Donna Williams: Feel the music!

Posted on November 28, 2012

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Donna Williams - Contributing Editor

On 23rd October, I went to a ‘Feel the Music’ concert, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at BBC Hoddinot Hall at the Wales Millennium Centre. It was held in conjunction with Music and the Deaf, and led by Dr Paul Whittaker OBE, founder and artistic director of same, and Andy Pidcock, creative musician, and the whole thing was conducted by Grant Llewellyn, who has conducted the BBC Doctor Who proms, no less. I just hope I’ve spelt his name right.

It was a stellar cast, with a great orchestra and many more working behind the scenes, and it paid off in droves.

It was brilliant! It was my first concert, and I’m glad I picked this one to go to. It had deaf people firmly in mind, with lots of audience interaction, palantypists, big screens with subtitles and ‘visual representations’ of the music (think psychedelic shapes morphing in time to the music), an interpreter, Tony Evans, who kept up his enthusiastic terping for well over an hour, towel and a bucket for that man please and a very enthusiastic and colourful orchestra. There were lots of children and some NDCS volunteers in attendance, and I certainly embraced my own inner child!

Before the concert proper, there was the chance to talk to members of the orchestra as they milled around with their instruments, happy to explain them to anyone who asked. I met a bass clarinet player (think giant clarinet; a bastard offspring of a clarinet and a saxophone) who explained the concept of a bass clarinet – genuinely new to me – and as a violinist wandered along, I had the opportunity to ask them what was so bad about ‘bum notes’. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen on subtitles, usually as hearing people wince and flinch, but I’ve never been bothered by them nor understood what the fuss was about; it’s just a wrong note. How bad can it be?

The clarinettist and violinist did their best to explain that it’s when two notes clash together – then they demonstrated it for me. They played together, then deliberately did a ‘bum note’ for me, right next to me, and damn.

To explain to my fellow deaf readers who may, like me, not have appreciated a ‘bum note’ in its full glory, find a blackboard. Run your fingernails down it. Feel how the weird vibration sets your teeth on edge and makes your hair rise? That’s what a ‘bum note’ feels like when you’re next to it. Is that what hearing people feel every time they hear a bum note? No wonder they hate it so much, the poor darlings! And bless those two players for their patient explanations and personal demonstrations, really felt like they were only too happy to help me understand elements of music that have passed me by.

One of the things the various orchestra members did was to play their instruments and encourage us to touch the instrument while they were playing – a brilliant idea. Now I know what a violin feels like when it’s played and I think I have a better understanding of why hearing people like it so much; I didn’t really ‘get’ violins before, as they produce a ‘soft’ sound that I perhaps I don’t really appreciate, but they sound nice up close and feel nice when played. Another win for the concert! The best instrument for this though, was the double bass; it feels like a really deep purr, and putting my head on the body of the instrument (yes, really) felt like a deep purr buzzing through my skull. Believe it or not, it was actually quite soothing. Bbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……

The concert proper began with some interactive explanations of basic music concepts, with Andy turning it into a game where the audience could ‘boomerang’ sound and bounce it back and forth. There was also a demonstration of the ‘speaker box’ – basically a wooden box on the ground, positioned above a speaker so whatever sound there was blasted through the speaker and made the box vibrate. Andy got a couple of kids to demonstrate it by getting them to stand on it and giving them a microphone, and one innocent little boy was so enthralled with feeling his own voice that he started jumping up and down on it going ‘Oh! Ah! Oh! Ah! Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh! Ah! Yes! YES! YES!’… Whilst my hearing-aids don’t usually pick up low-level sounds, I’ll swear I heard muffled chuckles coming from all around me. Or maybe that was just me – stop it woman, he’s just an innocent little munchkin discovering the vibration of his voice, don’t laugh. A thought process I suspect occurred in many of the adult section of the audience…

I digress. The concert as a whole was enthusiastically delivered, by everyone, and it was a great atmosphere. The kids were really getting into it, and so was I, I loved it. During some of the pieces of music, the audience was invited to go into the orchestra where empty seats had been set up strategically within the orchestra where people could easily be led there and sit down amongst the music, brilliant idea. It’s like being in the middle of a wall of musical sound, it was great. Even better, a guide was asking people in turn if they would like to come and touch an instrument as it was being played as part of an orchestra, and of course I said yes when she came to me. I was led to a violin, which I duly touched, though it did feel a bit strange to touch a stranger’s instrument while they were playing it (get your mind of the gutter, readers) and it was great – seriously, if you can arrange it, sit in the middle of an orchestra in full flow and touch the violin; you‘ll feel the vibrations of not just the violin, but underneath it, the symphony of the whole orchestra. Huh. This must be why hearing people like orchestra music so much. It does actually feel – and sound – quite nice.

I presume the invasion of personal space by random deaf members of the public had already been cleared with the orchestra in advance, but I was still impressed that having people led to them and having them touch their stuff while they were playing didn’t seem to put them off at all, and indeed one of the cutest things I saw that whole evening was a violinist and a little girl:

The guide led the little girl to the violinist. The little girl reached up to touch the violin, but couldn’t quite reach it. The violinist, without breaking stride, gently leaned down so the little girl could touch the violin, still playing all the while. Aw. I wanted to give that violinist a hug. The little girl seemed quite happy as well. Bless. Double bless.

I did that every time we were invited, it was great fun. There was also ‘who wants to be a conductor?’ which was very popular; the children practically rushed the stage and unfortunately I was too slow in making up my mind that I’d like to have a go. Not to worry, it was fun to watch the kids take the orchestra through their paces – and it was amazing to watch the skill of the orchestra that they were able to play to random baton-waving by a child they’d never seen before – kudos! About 20 kids (and adults) did this, with varying levels of knowledge and skill, but I’m pretty sure they all had fun! There were a few show-stealers among them, possible future conductors if I’m any judge, but every single one of them got a round of applause from the audience. The atmosphere was so positive and encouraging, I wish we could have bottled it.

For me one of the highlights of the evening, as a Dr Who fan, was being invited back into the orchestra for the Dr Who theme. And by luck or serendipity, I ended up near the drum section, and as they were inviting us to come and touch instruments, I got to go and touch the biggest bass drum I’ve ever seen. Until that evening, I wasn’t that bothered by the theme tune. It was just weird whistling noises while the TARDIS swirled around.

But standing within the actual BBC National Orchestra of Wales whilst they played it, with my hand on a big bass drum that soaked up every vibration from the orchestra was just magical. It turns out the Dr Who theme tune is far more complex than I had thought. Who knew? In fact I think I’m going put that down as one of the highlights of my life.

Post-concert, I had the chance to chat with several people involved with the show, and was impressed by their enthusiasm; I got the impression the feeling was mutual! Everyone in the audience I spoke to had loved the show, and everyone involved I spoke to had loved doing it. All in all, a great success, and I’m delighted to say that this concert was only the pilot for more concerts planned in February, I’ll definitely be going!

Thanks to everyone involved for such an accessible, educational and thoroughly enjoyable concert! What a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed by an enthusiastic and varied cast, thanks again! And I look forward to the next one :)

P.S. BBC’s National Chorus of Wales and Dr Paul Whittaker OBE are teaming up for Handel’s Messiah at St David’s Hall on 14th December, no doubt a more formal event but I’ll be taking a look!

Further reading:  The Guardian: Feel the Music project teaches deaf children a touch of Beethoven

Donna Williams is a deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgraduate student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. In dull moments, she blogs  and tweets as Deaf Firefly about what she sees as “a silly world from a deaf perspective!”

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, and the RAD Deaf Law Centre.

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