies involved. They can feel the music even if they can't hear it."

For these students, material in the KS12 MATD pack is often more appropriate than that designed for older classes, she says. Paul Whittaker says deaf children will take longer than hearing children to learn the concept of pitch or vocalising, but schools, particularly primary schools, have often assumed they could fit in extra special needs work during music sessions, thereby undermining further their musical opportunities.

Hence a special section in the KS34 pack called "Bridging the Gap", which is an attempt to bring deaf students towards the level of musical understanding required for this age group. It includes introductory lessons on timbre and texture and pitch - putting a middle C chime bar on the floor and a higher-pitched one on a chair to convey the idea of higher and lower pitch.

Once deaf students have grasped these concepts, says Tim Jenkins, head of music at Bury St Edmunds County Upper School, which has a specialist hearing impaired unit, their performance can be outstanding. He ran a deaf students' percussion group for many years and has recently taught several of the tiny number of deaf students nationally who take music GCSE.

He uses timpani to teach pitch: "Initially I tune them a long way apart, then I tune them progressively closer, so the student can both feel the vibrations and hear the note. I get them to go outside the music room and feel the vibration on the glass in the door.

"Sometimes you have to make allowances for deaf students because they can't hear everything, but their music-making can be amazing. I've had students performing in ensembles with hearing musicians at the Royal Festival Hall.

I had one girl who was playing percussion and they put her next to a baritone saxophone, which spoiled all her frequencies. So she just took her foot off the high hat and felt the whole performance through the floor."

No one yet knows how extensive deaf children's music-making could be, because everyone has underestimated their musical potential for so long, says Paul Whittaker. MATD's latest venture is working with pre-school children. Using call and response songs and British Sign Language with sung nursery rhymes, parents in the early years group have been amazed by how much their children achieve, says Danny Lane, who runs the project: "One of the parents said it made her realise that her child had musical potential.

She didn't think of that before. Now she has bought percussion instruments to play with at home."

l Keys to Music (KS12 and KS34 versions) pound;25 each from Music and the Deaf, The Media Centre, 7 Northumberland Street, Huddersfield HD1 1RL Tel: 01484 483115

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