In October, SATORI played a classical music concert for an audience who couldn’t hear it – and it was wonderful.
SATORI is participating in the Arts & Access initiative of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, a yearlong celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, seen through the lens of the arts. As a performing arts organization with deep roots locally, we wanted to be a part of this special series of events – and thought we already had an ace in the hole. For almost two decades, SATORI has been presenting in-school music education programs that combine classical music with an array of vibrant images and drawings, projected overhead as the musicians play. Surely the addition of a visual component to a music performance might make it more appropriate for a deaf or hard-of-hearing audience?
Our hope was to develop a program to reach the Lehigh Valley’s deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and to this end we enlisted the knowledgeable assistance of the personnel at CLIU #21, the facility that coordinates the educational needs of deaf students across several counties. Their response was swift and favorable – but there were some additional factors for us to consider. Just adding a visual component to the music wouldn’t be enough – somehow the introductions and the music itself needed to reach the students, since images illustrating inaudible music would be just pictures out of context. ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters materialized, ready for the task – not just of interpreting the narrative of the presentation, but the character of the music as well. Happy or sad, high or low, energetic or relaxing, the nature of the music needed to be conveyed as well as the story expressed in pictures.
Deaf students are visual learners, we were told, and also very tactile – can they touch any of this? It will mean much more to them if they can see things up close, and actually touch the instruments. Since musical instruments do vibrate when they are played, there would be something special for them to feel – if we could make it work.
On the day of the performance, deaf students, faculty, classroom mentors, interpreters, and members of the general deaf community gathered, fingers flying as they greeted friends. We played to an audience of almost 100 people – 50 students, aged 5-20, from kindergarten to high school seniors, plus approximately 40 adults active in the deaf community and deaf education. From the stage, it looked like any student program in any school, except for the fluently signed speech and expressive gestures we saw everywhere.
As we began, ASL interpreters around the room began simultaneous translations, first of the introductory words, and then signing their interpretations of the music itself. Their fingers raced through complicated patterns, accompanied by body language and facial expressions – trying to convey the essence of Mozart and Handel without sound.
And then the students, invited by the musicians, began to come forward to feel the instruments as we played. Every single student, plus most of the deaf adults in the room, for every single instrument. As the music of Haydn and Bach played, the line to feel its vibrations coiled around the room, with older students guiding younger ones. And as each hand was placed gingerly on a cello’s neck, or the head joint of a flute, there was a flash of understanding, a sudden smile, and a flurry of signed excitement.
A question period yielded fascinating questions, in many ways different from the questions we receive from hearing students. Since deaf students are so visually oriented, details of instrument shape and structure were interesting to them. And the instruments’ varying vibrations boiled down to a simple question – does that mean they are making different sounds?
As the program ended, the applause typical of the deaf community overwhelmed us – not hands clapping, because what would be the point in their culture? Instead, it was “jazz hands,” waving eagerly at us from the entire crowd.
SATORI and the musicians who performed that day were happy to introduce these deaf students to the music that is so central to our lives. In return, they were willing to invite us into their silent world, giving us a new viewpoint on something so familiar to us, sharing their excitement as they discovered a new art, and welcoming us with communication out of silence.
And it was wonderful.
by Nora Suggs, Artistic Director, SATORI