What Can a Deaf Composer Teach Hearing Impaired Kids About Music? More Than You Might Think

Even casual fans of classical music know of Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness. But could his hearing loss actually have been his greatest advantage as a musician?
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Even casual fans of classical music know of Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness. But could his hearing loss actually have been his greatest advantage as a musician?

Maybe so, says Leif Ove Andsnes, the highly acclaimed Norwegian pianist touring the world playing Beethoven with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Perhaps hearing impairment was the great composer's greatest gift. And that got Andsnes thinking...about hearing impaired kids and the ways they "hear" or experience music.

"Beethoven knew by age 20 that he was losing his hearing," Andsnes, nominated for six Grammy awards, told me. "It led to depression and suicide attempts because of the social shame he experienced. He couldn't play the piano in public, and that's what he had become famous for in Vienna.

"But I've been thinking a lot," Andsnes says, "about why Beethoven's music took such a radical turn at that moment in his life. He's around 32 or 33 when he goes deaf, and that when his music becomes so wild and free and new, like nothing before.

"Maybe the fact that he had this handicap made him free," the pianist adds. "He was suffering a lot, but it also meant ultimately that he could just follow his inner voice and not worry really about this outer voice. He no longer had to deal with the practicalities of being a composer. He didn't have to be confronted with rehearsals and the personalities of other playing together. His deafness freed him from all that. He became a much freer and more radical composer as a result."

This made Andsnes wonder how music is perceived by people who cannot hear. That inquiry led to the founding of the "Feel The Music" project, which invites hearing-impaired children to experience music - especially Beethoven's music - in cities around the world where the Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays.

"Music, of course, is ultimately about listening," says Andsnes. "But there are other aspects to it.
Of course we listen with our ears, but we also perceive music through vibration and through our body. That's what we see working with the kids.

"They are also fascinated about how we as orchestra members communicate non-verbally as we rehearse and perform. They can clearly see that somebody has a leading role and others are accompanying. They get to experience the kind of wonderful democracy which is what an orchestra really is."

Several days before a concert, the Mahler musicians first visit a school with hearing-impaired children. For two days, they do everything from clapping games to introducing their different instruments. They let the kids feel the instruments and they play for them. They explain that music is about emotion.

On the day of the concert, Andsnes does the same thing.

"I have a short session with them where I introduce them to the piano, the hammer striking strings. I let them feel the strings with their hands. That's always a big sensation for them. They are amazed by how much vibration there is in a piano. I also have them sit under the piano and touch the soundboard, introduce to them how the pedals work and all that."

During rehearsals, the hearing-impaired kids sit among the musicians so they can "sit inside the action," in Andsnes' words, and see how it all works.

"I usually play passages of big emotional contrasts and dramatic passages, and some dreamy ones, some daunting ones, and some joyous ones. I introduce the different groups of instruments...the wind instruments, string instruments, the tympani, and then they get to conduct.

"We play an improvised chord in the orchestra. I tell the kids, if you look at the oboe and show a certain gesture, you'll get this kind of response. Do whatever you want -- fast or slow or introverted or extroverted. As a result, they understand music like never before.

When the children attend the actual concerts they are captivated," Andsnes adds. "They will sit through two hours of serious music and experience it in ways perhaps the adults around them cannot."

Feel The Music, which has won awards in Europe for its work inspiring children, has been presented in Cologne, Prague, Brussels, London, Dublin, Lucerne, and Paris, among other cities. Last September, 50 children from four countries met in Bonn for a family concert together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Andsnes and the MCO are performing at Boston's Jordan Hall on February 22nd and New York's Carnegie Hall on February 23rd and 25th.

Andsnes is modest about the goals of the program.

"We're not searching for a definite answers to this," he says. "We are just opening doors."