Vive la musique!

7 December 2017

Elsa Falcucci, Music Teacher at the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, hosted Feel the Music, the MCO’s programme for deaf and hard of hearing students, in her classroom during the orchestra’s Beethoven with Yuja project in Paris. Her class also visited the orchestra during a morning rehearsal session with pianist Yuja Wang at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

The Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris (INJS) was founded in 1791. It is a specialized public school under the patronage of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. Deaf students from three to 20 years old attend INJS, where their curriculum is linked to personalized projects based on their language (French with or without cued speech, or French sign language) and needs. While the middle school and vocational high school classes at INJS are for deaf students only, the institute also works with schools where deaf students attend classes with hearing students.

In this interview, the MCO speaks with Elsa Falcucci about the impact of Feel the Music on her class, how music is perceived by her students, and the music education programme at INJS.

What is your experience with deaf students, and with music? How does your current role as the music teacher at INJS bring these two elements together?

It’s been almost ten years now that I’ve been teaching music to deaf students. When some students first start taking music classes – especially those with profound deafness and no hearing aid – they think that they won’t be able to play music because of their deafness.

When they see the music room, something happens in them and I think they can see the many possibilities. But when they start experiencing different instruments, feeling the vibrations and especially playing with the other students: that’s when they realize that anything is possible!

How did you prepare your students for Feel the Music?

I explained to them that they were going to meet professional musicians and that they would be able to try different instruments. My colleague who teaches English worked on the biographies of each musician, Miriam and Paul with my students. I told them that they would take part in a rehearsal with the whole orchestra.

What kind of experience do your students have with music? Do you think that made a difference in their preparations for and perceptions of Feel the Music?

In my classes, the students learn different things: music theory, sound painting (a method that engages students of all ages, ability levels, and art forms in the creative process), basics of piano, guitar, drums and ukulele.

The students who participated in the Feel the Music started taking music classes with me in September 2017, so they didn't know a lot about music. But we had already played "the conductor game" so maybe that helped them in that role in front of the four musicians and the orchestra. They had also tried the double bass before Feel the Music. My students wanted to know if they would be able to play on the instruments themselves. But they were also scared they could damage or break them!

What was the most memorable part of Feel the Music for your students? And for you?

All of them loved working with Paul Whittaker! They really enjoyed all of his games, especially the body clapping game. The fact that he was deaf was also really important for them. It means that a deaf adult is convinced that deaf people can play the music, just like anybody who can hear, so it has a greater impact on them.

There were four different instruments they could experience: the violin, viola, double bass and oboe. I thought they would all be eager to try the double bass because it produces the greatest vibrations. What amazed me is that the instrument which really attracted them was the oboe. They all wanted to try it and some of them made really great sounds with it!
After the oboe it was the violin they turned to despite the very high sounds it makes, sounds which are really difficult to feel for them. I guess they wanted to try the unknown! My students had a real curiosity towards these instruments. It just confirms what I thought: there are no limits to learning music when you are deaf, whatever your deafness level is. We should offer as many possibilities to them as possible so that they can experience every kind of music, just like people who can hear.

Has Feel the Music left a lasting impression in your classroom? What kind of impact has it made to your curriculum and students?

After the project, clarinetists came to present their instruments to my students. They tried the instruments without real hesitation and I think it's because they had already tried the oboe during Feel the Music. My students didn't ask about the purpose of the reeds because they already knew what it was. It shows that learning how to play one wind instrument can help students try other wind instruments and make them feel more comfortable with them. The clarinetist also told me that the deaf weren't as restricted as people who can hear because they weren't focused on the beauty of the sound they produced, but that they were more concentrated on the vibrations they created.

Ultimately, my students made great sounds only by focusing on the vibrations they felt, so if they practiced a lot more maybe they could become really good clarinetists. I am convinced they have the ability to do everything!

The INJS is one of the oldest and most well-established schools for the deaf – and one with the most well-developed music programme. How did that come about and what does the music programme at INJS look like today?

I have been teaching at INJS since 2002. I am also a singer-songwriter, so music has a very important place in my life. In 2008, while teaching 12-year-olds, I began to play music with them on small instruments to work mostly on rhythm. We went to the music museum at Cité de la Musique and when the kids saw the music room there, they told me that it was unfair they didn't have a music room at school!

I spoke with the principal about creating a music room at the institute and he was thrilled with the idea. The institute acquired instruments (piano, guitars, bongos…) and in 2009 I began to teach music to two groups of students. It worked well, but the students without hearing aids could only feel the vibrations created by the instruments close to their body, and not the music performed by others. So it was difficult for them to really play together. Eventually, we developed sound systems in the music room so that the students would be able to feel the music performed by them – even with electronic instruments – and by their friends.

In 2013, funds from the Association Elena Rostropovich made it possible for us to add instruments, sound systems and panels (which prevent the reverberation of the sounds, so that the students would hear better with their hearing aids) to the music room.

We’ve worked on many projects throughout the years, including opening for professional jazz musicians such as Mederic Collignon or Guillaume Perret at Le Triton. Last year we played with Tarek Atoui and the instruments he created for his project Within. We also met Evelyn Glennie.

I think that playing music with professional musicians and performing in front of an audience is very important for my students. My teaching programme is all about playing and creating music, and about sharing the music with audiences.

What is the greatest challenge for you as a music teacher for deaf and hard of hearing students?

I no longer have to convince my students that music is for everyone, even for them – they are convinced of it themselves now! If some of them think music is only for hearing people, the other students encourage them to think otherwise. So the students are my better allies and the first ones to defend music for the deaf!

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to have other people accept that even someone with profound deafness and no hearing aids can also enjoy learning how to play an instrument (and to do so really well – if he wants to practice a lot, as any musician would do.)

I still have to explain that music is all about the pleasure you can get from it and about a shared experience with others. But it is the same for people of hearing!