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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

A Musician Whose World Probably Sounds Nothing Like Yours

A world renowned soloist performed last week with the San Antonio Symphony and her musical achievements are astounding considering the obstacle she’s overcome. I went to the Tobin Center to interview her, and when I got there she was still practicing with the Symphony.

The rehearsal was something to watch--her long, thick grey hair flew wildly about as she raced to beat on a huge array of percussion instruments encircling her. It was a spirited first practice of a concert that will play out the next night there at the Tobin Center. She's practicing on local instruments.

“It could be completely different than what I’ve prepared on at home, for example.  And none of these instruments are mine.”

She’ll play publicly on dozens of instruments that she’s never seen ‘til this morning. Seemingly younger than her nearly 60 years, the Scottish native is highly energetic.

“It’s as though someone has given all the string players in the orchestras violins and cellos and violas double bases, you know. We would have a very different experience than what we’re experiencing now, when they’re all familiar with their instruments. But for me, I show up and I think 'Right…now how does this actually speak?'”

By “speak” she means how will this timpani sound, how will that wood block tap? Glennie’s accomplishments, precision and creative sound is made all the more impressive this: “I began losing my hearing at the age of eight.”

She didn’t stop losing her hearing—she now is profoundly deaf, and has been since she was 12. Although she would be the first to challenge that description because of what you probably think deaf means. Deafness isn’t usually a complete absence of sound. What very little she can hear sounds far different than what most of us hear. By necessity, she’s developed a technique she calls using her body as a resonating chamber.

“What I need to do is feed the sound through my body, and the body can really pick up sounds. Low sounds, high sounds, the whole body. It acts as a resonator. And so you’re able to distribute the sound a lot more than just through the ears. There has to be a willingness to listen and listening means paying attention. It means focusing, so you can’t listen whilst also doing text or e-mail or having the TV on or having the radio on or the computer on and being distracted. You have to listen and pay attention; that’s the key element actually.”

So how does that work—how does she use her body to hear?

“We’re all able to feel lower sounds through the lower parts of the body, higher sounds through the upper part of the body.  And it’s really getting used to, and practicing the art of opening up the body in a way to perceive sound.”

She’s trained other senses to pick up the slack, including some most of us never learned, or maybe even knew about.

"If you hold a sheet of paper or a balloon in your living room and the television is on or you can hear somebody speaking then you can feel the vibration through that balloon, through your fingertips.  If you place it through your neck you’ll feel it through your neck. You place it against your cheek bone you’ll feel it before your cheek bone, and so on and so forth."

The Grammy Award-winner often performs barefoot to be more sensitive to the vibrations coming up through her feet. She’s also become adept at reading lips, which is how she can be interviewed without interpretation. But after all this talk of hearing, what she really wants you to do is become a better listener.

"You must listen to your own body, your own mechanism before you can fully engage in the circumstances you’re in. You know, for me it’s a necessity."

You get the strong impression that Glennie is tapped into something the rest of us are just too busy to bother with.

For more on Evelyn Glennie, go here


Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii