Andy Palmer: The mother, her deaf son and overcoming their musical barrier

Posted on April 3, 2013

Katherine Mount was a professional singer and actress. She performed regularly and acted in both theatre and on television, including Eastenders. You may have seen her.

Music was everything to Katherine. She was born with a talent for singing, a talent that was encouraged by her mother who would regularly sing to her as a child. For Katherine, it was a given that she would pass on her love of music to her children. But, eleven years ago – a few weeks after the birth of her son, Ethan – everything changed.

katherine mount in churchKatherine recalls the audiologist at her local hospital telling her that Ethan was profoundly deaf as if it happened today. “First we went to Warwick Hospital but there were some odd readings and they thought that Ethan was hearing, but we knew that wasn’t right.” Katherine told me.

“We noticed that Ethan wasn’t reacting to our big dog that sometimes barked very close to him. My husband had issues when he was a kid with glue ear so he was looking out for hearing problems, but the hospital reckoned that they had issues with their equipment, so they invited us back for another appointment a few weeks later. That time, thinking that maybe everything was fine, I went along, alone.”

“When they told me Ethan was deaf, I didn’t have a clue what to do with myself. Bless the staff there too, they didn’t know what to do either. I was crying immediately and began asking really stupid questions. They said he’d he would have to wear hearing aids and I asked how long he’d have to wear them for, thinking that deafness might be something that could be fixed. The truth is that they had nothing to give me, no information to cling on to, they just sent me home. Then it was just me and Ethan in the car park and I have never made sounds like it. I was roaring a real guttural roar. I was grieving.”

The news of her son’s deafness came as a massive blow; the world as she knew it changed in that moment. Katherine is the type of person who wants to solve problems quickly but she could do nothing but wait for the next appointment letter. When Ethan was four months old, he was referred to a cochlear implant centre, where he was initially found not to be a suitable candidate for a cochlear implant. Later, the doctors decided that he could be fitted with an implant in one of his ears, but there were doubts over its potential effectiveness, so by the time the implant was fitted, Katherine had given up on the idea of Ethan enjoying music.

“We just stopped music altogether. No singing in the house, I didn’t sing to him either. I was voiceless,” Katherine says. “We didn’t play music in the house as we had to keep background noise down to help Ethan hear speech clearly.”

Katherine, burdened with guilt, continued to sing herself but one day, this hit her. “I was devastated in many different ways after Ethan’s diagnosis but singing for me was a huge, huge thing. I was singing a hymn called ‘Thine be the Glory’ in a church choir and I just had to sit down in the middle of it. I couldn’t sing it any longer because of the emotions. I just thought ‘Oh my God, Ethan will never, ever, hear this song. I just sat down. I knew I couldn’t do this anymore.”

Two-years later, Katherine and her husband split up. Katherine and Ethan, now three, moved to London – where a new friendship sparked a series of events that would change the course of their lives.

katherine mount deaf child ethan limping chicken singing

Katherine found her voice once more

“I met a dear friend called Donna, who had a deaf child too and was still singing.” Katherine recalls. “She was not affected in the same way that I was and that fascinated me. Donna persuaded me to come along to a choir, and soon after I also realised that Ethan was enjoying music too and he wanted to have a boogie with me at home. He could hear music through his implant and he seemed to rather like it! Slowly but surely, the music came back into our lives.”

Then at the age of six, Ethan joined the Kaos signing choir, which is made up of deaf and hearing children, and went on to perform with Kaos at the Olympic opening ceremony. “The Kaos Choir was amazing for him,” Katherine says. “When he learned the songs in sign he wanted to perform all the time. He would perform to anyone! It was like the music came alive in him.”

“At the time, Ethan’s spoken language was delayed so we weren’t really having conversations but it was like he used signed songs as his language. He wanted to do it all the time and he would say ‘watch me, watch me’. He had my performance gene big time – he multiplied it.”

Re-energised by both verbal and signed song, Katherine took up singing training once again to work on her voice. “I remember the first time I was singing on my own it opened the floodgates. I couldn’t stop crying. I found my own music again. I was doing concerts and musical theatre again and a few pieces at the London fringe. I was much more musical at home and Ethan was coming to performances.”

It felt strange, Katherine admits, to be singing to her son because he might not hear her, but when Ethan watched his mother perform, he was always transfixed, even – on one occasion – when his implant battery went flat so he couldn’t hear a thing. “But that didn’t matter. He didn’t move a muscle. He was mesmerised.” Another time, he got up and performed with her – he wanted to be at her side as she did the job she loved. It seemed that both Ethan and Katherine were now determined to overcome the barrier that Katherine initially believed stood between them.

On the night Ethan’s battery went flat, Helen, a member of the singing trio Katherine was performing with, wrote a song about Ethan watching his mother sing. She recorded it and shared it with Katherine the next day by email. It was called Ethan’s Song.

Katherine and Ethan

“When I listened to Ethan’s song for the first time, I couldn’t stop crying.” Katherine says. “It was expressing an emotion that I just didn’t want to visit before. I actually thought I couldn’t sing it. I tried and tried but couldn’t get to the end without bawling. We
eventually put the song into a show were doing on the Kings Road in London. I just decided to go for it, and I have to say that it was the most extraordinary performance experience I have ever had.”

Towards the end of that first performance of Ethan’s song, Katherine’s hands rose up. She was signing along with the words. He wasn’t there but she was talking to Ethan, singing to him and in doing so, blending the two forms of expression that now co-existed in the family home. The audience realised immediately what the song was about.

“The penny dropped for the audience and you could feel it in the room. My friend Donna was there to see it too.” Katherine explains. “It was really important to me that she saw it, felt it and loved it. And she did. It was her seal of approval as a fellow parent of a deaf child that spurred me on. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

After that watershed moment, Katherine decided to share Ethan’s song on YouTube to help other parents who are going through the same experience. Ethan went on to feature in his own documentary on CBBC called ‘I am Ethan,’ and has also appeared in videos for the NDCS and on ITV Signed Stories.

From a time when it seemed like it would be impossible for music to be a part of their lives in the same way as it had been for Katherine and her mother, she and Ethan had made a connection through songs, both signed and sung.

Watch Katherine perform the signed version.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for a hearing loss charity. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP (all views expressed are his own).

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