Music In My Head | Paul Whittaker on Music & Deafness

6 November 2021

In this latest episode of Between The Bars, join host Yannick Dondelinger as he speaks with Paul Whittaker, deaf musician, performer and creative advisor of our Feel the Music education programme.

Exploring Paul's upbringing in 1960's England, this episode sheds light on a defining paradox of his life – the challenges of uniting music with deafness. He discusses how to shift the perception of what it means to experience music, and how Beethoven turned his own experience into creative triumph.

Taking inspiration from the composer's own journey, the MCO's educational project Feel the Music was developed in 2012 with MCO Artistic Partner Leif Ove Andsnes. We discuss this ground-breaking and unconventional project, and why it is important for everyone, regardless of hearing ability, to discover music on their own terms.

Transcript below.

Musical excerpts from The Beethoven Journey appear courtesy of Sony Classical.

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Hello. Yannick Dondelinger here. And welcome again to Between the Bars. This is the podcast of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and we deal in the glory, the beauty and the meaning of sound. Music is what feeds our hearts through our ears.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Allegro” from Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)]

The celebrated Norwegian pianist, and long-time MCO Artistic Partner, Leif Ove Andsnes on Sony Classical’s acclaimed recording of our three-year cycle through the five piano concerti of Beethoven, aptly titled The Beethoven Journey

The “Emperor” concerto, the fifth and last. A symphony more than a concerto, heroic in vision and construction, and definitely not named after Emperor Napoleon, whose soldiers were knocking at Vienna’s door, where Beethoven was composing. The fifth looks forward to music’s next era, that of the individualist, the romanticist, the “superman.”

Beethoven was profoundly deaf by the time he composed this piece. And by all historic accounts, never able to show his thundering power on the keyboard at its premiere in Leipzig in 1810. There’s an element of the chicken or the egg dilemma here. Were his frustrations created more by having a naturally abrasive character? Or more from the torture of slowly losing the ability to hear the music he was performing and composing? Would his life have been happier if he hadn’t have gone deaf? In which case, would he even have composed this piece in the first place? So might we never have heard this gem of his?

I am going to play you another Beethoven moment now, “Ode to Joy,” from the finale of his ninth and last symphony. You will recognise it. It is one of the most powerful classical anthems in history. But something is going to happen to the music. By this late point in his life, Beethoven was now totally deaf. So be patient. Be quiet. And whatever you do, don’t adjust your headphones.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Finale (Ode to Joy)” from Symphony No. 9]

Paul Whittaker: Studies anyway have proved that music bypasses your ears. If you think about patients who have got dementia, or other illnesses, music still reaches part of their brain, part of their soul, when all other faculties have gone.

YD: Paul Whittaker, musician, educator, founder of the ground-breaking UK charity Music and the Deaf, and recipient of an OBE, Order of the British Empire, for his services to music. Paul is deaf. To be exact, he is profoundly deaf. There is an official scale of deafness: mild, moderate, severe, profound and total. So Paul is near the end of this scale. When you listen to his voice, his articulation and pronunciation take just a little while to get used to. And yes, the quietest, most inaudible parts of what you just heard of Beethoven’s music would probably match how Paul experiences music with his own ears, which is why he employs other ways of listening. 

PW: Without a score I have no idea of what any piece of music is. I can’t go to a concert, download a piece of music, put the radio on, and tell what music is being played. I cannot pick up the voice, the instrumentation, lyrics, rhythm, intonation, nothing. But the moment I sit there with a score in front of me, I look at that and I know in my head what that sounds like. And this is something I have never remembered being taught.

YD: Music in my Head is the title of this episode. We are going to show you how amazing and untapped the brain really is. Areas of it that are used unbeknown to us every day while daydreaming in class, or when reading a book in our heads, can feed an inner ear that is in some ways even more exciting to explore music with than the two attached to the side of our heads, the ones we all take for granted. For those of us, including myself, who at first glance though music and deafness is a contradiction in terms, listen to Paul explain: no. If you dig deeper, there is no contradiction. It’s a paradox. 

PW: A lot of the fear comes from ignorance. You meet someone who is deaf and they say they’re a musician and your brain suddenly thinks “This is not possible. It is a paradox.” If you ring up possible teachers, and you say “Hello, my son is five years old. He wants to play the piano, but he can’t hear what he’s playing and he can’t hear what you’re saying to him,” it’s not really going to inspire confidence. And there were so many occasions when I was younger, that people in authority, whether they were teachers, examination boards, and so on, they would actually say “No, no, no, we can’t cope with this.” It’s fear on their part. And I realised that what I had to do, was try and prove to them that I could this and that they could do it too.

YD: The intro is soon over. But just to say that there are three chapters to Music in my Head. The first, “Paradox Child,” focuses on Paul’s early life growing up in ‘60s England, being deaf and loving classical music. Not easy. Chapter two, “Beethoven’s Inner Ear,” uncovers some of the misconceptions we all have about the most famous deaf person in history, who just so happened to also be one of history’s most famous composers.

And chapter three, “Feel the Music,” brings us up-to-date with the whole reason I am talking today with Paul Whittaker: his attachment to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and our award-winning outreach project introducing deaf children to classical music. Feel the Music, like a deep-space satellite, just keeps going years after its original remit. And to date has touched base with hundreds of children in more than ten countries round the world.

PW: Out of all the projects I have done, in all my years working with deaf children, the most enjoyable, the most challenging, and the most satisfying is Feel the Music.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Adagio un poco mosso” from Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)]

Through Feel the Music, we have changed the lives of hundreds of young people. 

YD: Feel the Music is also part of The Beethoven Journey that I mentioned at the opening. And so we thought that it would be appropriate for the Beethoven, Andsnes, MCO, and Sony Classical collaboration to be your soundtrack to the episode. 

I: Paradox Child

YD: Chapter One: “Paradox Child.” Huddersfield. North England. 1960s. Paul Whittaker is born deaf, but picking up on this wasn’t quite that easy back then.

PW: I must have been a few weeks or a few months old when my parents first knew that I was deaf. But the medical authorities were adamant that I could hear. The reason Mum and Dad knew that I was deaf is because I have two older sisters and the older sister is deaf. There’s four years between us, so my parents could identify the fact I couldn’t hear. But it wasn’t until I was seven, when my audiologist said to my parents. “We have made a mistake. Paul is actually deaf. In fact he is so deaf, we don’t think we can help him. So take him away. We don’t want to see him again.”

YD: “Take him away. We don’t want to see him again.” Well, Paul happily admits that today they can test babies, and get a good idea of their hearing. But leaving decades-old techniques aside, you could feel quite angry to have waited seven years to be told by the doctors you trust, that they made a medical mistake. Especially, if in the meantime, you are falling in love with music.

PW: When I was growing up, I was never aware of being deaf or being different. When you are young, you don’t think of it anyway, you just get on with life and whatever it throws at you. And it wasn’t until I was probably eight, when I got my very first hearing aid, which was a big body-worn thing, with wires that go up into your ears. It was very noticeable. Not like the behind-the-ear hearing aids nowadays. And I was the only kid at the whole school, who looked like a robot when I wore this thing. That made me realize that I was a bit different. 

But as time went on, I turned that to my advantage. Because when I went into secondary school, I had a radio hearing aid, so the teacher would wear the transmitter, and I would wear the receiver. And if the teacher ever went out of the room, they would nearly always forget to switch this off. So we could hear the private conversations that the teachers were having with their colleagues. And what I used to do was take my earpiece out, turn the volume up full, and my classmates would gather round to hear all these private conversations. We could make as much noise as we liked, but we always knew when the teacher was coming back in the room. So you can use it to your advantage!

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Rondo, molto allegro” from Piano Concerto No. 2]

YD: And so there it is. That remarkable spark of survival. It’s a testament, not only to Paul, but to the breath-taking resilience of young life, that after being born deaf, he picks himself up, dusts himself off and proceeds to use his deafness in his own words “to your own advantage.”

