“What is music without sound?” It may resemble a debate from a university Philosophy lecture or the musings of a great thinker, but is in reality one of the most common questions Leicestershire Hearing Impaired Service are asked, forming part of a shocking common misconception that music is a solely audible art-form and therefore can only be enjoyed or appreciated by the hearing.
For the past few months, soundLINCS have been embarking on a new project with young people with hearing impairment in several nurseries across Leicestershire to disprove this theory and help deaf and hearing impaired children to engage with music.
Last year I was fortunate enough to meet the world-renowned profoundly deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and talk to her about how young people with deafness can overcome barriers to music. Her passion for the subject was striking and contagious, as she told me that it was “really, really crucial that they should have the opportunity to explore soundworlds that they can respond to and open up the possibilities for them to be right beside instruments and have time to explore them”. soundLINCS have entered into music delivery in partnership with Leicestershire Hearing Impaired Service, Leicester-shire Music Hub and Leicestershire County Council to help invoke this engagement and eradicate the question “Why give musical workshops to hearing impaired and deaf children?”
Our Youth Music Fund C programme is a 3 year long project delivering music workshops and training focusing on the ‘Inquiring Minds Process’. This is taking place through work with CCC across 5 diverse strands; looked after children, youth justice services, paediatric services, young parents and children with special educational needs.
I recently joined our Music Facilitator Jonny for delivery at 3 Leicestershire nurseries to see how well the young people were engaging and the true impact music can make on those with hearing impairment and deafness.
One of the settings that we visited was the Sketchley Hill Menphys Nursery in Hinckley, where we were greeted by 5 excited 3 year old boys, who had apparently spent the whole morning enquiring when the music would be starting! The children all had varying levels of special educational needs and disabilities including Brendan (name changed), who staff suspect suffers from severe deafness.
Jonny launched into the session with a Hello Song to introduce everyone before grabbing his guitar and starting some participatory songs such as Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald. The children were instantly eager to suggest the next verse, covering everything from swishing wipers to lions and crocodiles. Brendan was at the forefront of all of these suggestions, carrying out all of the actions with vigour and performing a loud lion’s roar that probably made those in adjoining rooms look round uneasily.
After this Jonny invited the children to take turns in strumming the guitar, whilst he held the neck to play the chords to several songs. Brendan was straight to the front of the queue to take part and seemed fascinated by exploring the influence his actions had by strumming, fast, hard, soft and slow. It was notable how engrossed he was in the instrument, with his bus actions and animal sounds falling by the wayside as he tried to extend his turn for as long as possible.
Once everyone had had their turn, Jonny unveiled a box with a plethora of instrument options and let the children investigate and choose their own, spending several minutes shaking, hitting and playing their various options before settling on their favourite sound. This really grabbed me as echoing Dame Evelyn’s comments about “exploring soundworlds” and this degree of independence to how they engage with music. Watching Brendan and the other children discovering what noise something produced and then testing it to its extremes was a brilliant example of the real learning and discovery that music-making can offer.
We then ended the session with an activity designed to further this exploration of an instruments range whilst also teaching about stop cues and ending in unison. Jonny would sing “We jingle and we jingle and we stop”, with the group playing along until freezing at the end of the line. They all engaged fantastically with the challenge, including Brendan who was intently watching Jonny waiting for the visual cue to stop to make sure he kept time. The activity was then furthered to change the tempo and volume of both the singing and playing, performing the song loudly, quietly, fast and slow.
Upon finishing, we discovered we had actually begun to run over into the children’s lunch time, with staff remarking that it was the only activity they regularly took part in where the children would happily delay their meal to keep on taking part. We didn’t want to deny them their sandwiches any longer though so set off to the next group.
The following session was at The Menphys Centre in Wigston. After signing in we went through to the staff room to wait for the session to start, where we met several members of staff and nursery workers who were eager to probe Jonny about how they could incorporate music more into their own lessons and about extending the project due to the effect they had seen it have on the children.
As we began to set up for the workshop, we were quickly greeted by Ben, a 3 year old boy with multiple disabilities including deafness, for which he wore an aid. Jonny had told me before the session that Ben was his biggest fan and that he absolutely loved the sessions. The staff member who arrived with him told us that he’d been excited all day and constantly trying to initiate music in previous classes. Seven other participants, all with varied disabilities and aged three or four, soon arrived and we got started with the session.
The way the children opened up during the workshop was really striking. The format was the same as the previous workshop, and Ben was eagerly running around for the whole hour, trying to sit in every place, play every instrument and conduct every line of the songs. His particular passion was in the guitar, fetching it back from the corner of the room whenever Jonny tried to introduce new instruments and strumming away with a huge smile on his face.
The benefits for other class members were also noteworthy. Bobby, who suffered from autism and was apparently silent in almost all of the classes was joining in with the animal noises of Old MacDonald and by the end of the session even suggesting his own verses (a dog, if you were wondering). There was also Beth, who enjoyed sharing and swapping a range of instruments and was very affectionate with the staff, eager to give hugs and stay close to them. This was also apparently a rare occasion as she was often quite distant and disengaged.
Speaking to soundLINCS Music Facilitator Jonny after the workshops, he told me that the sessions had been fantastic to be a part of and that the children had far surpassed the expectations of both himself and the nursery staff in terms of their engagement and understanding. He said that making music always created a palpable feeling of joy in the room and that their actual musical ability had also shown real progression over the course of the project.
So, having now taken part in a music workshop with young people with deafness, can I answer the question of why we should do music with hearing impaired and deaf children? Frankly, because it’s an absolute no-brainer. The increase in engagement and happiness that I saw during the sessions was as great, if not better, than we often see with hearing participants, and the excitement the young people got from being able to take part in something that was often not made available to them was clear. Going forwards we must continue on the journey to dispel these myths and misconceptions and aim to normalise the opportunity for young people with deafness to explore their musicality.