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May 16, 2003

Impossible Dream

From:, VA - May 16, 2003

Woman deafened by assault finds herself in music, despite the odds


Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, and bend the knotted oak.

-- Congreve

THEY SAID it couldn't be done.

They said Tammie Willis would never learn to play music.

She is deaf, they said. How can anyone appreciate music if she cannot hear?

"They" were all caring people--friends, relatives, piano teachers, professional musicians, college professors. They did not want her to suffer any more pain, frustration and turmoil than she already had, becoming deaf after a violent attack by a stranger.

They just wanted to help.

But Tammie wouldn't listen.

She fought back.

Stubborn and willful since the day she was born, she needed to find a way to put sound back into her life. And she was fueled by anger.

That was then.

Today, 8 years after having her hearing taken from her, Tammie thrives in a world dominated by music.

She plays music, "listens" to music, composes music and studies music.

And she's on her way to her professional goal of teaching music.

She takes a giant step forward tomorrow when she receives her master's degree in music composition from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned a 4.0 grade point average.

The master's follows the bachelor's degree in music composition and creative writing she earned in 2001 at Mary Washington College, with a GPA of 3.865.

Neither school had ever graduated a deaf student in music.

In the fall, Tammie will begin a Ph.D. program in education at VCU, to be followed by a doctorate in musical arts.

No one will ever hear Tammie brag about her accomplishments, or say, "I told you so."

She's too happy making music to waste energy on bitterness. A life forever changed

Tammie has traveled a craggy, crooked road since that crisp fall day in 1994 when a strange man in an aqua sweatshirt appeared inside her Dale City townhouse.

Tammie had left the door unlocked, a mistake that would change her life forever.

Instantly, she found herself fighting for survival.

The assailant overpowered her and dragged her by her feet down the basement stairs, banging her head on every step. Then he beat her head on the edge of the pool table, jerking it up and slamming it down, over and over.

He finally flung her limp body aside, took $23 from her purse and vanished.

He has never been caught or identified.

Tammie recuperated for a time at Potomac Hospital, then went to stay with her parents. She was 26 years old, a graduate of Old Dominion University with a good job and a bright future.

Of her many injuries, doctors expected the perforated eardrums to heal, and they did.

But Tammie's hearing got worse instead of better. Before long, she realized she couldn't hear at all.

At first, doctors could find no cause for the hearing loss because the ear structures were intact and capable of hearing. They suggested that the problem was psychological.

Ultimately, CT scans showed lesions in the brain stem caused by bleeding in the brain.

Doctors determined that the lesions prevented the electrical impulses of sound waves from traveling their normal pathway along the auditory nerve to the brain's hearing center.

Doctors diagnosed the disability as inferior pontine-lateral medullary syndrome, and compared Tammie's brain injuries to those of a severely shaken baby.

They told her no cure existed and she would be deaf forever.

Tammie's emotional health after the assault was already precarious. Deafness shut her off from conversations and the normal sounds of everyday life, and she withdrew even further from friends and family, spending most of her waking hours in her childhood bedroom.

But she needed to earn a living, so she pulled herself together enough to go back to work. As assistant director of Chimes Virginia, a Northern Virginia non-profit agency, she oversaw an in-home program for disabled children.

But at every turn, deafness threw up insurmountable obstacles.

Tammie tried to communicate as best she could, but as a supervisor, she found it nearly impossible to conduct a meeting. Neither she nor anyone in her life knew sign language, and she couldn't read lips well enough to converse with one person, much less several at a meeting.

On top of that, frustration and anger got in the way of her performance and her relationships with co-workers. Tammie was quick to take offense, quick to explode.

One day, nine months after she was attacked, her supervisor advised her to resign. Tammie flew out in a rage.

Tammie slipped deeper and deeper into depression. She was still suffering flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks, and losing her job was a devastating setback.

She contemplated suicide, and actually borrowed a gun and drove out one day to put an end to her pain.

But in a moment of clarity, she thought of her parents and how they would feel if she killed herself. That day she resolved to find a better way to live.

A chance encounter with Ludwig van Beethoven a few weeks later made Tammie wonder if music could ever be a part of her life again.

Watching the movie "Immortal Beloved," a fictional account of the famous German composer's life, she learned Beethoven gradually lost his hearing as an adult, and he composed some of his finest pieces after becoming totally deaf.

Tammy also learned he was a bitter, angry man who alienated nearly everyone in his life, and she empathized with that.

Tammie had always liked music, but her enjoyment was limited to occasional concerts and listening to CDs for relaxation. She didn't read music and she was a sixth-grade band dropout.

But Beethoven's story inspired her to imagine a way to put sound back into her life.

Without telling anyone, she bought an $89 electronic piano keyboard that she had no idea how to play.

And she began filling her childhood room with discordant sounds, the noises of pain and anger seeking relief.

But for all their disharmony, they were the sounds of Tammie navigating her life in a new direction, barging her way into the world of music. 'Simply amazing'

With her perfect grade point average, Tammie has been a star in her graduate classes at VCU.

She took all required courses for VCU's master's degree in music composition, and she asked for only one special accommodation to her deafness: that her professors look at her when speaking.

Jon Wergin, professor of education, said Tammie reads lips with such accuracy that she was more engaged in classroom discussion than anyone in the 15-student class.

"We arranged the desks in the form of a horseshoe so Tammie could sit at the top of the horseshoe where she could see everyone," he said. "She didn't miss a thing."

Tammie's teachers describe her with adjectives in the superlative: brightest, most inspired, most analytical, most dedicated.

"Every now and then you get a dazzling student. Tammie would have dazzled me as a hearing student, but the fact that she dazzles as a deaf student is simply amazing," said Wergin.