Of course the spark of life is nothing a child between one and eight really thinks about. Kids all over the world have to jump over all manner of hurdles in their formative years. But it’s still to be marvelled at, and shown respect by adults. For Paul’s music-making, his parents had that respect and encouragement in spades. Mum played the piano. And Dad…

PW: My Dad was completely unmusical. His own father used to run a dance band in the 1920s and ’30s. And so he loved music. He passed Dad the love of music but not the ability to make it. Dad was also one of these people who, when I was in the church choir, he would insist on singing very loudly from the congregation. But he couldn’t sing in tune, and he couldn’t sing in time. So I think the musician side of me comes from my Mum.

YD: So how musical was Paul? I asked him at what age he started reading scores. Scores are what orchestral conductors follow. They are the blueprint, the masterplan of any piece an ensemble is playing. Famously complex to read, they are a bit like following a football match, while visualising and understanding in your head, the whole game: pitch, both teams, and what every single player is doing – and will do next – at any moment. 

PW: The first occasion that I can remember, I must have been eight or nine. And I only remember this because my Mum used to keep mentioning it. It was when I first went to a performance of the Messiah. And I just followed it all the way through from start to finish with the score without getting lost.

Let’s be honest, there was a couple of places where I did get lost. But if you watch the singers, they are all turning their pages at the same time. So you can cheat slightly. But yeah, Mum was quite amazed that at the age of eight or nine I could sit down and just follow that all the way through.

YD: Strong, loving, dedicated parents, bags of talent, and a thirst for life. I’ve known Paul for some years now, and with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and our Feel the Music projects, he has been our Music and the Deaf consultant, travelling extensively with the MCO to places like Hong Kong, Macao, Dublin, Bonn, Brescia, Prague, London, workshopping and speaking in front of hundreds of people, consulting with on-the-ground educators, all the while being introduced to officials who run some of the most celebrated concert halls in the world.

He has a big personality. The kind you know about when he enters the room. But that’s now. I asked him if the Paul we know has always been this way, regardless of his deafness.

PW: No. The Paul Whittaker that you see and that you know is an act. When I was young, I was very shy. I definitely was not sociable. I am the kind of child who if a teacher asked a question, even if I knew the answer, I would never put my hand up because I was so nervous and shy of saying anything in a public environment. Because I was playing the piano from the age of five, and then I started singing in a choir from the age of seven, that made me confident as a musician. I was used to standing up with a choir, sitting down playing the piano, and people watching, listening, appreciating what you do. I don’t know whether that’s true of a lot of musicians.

I think it’s more of an analogy with an actor. A lot of actors take refuge in a role. Somebody has given them the words to say, they put on make-up, they put on costumes, and they become that person. For me it was the most: I am confident as a musician. But as Paul Whittaker … no! Scared little boy! And it wasn’t really until I was 19 that I came out of my shell, and I had to start talking to people more and developing more confidence.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Rondo (Vivace)” from Piano Concerto No. 4]

YD: It’s 1982. Paul is passionate about music and wants to apply for university. However, the schooling system has, through the previous two decades, little understanding of how to nurture a deaf music student. Paul explains, with typical frankness (he’s not scared of telling it how it is!) that in the 1960s and ’70s, deaf children leaving high school would invariably end up dropping out of the academic system. They were lucky to get some basic qualifications, and would then train in such fields as plumbing or factory production-line work. You definitely couldn’t study music.

But Paul is not deterred by this. He works the problem.

PW: Back then in the UK you were only allowed to apply to a maximum of five universities a year. My first choice university was Durham. In the early 1980s it was the only university in the UK that provided support for deaf students. They would give you sign-language interpreters, and little speakers, a note-taker, they would provide emergency aids like flashing fire alarms… stuff like that. And the college I applied to in Durham said “Yes, we are quite happy to have you.” The music department had the opposite view. They said “No no, deaf people can’t be musicians. They would take up too much of our time. It would cost too much money.” And therefore they wouldn’t even give me an interview. The other four universities I applied to that year rejected me for the same reason: I am deaf.

When it came to 1983, rather than applying formally, I wrote to several universities to ask would you even consider a deaf music student. They all came back: “No.” And when I made the formal application it was “No.” again. So twelve universities didn’t want me. But then one day Mum found an Oxford prospectus, flicked through and came across a place called Wadham. And she liked what she read. So without telling me she rang them up and asked if they would like a deaf music student. They said “Yes. Sounds an interesting challenge.” So I filled in the application form, did the entrance exam, went for an interview, four candidates trying to get one place, and they gave it to me because my tutor said you can write about music, you can talk about it, you can analyse. That’s all he was bothered about. 

It was the kind of thing that Wadham did. It was the first college to go mixed in 1968, so it accepted female students. And it’s always been quite forward-looking. So when I asked students at Wadham, who were older than me, what the reaction was when they found out they were getting a deaf music student, the normal response was “Well, that’s what we do here.” And I will always be grateful to Wadham, and to the music department in Oxford, for giving me that opportunity. They looked at my ability, not my disability.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Rondo (Vivace)” from Piano Concerto No. 4]

II: Beethoven’s Inner Ear

Ludwig van Beethoven (via Christian Heubes): What I have in my heart and soul must find a way out. That’s the reason for music. Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual world. 

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Andante con moto” from Piano Concerto No. 4]

YD: Beethoven’s own words, expressing his existence as a composer, as a creator of music, in what must have been a sort of twilight world between his heart, soul and mind, and the outside world, the sensual world. Chapter Two: “Beethoven’s Inner Ear.”

PW: I often think that musicians who were given the scores of Beethoven’s newest work must have looked at them and thought “My God. What the hell is this!” What they forget about Beethoven, for the first twenty years of his life, he could hear. He wasn’t born deaf. His hearing started going in his late teenage years and he was profoundly deaf by his mid-twenties. He therefore had all this memory and experience of sound. He had heard and probably played a whole load of different musical instruments, so he knew what their technical capabilities were, he knew about music theory, he had been taught how to compose, he knew what all the rules were, and he knew how to break them. So he had all of this knowledge in his head. Just because he became deaf, all of that knowledge did not disappear. If anything, it enabled him to be more inventive and more creative because he had to imagine things.

YD: Paul finds this “inner ear” imagination very important to Beethoven’s journey of discovery in composing music that was, at the opening of the 19th-century, truly avant-garde. But which by our present standards, have become loved and recognized masterworks. But he also has some words to say about, in his opinion, “dubious perspectives” on Beethoven’s deafness that seem to have sunk into folklore.

PW: I find some of the stories about his deafness laughable. And it shows how little people understand about deafness rather than how little they understand about Beethoven. I remember in the 1980s, there was one story I read in a biography about Beethoven’s piano. When Beethoven died, his piano was in a terrible state. It was broken. It was battered. “And this is because Beethoven was so frustrated at not being able to hear. He was very violent on his piano. He even sawed the legs off it so it could lie flat on the floor.”

Why would anybody want to destroy a very expensive musical instrument by sawing the legs off? Have you ever seen anybody try to play a piano while it’s lying flat on the floor? It’s physically – not impossible – but it’s really difficult. Why would anybody want to do that? It just doesn’t make sense.

Beethoven didn’t need to hear. He knew in his head how to compose. He knew what things sounded like. He knew all that, tonal colour and all the rest of it, and he just put it down on a manuscript. Sometimes it was difficult to read his manuscript, but we also know that Beethoven’s character was a difficult one. He wasn’t an easy man. Yes, it definitely frustrated him, of course it did, but he wasn’t an easy man to get on with. That’s not always because of his deafness, by a long way. That’s his personality.

YD: And there are other stories. One recent discovery sheds light on Beethoven having some ability to still hear the year of the premiere of his ninth symphony in 1824, just a few years before the end of his life. The evidence comes from a conversation Beethoven had in a coffee shop in 1823 with a stranger seeking advice about their own hearing loss. Through a system of conversation notebooks Beethoven kept, an acquaintance or friend would jot down comments, which Beethoven himself would then reply to aloud. 

LvB: Do not use mechanical devices too early. By abstaining from using them, I have fairly preserved my left ear in this way.

