Sitting in the audience, nine-year-old Locke was mesmerised as the mallets and drum sticks wielded by Evelyn Glennie seemingly disappear in a rhythmic blur. “Her performance tonight is music to my ears,” he says.
But like the Scottish percussion virtuoso performing with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Locke is profoundly hearing impaired and “feels” rather than hears music.
Anna, 12, a hearing-impaired student at Chun Tok School, was just as moved by the concert. “It was awesome. I wish it had lasted longer. I loved it.”
Glennie was performing for the second time in Hong Kong last week and on both occasions students from the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf, Chun Tok School (formerly the Hong Kong School for the Deaf) and other organisations were invited.
Perhaps to these students, Glennie is more than just a performer; she is an inspiration. Deaf since the age of 12, Glennie overcame the challenge and became a successful musician – even being named a dame by Queen Elizabeth in 2007. She had ignored a career counsellor’s suggestion that she should forget about music and take up accounting.
Glennie says being hearing-impaired should not be a barrier to achieving one’s goals.
Preferring to be known as a musician who happens to be deaf, rather than a deaf musician, Glennie was the first classical solo percussionist to perform a concerto at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She also performed last year’s Olympics opening ceremony and has collabourated with other top musicians including Sting, Björk, Béla Fleck and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.
On stage, she performs barefoot so that she can feel the vibrations from her instruments. She also “feels” the music through her arms, chest, cheeks and stomach. Higher sounds, she says, are felt in the higher parts of the body and low sounds in the lower parts.
Hong Kong schools that cater to students with hearing difficulties also appreciate the contribution music can make to the learning experience.
“Playing percussion instruments is a particularly good way for children with hearing difficulties to appreciate rhythm,” says Janice Choi, a social worker who works closely with Chun Tok.
Choi says the new secondary school (NSS) curriculum provides even more opportunities for special students to explore music. “Our students follow the normal curriculum so we welcome the chance to make music a bigger part of their education and recreation,” she says.
According to studies conducted by Dr Dean Shibata while he was assistant professor of radiology at the University of Washington, hearing-impaired people sense vibration in the normal, aural part of the brain. He says this may help explain how deaf musicians can sense music, and conversely how deaf people can enjoy concerts and other musical events.
Irene So, communications manager for the Society for the Deaf, also points out that music is useful tool for helping these students connect with the hearing world. For example, they are taught how to sing, use rhythmic body movements and participate in “multi-intelligence” activities which combine elements of dance, drama and music.
“We want our students to know that being hearing impaired doesn’t stop them from creating music or making music an important part of their lives,” says So.
Families with hearing-impaired children are encouraged to develop their interest in music together by joining singing and percussion classes at the society’s resource centres for parents
“Our students have different degrees of hearing impairment, but many can enjoy melody and rhythm with the assistance of a suitable hearing aid,” says So.
City Chamber Orchestra founder Leanne Nicholls says that when Glennie performs, people are most attuned to the sense of presence, commitment and music.
“For audience members with hearing problems, there are the visual aspects, the atmosphere and the movement on stage,” says Nicholls.
“Audiences are amazed not only with the speed she plays, but her connection with the music and the precession and control of the music she creates.”
Many students at last week’s performance were beneficiaries of the orchestra’s Student Ticket Scheme. Set up about four years ago, the scheme aims to introduce underprivileged children and their families to classical music.
“Introducing students to classical performances is designed to inspire and motivate,” says classical music fan and marketing consultant Margaret Yeung, who helped set up the ticket scheme.
“There are so many underprivileged children and their families who would never enjoy classical performances without the student ticket scheme and the companies that support it,” she says.
Because they usually have little or no experience of classical music events, students are first briefed about the artist, the different sections of the orchestra and general concert etiquette.
Through the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), the NGO fighting poverty and homelessness, scheme recipients are matched with music-loving employees of corporate donors who help introduce the youngsters to the performances.
“For children with impaired hearing, music might seem less accessible. However, we want to show them that despite their personal challenges, they can enjoy music,” says Mimi Kam, a Bank of East Asia manager who serves as a Soco volunteer.
Music is a common language, says Kam. “No matter where you come from, it can express any and every type of emotion, which everyone can share and understand. Besides, music can also relieve stress, it is a good way for us to relax. We want people to see that their personal challenges are not obstacles,” she says.
Many children will find the percussionist to be a revelation, says another Soco volunteer, Mark Tung, a communications executive with Hysan Development.
“It is inspiring for anyone to see and hear people with disabilities showing the world they can do just as well or even better than the next person,” he says.