Celebrating the sweet sounds of inclusive teaching

A great musician, in part gifted to us by a great teacher

A great musician, in part gifted to us by a great teacher

When I am writing I need quiet. There are some tasks I can perform with background noise or with music playing gently in the background, but if I am trying to write I need an atmosphere as silent as I can achieve. In this regard I am fortunate in living in a tranquil and beautiful part of the countryside surrounded by fields and trees and where for most of the time the only noise is that which emanates from the weather or the local wildlife.

Yesterday was spent in my study at home writing the text for part of a research proposal that I have been working on with colleagues. Virtually the whole day, save for a couple of phone calls that were a necessary interruption was spent in silence. I like it this way and the silence is of my own choosing. However, I have become increasingly aware over the years of working like this that after a prolonged period of tranquillity I often need to break the silence either with music or conversation. Whilst I like the focus that comes with a quiet room I would not cope well with leading the life of a Trappist monk.

So it was yesterday that after around eight hours of quiet writing time I needed to break the silence and immerse myself in the world of sound. With the house still empty – Sara at yet another school staff meeting, I selected a CD, turned on the music and relaxed into an armchair. My choice of music today was James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel. MacMillan is a Scottish Composer whose compositions have been played and recorded by many of the world’s leading orchestras. Much of his music such as Seven Last Words from the Cross and his interpretation of the St John Passion has a sacred theme and can invoke a meditative atmosphere. Passages from Veni Veni Emmanuel can certainly have this impact, but as a piece written for percussion and orchestra it is often bold and loud, and after a day of silence this suited my purpose.

As I sat listening to and enjoying the music it was inevitable that as well as reflecting on this beautiful composition and the exciting tones of the opening passages, my thoughts turned to the solo percussionist featured in the recording. In particular I found myself thinking about the nature of silence and the joy of music. The reason for this juxtaposition of sound and silence was intensified by knowing that the percussionist whose virtuoso performance I was hearing is herself profoundly deaf.

I have had the great privilege of seeing Evelyn Glennie perform live on a number of occasions. Diminutive of stature, invariably barefoot on the stage, her presence and command of the orchestra immediately demands respect. When I first saw her performing Veni Veni Emmanuel at the Derngate Concert hall in Northampton I was immediately gripped by the energy of her playing and the subtle changes of mood created throughout the performance. On subsequent occasions I have been equally entranced by her enthusiasm tempered by great control and the mastery of her instruments.

When interviewed about her musicianship it is inevitable that before long the subject of Evelyn Glennie’ deafness emerges. She often uses these occasions to encourage  deaf children and more particularly their teachers to try and get involved in some aspect of music. Of her own situation she states:-

“I just happen to be a musician who happens to be deaf, who happens to play percussion, who happens to have brown hair, and so on!”

In an interview first published in Modern Drummer in 1989 she paid tribute to a particular teacher who had faith in her ability and encouraged her to experiment as a musician. In this interview she said

“Ron Forbes was a sensitive person and he had a great deal of patience with me,”

She described how he taught her to tune the timpani she was learning to play by telling her to place her hands flat on a wall to feel the vibrations that the tuned interval of the instrument created.

“I could feel the vibrations in my hands and lower parts of my legs, so I got the pitch that way. I can also put my fingertips on the edge and feel it that way. There are countless ways of really hearing a particular instrument.”

This teacher was clearly significant in Evelyn Glennie’s life and in particular her development as a musician. Mr Forbes probably saw deafness as an obstacle to creating music, but not one to which he was willing to yield. Here then is a fine example of inclusive teaching that possibly transformed the life of an individual student. Yet more than this, I would suggest that his commitment as a teacher has enabled his pupil to bring a great gift to those of us who enjoy music. In transforming one life he has touched the lives of millions.

So in saying thank you to Evelyn Glennie for many hours of enjoyable listening, I would also like to thank Mr Ron Forbes for a career as an inclusive teacher. If you want to hear the results of his determined and supportive teaching click on the link below.

Those of you who watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics will already have seen Evelyn Glennie perform. But just in case you missed this do enjoy this brief extract here.