YD: The mechanical device Beethoven is referring to is an ear trumpet. Basically a metal, conical tube that people in Beethoven’s day stuck in their ears so as to be able to hear better. Paul Whittaker, says he has tried one, while working in the Beethoven museum in Bonn, where the great man was born. And that these ear trumpets are not very effective at all (and also cumbersome). 

Paul’s point of view is that whatever the conflicting evidence concerning Beethoven going deaf, his inner ear allowed him to compose unhindered, in isolation, in the twilight world of his mind’s eye. While musical isolation is one thing, social isolation, however, takes another toll on the human psyche. The scholar Jonathan Noble, in his Beethoven biography, focusing on the medical aspects of Beethoven’s deafness, hits the nail on the head, when he says “Out of all his activities, composition was the easiest, and social interaction the most difficult.” Paul agrees, without a doubt. Beethoven suffered terribly from social isolation. 

PW: Music is something that you spend a lot of time doing in isolation. You have to spend time practicing. You spend time learning your craft. You have to spend hours and hours learning whatever piece of music you are going to be performing with your colleagues in a few months’ time. And that is something that all artists have to do. Music is great to make on your own. But it’s far more fun when you make it with other people. So it’s that combination of isolation and community. You can’t have one without the other. 

Going back to myself, yes, deafness is very isolating anyway because you miss conversation. If you’re with people who can’t sign, you pick up snatches of conversation and only 30% of the English language is lip-readable. So any conversation that you are trying to follow by lip-reading is guesswork. Every person’s mouth moves differently. Therefore it’s really really tiring when you’re trying to lip-read more than one person. I said earlier that it was only when I went to university that I started coming out of my shell. And I had to, because I was the only music student in a community of 360 undergraduates and however many graduates. I had to learn to be upfront about the fact that I was deaf, and take the risk of someone ignoring me because they don’t understand my deafness.

I used to think maybe only until five or six years ago, that I lived in really really tall tower. I am the Rapunzel of the music world, but with far less hair! There was no door. There were no windows lower down. There was just a very very tiny slit window near the top. And once in a while, somebody could fire an arrow and get through the window and find Paul, the real Paul. But it was a tower that I built around myself. And it took a very very long time for me to dismantle that, and to realize that people do actually like me, that they like my company, and that I quite like their company as well.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Andante con moto” from Piano Concerto No. 4]

LvB: You, who think or say I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me, for you do not know the secret courses. For six years, I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement. Finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady, whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible. Born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness. 

YD: Beethoven’s "Heiligenstadt" testament. A letter written to his brothers in October 1802, 21 years before the supposed ear trumpet conversation, expressing the psychological pain of his plight, and hinting at thoughts of suicide.

III: Feel the Music

[News Clip Mash-up]

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Rondo. Allegro scherzando” from Piano Concerto No. 1]

Leif Ove Andsnes: I am the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and what brings me to Brussels is a concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. This is a project, which is called Feel the Music, which is a very radical, in a way, educational program that the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has started.

YD: Finally, the voice of the man, whose phenomenal piano playing underpins this episode. And is, as I said earlier, the soundtrack to “Music in my Head.” Leif Ove Andsnes, being interviewed some six or seven years ago now, near the beginning of the MCO’s Feel the Music journey. That, as you also just heard from the news clip mash-up, has caused quite a stir in the media, who are, on the surface anyway, intrigued as to how school classes of deaf children can feel so emotionally engaged, maybe not so much by the sound of music, but more the feel of music.

LOA: When I first heard about that, I thought “Well, isn’t music about listening?” I thought this is very strange. And then I was explained the philosophy behind it and certain possibilities and I thought let’s give it a try. And we have done now three workshops, and I must say it is very interesting for me. It is still a mystery for me what the children get out of it, obviously because I cannot understand how it is not to hear anything. Especially not to hear music, but they really get something out of it. And it makes me think of how we perceive music. Music is also perceived through our entire body.

YD: I love Leif Ove’s honesty in admitting it took time to understand working with deaf children, and the way he accepts new journeys and new challenges to his knowledge base, not only with an inquisitive mind, but also with immense humility. Chapter Three: “Feel the Music.”

