Feel the Music
Just because they’re deaf doesn’t mean their world is without music
Published: January 23, 2013
“It was my choice,” Prince says. “I don’t use it very often; I mostly use it when I’m listening to music because it can plug into my iPod. The only thing I can’t hear is background music. Depending on how loud it is, I can only hear chunks of the music. I’ll listen to it when I write, but I can’t hear it clearly. Or, I’ll hook my auxiliary system to my iPod in my car, and I can hear bits of it but I can feel it really well.”
“Was it successful? I guess not,” Prince says. “I’m satisfied with the hearing aspect of the cochlear implant. It did improve a bit. But it was more stressful than I anticipated. It makes me feel a little bit sick at times. It’s overwhelming. I don’t necessarily regret it. But I feel like the world is too loud for me now.”
Nowadays, Prince plays in Los Angeles with an emcee at venues such as the Roxy and Key Klub. She’s even toured with the Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails.
“I taught them some sign,” Prince says. “Everyone was so nice. It was a fabulous experience.”
Prince regularly spent time with Nine Inch Nails in the studio, even playing drums on a few tracks for the Nine Inch Nails album Zero.
“Seeing bands and various artists, music has really become my life,” Prince says.
Although she still plays the drums, she has been focusing on writing and performing ASL music videos for the deaf and hard of hearing. Some of the songs she wrote herself, like the song “Drug,” which can be found on YouTube. In the video, she walks around a dark bedroom holding a rose that she slowly breaks apart. She signs: “You are my only drug that can destroy me, you are the only drug that I cannot have.” It’s the story of a love-hate relationship.
“I feel like there is a lot of music that relates to [deaf people] with hearing songs,” Prince says. “What I want to do is expose the deaf community to all these songs that are out there. I definitely want to help change the music era this year.”
Prince explains there are some members of the deaf community that are offended that deaf people like music. They see it as a form of “trying to be hearing.”
“Some deaf people like it, some don’t like it at all,” said Prince. “It’s either one extreme or the other. That’s what I’m trying to change. We hope that one day, deaf people will be motivated to go to concerts and enjoy it like hearing people do.”
I know the deaf community,” Prince adds. “I’m trying to understand why deaf people don’t enjoy music. I’m a deaf person obviously, and I consider myself completely deaf. I’m not hearing at all, I don’t speak at all. Yet I have a very different perspective. I want deaf people to enjoy music like I do. I’m struggling with that aspect. My hope is that the community doesn’t feel offended, but I’m trying to show them that there is an equality there; it’s a fine line.”
Beethoven’s Nightmare is touted ad the world’s only deaf rock band. Band members include drummer Bob Hiltermann, bassist Ed Chevy and guitarist Steve Longo. The group has held a steady following since the ’80s. They recently played “Downtown Disney” in California’s Disneyland, where more than 3,000 people came to watch, most of whom were hearing.
Guitarist Longo was born deaf. He became interested in music in 1964, when he first saw the Beatles.
“They made the guitar look easy, I thought it might be easy to learn,” Longo says. “My parents bought me a cheap five-dollar guitar at the flea market. I had to read the manual to learn how. I just kept it up, learning about the different parts of the guitar. It was like a drug, playing music. Being addicted to it and not being able to get off.”
Most deaf musicians rely on vibrations to help them keep a steady beat. Longo mastered the guitar mechanically, one of the hardest instruments to tackle for a deaf musician.
“I started with the ABCs of music, the different chords, the basics,” Longo says. “I happened to learn how to do it right. I had to make sure that all the strings were muted.”
Beethoven’s Nightmare fully formed at Gallaudet, a deaf and hard of hearing college in Washington, D.C.
“In early days, we’ve heard of Beethoven’s symphonies,” Longo says. “I believe it was at 33 he had become deaf, and he became angry because he was frustrated with his hearing loss. So he decided to break all the rules and start doing things in his own style. I guess at that point, that’s when he started to write music, and the composition actually became better. I think his hearing loss made him become more creative. He put more of his soul into his music.”
“So in end, we named the band Beethoven’s Nightmare,” Longo adds. “Because that was his nightmare … becoming deaf.”
