Good vibrations;Subject of the week;Music and the arts

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Deaf schoolchildren and musicians brought paintings to life with a music and dance interpretation, reports Diana Hinds.

In a large hall at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre, children and teachers are rehearsing their own animated version of a painting by Lowry, miming the workings of the factory machines and the antics of the townsfolk once the factory gates are closed.

Next door, another group is devising music to accompany the sketch, using sequences of percussion to imitate the factory's clankings and whirrings.

All good, sound educational stuff for ordinary school children you might think. But observe more closely, and a striking difference emerges: these children make almost no noise. When, from time to time, they lose concentration there is no crescendo of mutterings. Instead, they sign to each other on their fingers. All of them have impaired hearing, some are completely deaf.

"I don't think I've ever had to say 'Be quiet' to these children," says a smiling Tom Millar, bass player in the CBSO. He is leading a team from the orchestra working with teachers and hearing impaired pupils from two mainstream Birmingham schools, Percy Shurmer juniors and Shenley Court secondary, on a five-day music and dance programme. Entitled "Moving Pictures", and supported by Central Television and Birmingham City Council, the project is designed to culminate in a public performance at the CBSO Centre.

The theme - chosen by the pupils - is the "animation" of three famous paintings by Lowry, Monet and Mondrian.

The pupils, ranging in age from nine to 19, are divided into musicians and dancers. Their hearing loss ranges from partial, or confined to certain registers, to extreme, but even these children can pick up vibrations through their feet, if dancing, or parts of their body, as they play. They are also dependent on visual cues from fellow players or dancers and their conductor.

Even their teachers don't always know exactly what they can hear. "The CBSO players tend to say to us, 'Can the children hear that?' We say, 'Don't be afraid to ask them,'" explains Karen Coates, head of the hearing impaired unit at Percy Shurmer school.

For Tom Millar the main difficulty is having to take a more active role in keeping the ensemble together. "It's quite tiring because I can't call out," he says. "I have to make it very visual."

Dance co-ordinator Josie Muirhead has worked with Tom Millar on previous CBSO projects and deaf awareness courses. "I don't treat them differently from hearing children," she says. "But when I communicate, Imake it very big."

Cathy Arlidge, a CBSO violinist working with deaf children for the first time, is impressed. "You forget they can't hear," she says. "If you have someone signing to them it slows the process down, but it doesn't inhibit it."

On the morning of my visit, the project's third day, there are signs of fatigue. But in the afternoon, a run-through of the Lowry sketch - with Tom Millar lying flat on the stage to keep eye contact with his musicians - looks promising. And by Friday evening the company has pulled off a highly polished and extremely lively performance. The Mondrian sketch - jazz dancing, accompanied by a Brubeck-based score - is such a hit with the 300-strong audience that it is repeated as an encore.

"I like jazz because it's got a beat you can hear and feel," says Shana Houston, 16, one of the dancers, using sign language.

Sarah Clark, 11, is a keen trumpeter who suffered severe hearing loss recently through meningitis. "Playing the trumpet is a bit harder now," she says. "But the jazz is all right for me because it's quite loud."

The benefits of the project are manifold, say the children's teachers. Listening, speech and concentration skills are all improved, and self-steem is boosted. They benefit from mixing with other deaf children and receiving focused attention away from the hurly-burly of school.

Gill Lingard, a teacher of the deaf at Shenley Court, says: "The pictures, the movement, the drama, the lighting, the costume - the whole package helps them to make sense of what's going on in the music." And, with a public performance at the end, adds Karen Coates, what could be better for their self-confidence?

For information about CBSO education projects, tel: 0121 616 6500

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