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Largo” from Piano Concerto No. 1]

LOA: They thought deaf people would have no enjoyment out of music. And now I see how they have. I explain to them how a piano works and they get to feel the strings of the piano, how it vibrates, feel the soundboard, and they feel through the floor. And they see the interactions. They are sitting amongst us when we are having an orchestral rehearsal. It’s clearly something they can identify with. And it’s very interesting when they touch an instrument. They are very sensitive, they are sometimes really just caressing the instrument and feeling it. So they are developing senses that for us maybe are underdeveloped. And this is something I would want to more and more as we do these workshops.

YD: Deaf children developing senses that for us, as Leif Ove puts it, are maybe underdeveloped. Us being normal hearing people. And interestingly probably even musicians. It was food for thought for Leif Ove Andsnes, and should really be food for thought for all of us. And so how did Paul Whittaker himself, deaf and a professional musician, react to being asked to come on board and help shape Feel the Music

PW: This email arrived in my inbox saying “We are the MCO. We are an international touring orchestra based in Berlin and we are starting a three-year portrait of playing Beethoven piano concertos and the Choral Fantasy in various cities around Europe. And we would like to provide music workshops for deaf children. Will you help us provide them?” And it was one of those job offers that you didn’t need to think about. “Yes! Of course I will!”

It was exciting. It was scary because nobody knew if it was going to work or not. There was a lot of scepticism, even criticism from people saying “Why are you wasting your time doing this with deaf children?” If I was nervous, I hope I didn’t show it when I first got together with the musicians involved in that first project. We had the fun of making a group of deaf students at a school, who were probably thinking “Why the heck are we doing this!” Because they had had no music education and they really didn’t think this was a sensible idea. But we did it. The kids enjoyed it. The staff in the school realised it was valuable, and that the children got something out of it. The musicians, I would say, found it an eye-opener. It probably blew their minds to some extent. As it happened, that was one of the most memorable ones because there was one lad there, who was crazy about Vivaldi. He just started talking about Vivaldi and because he was interested, all his friends got interested. They didn’t tease him about it. It just takes one person to spark an interest and get something right and everyone else will follow.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Allegro con brio” from Piano Concerto No. 1]

YD: I remember. I was there in the orchestra for that first project with Paul, Leif Ove and the kids. I think honestly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was actually mind-blowing, as Paul said, that with just 30 minutes with the orchestra on stage, the air was buzzing as children clung on to Beethoven’s vibrations coming from our instruments and surfed the resonating airwaves between the MCO players. 

PW: What I want to do first of all when I meet the deaf children is try and gauge what music ability, knowledge, skill – if any – they have. That’s why to start with I’ll sort of ignore the musicians, basically, and try to establish a relationship with them. As I’ve already hinted, I want them to recognise that I am the same as them. We are all deaf.

The reason I do clapping games is that it’s rhythm. Rhythm is the foundation of all our music. If you can’t internalise a beat, speed it up, slow it down, subdivide it, you will always have problems. Rhythm is also very visual, and it’s very physical. So that’s why we always start with the clapping game. It gives me some basic information about the kids. And it establishes that relationship.

[MCO Musicians demonstrate their instruments]

Once they’ve got the hang of that, that’s when I bring one of your musicians in as a leader. So they can also start developing the relationship with you. Probably, without realising it, I am also assessing each of you, and working out what I might need to tweak as we go through the workshop.

YD: There are two other stages to Feel the Music. After Paul’s classroom workshop with the children and a few MCO players, they are invited the next day to a full orchestral rehearsal on stage with Leif Ove, to take their place, so to speak, within the collective vibrations of Beethoven’s music. Then, that same evening, they get to come to the concert proper, and experience the performance with the rest of the public. But Paul is only there for the first stage, the workshop. There are other reasons for him missing out.

PW: I understand why I am not there because for me, it’s always been a case of trying to build a bridge between the deaf children and the MCO. I am the catalyst, if you like. I come in as a deaf musician. I can relate to the children. They can relate to me. But then I have to steer things away from me towards you, Emma, Matt [MCO Musicians], whoever else is involved in the project. And then when the children go into the rehearsal, they have that rapport with you and the MCO. So it’s good in some ways that I disappear. But I would still love to be there sometimes. I have seen some fantastic photos taken at these orchestral rehearsal sessions. You see the joy and the enthusiasm on the faces of the children, and they are incredibly fortunate, because they are doing something that most hearing children never get the chance to do. 