Their songs range from heavy guitar riffs to lighter rock ’n’ roll jams. Passages of Beethoven’s symphonies can be heard throughout their self-titled album. Drummer Hiltermann performs vocals on some of the tracks. Their live performances typically incorporate ASL performers who sign and dance along to the music.
“That also helps the deaf audience, it brings that visual aspect,” said Longo. “But we have a lot of heavy low-end bass instruments. That way, it really goes through the subwoofers. That helps the deaf people to really feel the music.”
The rockers don’t have issues staying in sync.
“I have a drum machine; it helps me keep everything in rhythm,” Longo says. “As far as hearing the music, the instrument, the tune, I can understand that. I make sure that we’re not out of key. I do have some hearing, but it’s not enough to hear a voice.”
Many of the songs, such as “Crashing Out,” deal with oppression, something that band members can all relate to.
“It’s a general description of what we all go through,” Longo says. “You can be deaf and you can experience audism [the belief that those who are able to hear or speak are superior], you can be handicapped and you can experience oppression. It covers all walks of life. People who are gay have to deal with it, women have to deal with it. In the track, there’s a lot of drums, a lot of symbols. It’s almost like you’re breaking down the walls that have been created. That’s really our goal.”
Longo has also had issues with hearing friends and members of the deaf community regarding his music.
“My parents don’t think I should be doing music,” said Longo. “My teachers, my friends [hearing and deaf] tell me that I shouldn’t be doing music. And I think we’re proving them wrong.”
Beethoven’s Nightmare will be making an appearance in a film called Deaf Ghost which will be out in 2013. The director and many of the crewmembers are also deaf. The lead actor will be singing with Beethoven’s Nightmare in a club scene.
Perhaps the most well known deaf performer is Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish solo percussionist who has won a Grammy and more than 80 international awards, packed hundreds of sold-out concert halls, and collaborated with superstars Björk and Sting. She’s a multi-instrumentalist who says she can play more than 1,800 instruments.
Glennie has been deaf for the majority of her life, communicating through speech and lipreading. Glennie, speaking on the phone as her schedule coordinator mouths the words to her, explains that deaf people experience vibration in an area of the brain that is used for hearing.
“You can also distribute the sound throughout the whole body rather than just the ear,” Glennie says. “Lower sounds can be felt in a lower part of your body and higher sounds can be felt in a higher part of your body. If you think of the body as a resonating chamber, it’s something that we can all do.”
Glennie says she performs in bare feet to better feel the vibrations.
Glennie is used to often being questioned about her deafness rather than her music.
“As human beings, we all think that if you try to categorize something, it makes things simpler, when, in actual fact, it can make things a lot more complicated,” Glennie says.
In response to questions about her hearing ability, she has written an article about it on her website that she cleverly titled “Hearing Essay.”
“I hope that the audience will be stimulated by what I have to say (through the language of music) and will therefore leave the concert hall feeling entertained,” Glennie writes. “If the audience is instead only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion then I have failed as a musician.”
“My hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me,” Glennie adds. “There are a couple of inconveniences, but in general it doesn’t affect my life much. My deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes. Sure, I sometimes have to find solutions to problems related to my hearing and music, but so do all musicians. Most of us know very little about hearing, even though we do it all the time. Likewise, I don’t know very much about deafness. What’s more, I’m not particularly interested. I remember one occasion when I became upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions only about my deafness. I said: ‘If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My specialty is music.’”
Back in metro Detroit, the crowd at the District packs into the music hall to watch Altered Paradigm, a self-described hard rock band whose guitar riffs and drum solos are accentuated by the massive and numerous bass speakers that surround the stage, causing the floor to rattle from the intensity of the vibrations.
The ASL interpreter signs along to the music, her vigorous signs and facial expressions reflecting the high vocals and thrashing movements of the lead singer.
“Music is visual and vibrant,” explains 31-year-old West Bloomfield native Artur Pinkhasov. “To the hearing community it is all about lyrics and what message you are delivering. To the deaf, it is visual — the facial expressions, the movements and feeling the beats. That’s the true meaning to music.”
A mix of hearing, deaf and hard of hearing people, some in the crowd clap in time to the beat — others sign along to the music.
Although everyone in the room interprets the music differently — music is enjoyed by all.
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