Music Matters: Dame Evelyn Glennie

We believe that music is accessible to every single person on the planet and that every person deserves to live out their musical fantasies however they can. In the latest installation of our music matters series, we speak to world famous percussionist, musician and activist for inclusion in music, Dame Evelyn Glennie.

Despite beginning to lose her hearing at just age 8, Dame Evelyn has continued to break musical boundaries, and given countless talks and raised mass awareness for the inclusion of deaf communities within the musical world. She explains how she is continuing to break down the boundaries and stereotype of ‘deafness is silence’ and how more and more young people who are experiencing deafness or loss of hearing can become involved in the musical conversation. 

Firstly, we wanted to get to know more about Dame Evelyn as a person, so asked her, what sparked her own musical passions to begin with: 

“I’m a farmers daughter and I suppose the farm was my orchestra when I was younger. When you’re surrounded by nature, livestock and machinery actually, there’s quite a vast sound world there. I went to a tiny tiny country primary school that only had 37 pupils, every Friday, the whole school had a general music lesson. We all learnt to read and play the basics of music, which gave us a good base for learning music really. In secondary school, the ethos of that school was that every child belonged to every department, therefore it meant that all of the departments were actually quite strong. Like many schools in those days, it had an orchestra, a school band, a concert band, a choir, a recorder group, you name it so the opportunities to perform and learn instruments were totally endless.

Not only would we perform within the schools, we’d always be performing out and about in the community and other schools and projects. This flexibility in thinking and creativeness it was all possible and all accepted. It wasn’t about ticking boxes, it was about trying to find what music is really about – expression, communication, building bridges and really getting to know yourself.

I found in my own situation, I quite like being by myself and then performing with other people, but actually I did like practising by myself and exploring music on my own. So solo performing felt completely natural to me as a person, but that was also incredibly accepted by the school, so I do feel I was extremely lucky.

The UK has such a wonderful amateur scene and such a wonderful history to draw upon, particularly from the traditional music, Scottish traditional music was incredibly important to me growing up. Up and down the country, I remember in my early career, so many of my experiences were playing in youth orchestras, so it’s been an amazing territory growing up.”

Image Credit: Philipp Rathmer

Deafness and music have an incredibly strong misconception towards each other that as more and more activists become public, the line of what is considered to be deafness are ever shifting. Dame Evelyn outlines her opinions on the common misconceptions surrounding deafness and music.

“Music is for everybody. Music is more than sound, when I was growing up by the time I was 10 I was dependent on hearing aids, those days, most deaf people would go to a school for the deaf where they would learn sign language and that would be their main language. In those days, music was seen as something that was about sound, where deafness was about silence so the two could not meet in the middle.

But that was such an over simplified categorisation and we know that when we do that we run into all kinds of issues. Deafness is NOT about silence and music is NOT about sound. What is music? Vibration. What do deaf people rely on? Vibration. So there is our bridge.

Also the types of technology available was vastly improving. I used to wear what was then known as a phonic ear, I could then pick up what the teacher was saying even if they were behind me. After that hearing aids began to improve and depending on an individual’s hearing range, which is so important because deafness is so complicated, it’s not a case of you can hear or you can’t.

In my situation, I often hear the impact of sound, which is why percussion is so good, but I sometimes miss the pitch or the resonance, so that impact, I still react. Other people may not pick up the immediate impact, but there might be something in that journey of sound that they will pick up. We’re all very different and with the vast sea of dynamics, frequencies, colours with all instruments, hearing impaired people can really connect with this.

There’s also a part of the ear that is not reliant on what we hear, but instead on what we physically feel. That is why a lot of deaf people, particularly those who are born deaf are actually very very good dancers because they’re so cued into the vibration of the beat. Essentially it’s all about trying to tear down those stereotypes.” 

Dame Evelyn has dedicated enormous amounts of her career to breaking down boundaries of what it means to truly ‘listen’ whilst that may sound like a simple concept, it’s far more abstract and in depth than one might initially think. 

“It’s a big question actually, there isn’t a method or system and no one should feel hostage to listening to music, because in a way music and listening is like a flowing river. Sound is always moving and even as we’re talking now, I’m sitting on a chair and if I stand up and sit back down, as I hit the chair again I’m making sound. Whilst you and I may not have heard anything, that has set up all sorts of things in the room that we can’t see, hear feel or smell but there’s a whole universe that the body isn’t able to pick up, but it is present.

For me, music is all about being present, you have a choice to engage in it or not, so listening has nothing to do with the medical graph of hearing. Listening is about bringing all of our senses together into this new sense. Sometimes we’re in the mood to listen to music, sometimes we’re not and that’s all okay and part of the journey. ” For more information on Dame Evelyn’s explanation of how to truly listen, watch her TED talk here.

Image Credit: Jim Callaghan

Being from such a rich musical background surrounded by music, Evelyn is also an active thinker in removing the boundaries between what it means to be ‘musical’ or ‘not musical’ and the distinctions between those who simply love music or those who decide to make it a career.

“I’m inclined to agree there, going back to addressing the amateur acne, there was very little distinction between the amateur music scene and the professionals. Many amateur musicians are excellent musicians and I think it’s just whether you decide to take the step to earn your bread and butter of being a musician. There’s obviously a lot of direction and hard skin that you need to accept reviews in this industry, those things are very real and you get to know yourself very personally. I’m a big believer in making music happen in our homes. A lot of the challenges we have now is that society is very different from where it was 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Families are more fragmented now and it does mean that the time and energy to try to keep the consistency within a family structure is more difficult. But technology now means that you no longer have to play an instrument to engage in the musical conversation, you can become a musician without actually playing an instrument. Things such as sound designers for example are wizards at being incredibly creative and talented people, when we can come together who can merge technology with the physical instruments, it becomes something entirely new altogether.

I think it’s absolutely crucial that we really keep that link, part of that I think is through improvisation and the playfulness of music as self-discovery. When you watch kids just see and react to a tuba or a double bass, everything is so huge, their descriptions of those instruments are magical, which in turn can impact how you see your instrument yourself! We have to carry on this hands-on experience to ignite that curiosity within young people.” 

Finally, we asked Dame Evelyn for her advice to those who are perhaps facing adversity or lack of inclusion when it comes to music within their own life and what we can all do to begin breaking down stigmas that music is not for everyone.

Image: Caroline Purday

“It has to start from within. If you really believe this is something you’d like to do or want as an important part of their lives, they must make every effort to embrace that. This is their life, not someone else’s. There are so many opportunities and online communities of similar people who can help. There might be others who have lost a limb, or been born with similar challenges and I think we have so many fantastic role models, we just have to look at the paraorchestra, the players themselves and the technologies.

Other organisations such as the one handed instrument are brining musicians, adversity, sound and technology all together to help deal with these incredible situations people find themselves in. Accidents that perhaps mean you need to adapt an instrument can happen to any single one of us at any time, you’d be amazed how strong the mind is.

If you want something or believe in something, ask yourself the question “What if?”, What if I try this, what if I email this person? What if I read this article? You’ll never know where that might lead you because it’s the little steps that matter.”

We hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with the incredible Dame Evelyn Glennie (we know we absolutely loved speaking with her!) For more of our music matters series, you can also read our interview with YolanDa Brown on the importance of music education here. Do you have an incredible story you’d love to share? We’d love to hear it! Share you sound with us on social media using the #MillersMusic!

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