YD: The children doing the workshops love it, that’s clear. But what about their parents. As you are going to hear shortly from Paul, finding out your child is deaf or hearing-impaired, is understandably life-changing. But as a musician, and also as a parent myself, I had a few moments on projects where I struggled to understand some of these parents’ perspectives. Here comes another unedited portion from our interview. Paul offered me some wise words on a difficult aspect of parenting.

YD: I can’t remember which city it was with Feel the Music but we had these workshops, the kids were particularly into it, but then the whole time through the workshop process and in front of the orchestra, I think Miriam [Former MCO Education Manager] was saying there is this problem with a few of these kids that the parents don’t want them to go to the concert because they don’t think it’s worthwhile, they have some other activity they have to go to. And the teacher would continually try to persuade the parents to let the children go to the concert. We got to know the children through the workshop and in the end, they didn’t turn up to the concert. And it was very … I found it very sad.

PW: Yes I remember that. That is sad. If only the parents could see the impact it has on the children in the workshop and at the rehearsal, they would have a different view. Parents ultimately need support as well. If you suddenly find that you have a child who is deaf, who has got any disability, the bottom falls out of your world. And you want your child to be as normal, whatever that may be, as possible. And a parent can only really support and help their child when that parent accepts that they have a disability. You can’t pretend it’s not there. That’s cruel.

YD: A sound-clip from interview on a sunny boat trip down the river Rhine with deaf and hearing-impaired children from various countries. They came together in the German city of Bonn to perform in a very special MCO Feel the Music signing concert. And to celebrate World Deaf Day. They are describing the excitement of meeting children from other countries, to rehearse with them, to see how good they are at signing, and to laugh together with Paul.

[L. v. BEETHOVEN “Rondo: allegro” from Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)]

Later in the film clip, one particularly articulate Italian girl says, quote, “With the project I learned that music is like a friend.” And with her words, we understand that everyone, whether they are deaf or not, has discovered music. And furthermore, we are all to a very real extent, prisoners of the box that is our own brain, our mind, our thoughts, our inner world. The music is already in your head. And you often, without knowing it, spend a lot of time listening to it, conjuring it up in your mind, actually having a really good time with it. Whether your child is singing “Darth Vader’s Theme” to you, or someone has just found that melody that was on the tip of their tongue. Or when the first notes ring from your instrument on stage when you start a concert, we hear it in our heads first in our mind’s eye, our imagination, or at least we better had. Otherwise what comes out won’t make any sense. 

Being deaf might be officially a disability, but it also gives you an ability to focus on what you are creating in your mind. You don’t need to have your favourite interpretation of a piece decided for you by a bunch of music critics. Our imagination is in a way limited by the recording industry because they decide a version of a piece that is God’s word so to speak. But as a deaf person, you can own a piece, conjure it up, and listen to it the way you feel it, with your own built-in tape recorder. Or as Beethoven, you can imagine it, and write it down again and again and again until it’s crystal clear from head to page.

It’s poignant to note that before Edison invented the phonograph, your average music lover would be able to hear their favourite orchestral piece in concert maybe just a few times in their lifetime. For a composer, one of the highest accolades used to be composing from your head, no keyboard, no instrument. For a conductor, one of the highest accolades is still conducting without a score, from memory. Don’t be following the orchestra, they will know in a second. Follow the tape track in your head. That’s what they told me at conducting class, anyway. And so it is, in so many situations, imagination is key.

Thanks for listening to this episode and thanks so much of course to Paul Whittaker, and to Leif Ove Andsnes, but also to the performers of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the people at Sony Classical. And thank you, all the deaf and hearing-impaired children for enlightening us and helping us discover new things about ourselves and our music. 

The Between the Bars team is as ever Mark Parker, Matthias Mayr and me, Yannick Dondelinger. Until the next episode, keep listening.