Sonia Vlahcevic, professor of music, has been adviser, teacher and mentor to Tammie at VCU. Tammie has taken every graduate music class she teaches, and Vlahcevic supervised Tammie's independent study project, an analysis of Beethoven's quartets.

"She's an astute student and an astute scholar," Vlahcevic said. "She has an incredible analytical mind and stunning powers of observation. In every way, she excels in the theoretical and academic study of music."

Vlahcevic was so impressed with Tammie that she asked her to teach some of her lectures on electronic music. Tammie will be her teaching assistant this fall when she starts work on her Ph.D.

Vlahcevic said Tammie's desire to teach music theory at the college level is fully within reach. "She's an over-achiever. I think she can easily handle a degree in music theory, and she could fit very well in the hearing world of music as an academic."

Tammie has maintained her grades in graduate school while working as one of two resident directors at Rhoades Hall, one of VCU's largest dormitories.

The job provided her with room and board and a salary, and she also received a scholarship through the music department to help pay for her education.

Tammie works hard, but she plays hard as well. Weekends find her performing with St. Andrews, a Richmond bagpipe band.

The group plays at weddings and Celtic festivals, and they even provided the opening act for John McDermott's performance at the Carpenter Center.

Tammie met the band members at a Celtic festival, and a year ago when they needed someone to play snare drum, they invited her to join. Occasionally she plays lead drum. 'Vibrations of a whisper'

Tammie has earned accolades and respect as a student of music, but the hearing world still has a hard time with one thing--how in the heck does she experience music?

Sound waves produce vibrations, and it is the vibrations that Tammie senses. She wears special hearing aids that amplify vibrations and help her perceive when a sound has occurred.

She said higher pitches produce thin vibrations, lower pitches produce thin ones.

"I can feel the vibrations of a whisper," she said.

When she first began "listening" to music, Tammie would go to concerts and ask to sit barefoot on the stage so she could sense vibrations through her feet.

Then she graduated to sensing music through her fingers, holding an air-filled balloon.

Now her eardrums do the work for which they were intended, and her brain perceives not sound, but vibration.

"I love listening to pieces of music with lots of density, because I can feel the vibrations all over my body," she said. "Jazz is particularly good to listen to because it has cool vibrations in it."

Tammie has "a dreamlike memory of music" that helps her imagine the musical sounds she is listening to or playing.

Her sense of vibration is so acute that her tastes in music are diverse, from Gregorian chants to 20th-century atonal.

"I like to listen to nearly anything except for pop, country or rock," she said.

Tammie has learned to play more than 20 musical instruments, including violin, viola, bass and cello.

She owns 10 different instruments, including a variety of percussion instruments such as drums and mallets. The percussions are her favorite instruments because they help her sense rhythm.

While she loves playing music, she sees her future in teaching music theory at the college level and in composing.

While at VCU, she spent five or six hours a day alone in her apartment composing music, some of which she has been encouraged to publish.

She composed six major works over the past two years, including a 26-minute, four-movement, 12-person percussion ensemble.

She also composed a piece for flute and two marimbas, a fugue for two bagpipes, a piece for a brass quartet and a 12-minute song cycle for flute and piano.

Her goal for the summer before going back to school is to write the libretta for a percussion opera.

"I have ideas for characters and plot, then later I'll do the music for it as my final Ph.D. piece," she said.

Tammie's mother has encouraged her to be proud and reflect on all she has accomplished since becoming deaf.

But Tammie doesn't see it that way.

"I reflect on it not from being deaf, but from the standpoint of a body of work," she said. "I've done what many other students have also done. I've just done it differently. I took a left when they all took a right." 'Anger takes up energy'

Tammie never would have chosen to be deaf.

But she also knows that she never would have discovered the joys of music if she could still hear.

Tammie says she has learned to reflect on the positive.

"All those hardships and experiences, good and bad, have taught me something," she said. "They've made me who I am."

She now embraces forgiveness rather than resentment, and humor rather than anger.

"If I could do anything different, I would have gotten rid of the anger sooner," she said. "Anger takes up too much energy."

Tammie's early, desperate efforts to experience music led her from one disappointment to another as she tried to find a piano teacher who would take her seriously.

She was filled with rage when she entered Mary Washington College, and she admits she was as quick to take offense as others were to assume she couldn't study music.

She perceived resistance and discouragement as teachers and staff struggled to cope with her deafness--and her attitude.

But ultimately, it was at Mary Washington that she found her musical footing and success.

Not only did she learn to play the piano well enough to pass the music competency exam, but she received one of four Sterling Achievement Awards given to out-standing senior music majors.

She holds dear the support she found among her teachers there.

"Now I know that they were trying to help me, not to hurt me," she said. "I came to Mary Washington with nothing and left with so much."

Nowadays, Tammie is the first to make jokes at her own expense, or laugh at her own foibles.

She loves shocking people by pretending to use walkie-talkies, and she thinks it's hilarious that she thought someone in class was talking about "baboons" when actually they were talking about "bassoons."

When one of her fellow students described herself as a visual learner, Tammie quipped, "I'm an auditory learner."

Tammie has come so far emotionally that she was able to say goodbye to a 1929 Packard baby grand piano that saw her through so much anguish as a fledgling musician.

Bought to replace her cheap keyboard, the $5,000 piano came from a Catholic church in Washington that sold it to her for only $300 when the priest learned she was deaf.

Tammie read a news story about a Texas family who lost everything in a fire, including the piano that the mother depended on for her income as a piano teacher.

Tammie found a mover willing to transport her piano to Texas at no charge, and she sent if off.

"That piano helped me through my tragedy, and now it's helping someone else through tragedy," she said. "I can't think of a better place for my my piano."

Copyright 2003 , The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.