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May 14, 2003

Sounds from silence

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - May 14, 2003


Tammie Willis makes music that she can't hear.

When she receives a master's degree in composition at Virginia Commonwealth University's commencement ceremony Saturday, Willis will become the first deaf graduate of VCU's music program.

The 34-year-old composer, percussionist and sometime bagpiper lost her hearing nine years ago when an intruder assaulted her in her Northern Virginia home.

Head trauma left lesions in her brainstem, interrupting the flow of electrical charges through the auditory nerve to the hearing center of her brain.

Instead of hearing tones, Willis senses vibrations. She likens it to the sensation of bubbles from a carbonated beverage in the back of the throat.

"The collision of vibrations against my eardrum," once amplified by a hearing aid, "generates enough of a stimulus to activate the sensory nerves of my eardrum, which sends the signals to my brain through nerve pathways that still work," she explains. "Through my studies of music, I have learned to associate meaning with these vibrations."

"How does she do it?" wonders William Aldridge, a VCU professor who has been one of Willis' principal teachers. To a hearing person, "it's quite a mystery exactly what music means to her, exactly how she experiences and feels it.

"My guess is that she's combining the study of music and application of its general principles with a healthy dose of intuition."

Before her injury, Willis "loved listening to music" but hadn't tried to play an instrument since sixth grade.

"I wanted to play the drums, but the band teacher said, 'Girls don't play percussion,' and handed me a clarinet," she recalls. "It spent more time in the band room than it did at my lips."

Her reintroduction to music began during therapy after her loss of hearing. "One of the rehab techniques is to relearn speech intonation by sight singing" while reading musical scores. "That way you learn not to speak in a monotone."

Willis also became expert at lip reading, a skill that has enabled her to interact with teachers and fellow students who can hear. "Visually hypervigilant," she can easily carry on a conversation at a distance of 15 feet.

Her musical urge became more urgent through semiconscious dreaming. "I suffered from sleep deprivation, which can do funny things to you. I had seen the film 'Immortal Beloved' and read some books about Beethoven," the great composer who lost his hearing in his 30s.

"Somehow, I ended up thinking I was the reincarnation of Beethoven."

She bought a keyboard, studied Beethoven's piano sonatas, tried to study piano formally.

In time, "I realized I wasn't Beethoven; but I also realized that studying music was a way I could preserve some idea of sound."

"Reclaiming sound" has been her preoccupation ever since.

"It's weird what you remember and what you don't," she has found. "I can remember the sound of a soccer ball hitting the net, for example, but I can't remember my mother's voice. I can remember the sound of tearing Sheetrock, but I can't remember the sound of a dog barking."

Bringing some order to that randomness is another reason Willis studies music.

Her childhood love of drums and the example of Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist who is the most prominent deaf musician at work today, led Willis back to percussion at Mary Washington College, from which she graduated in 2001.

Willis detects "the direction of melody" by the sequential "thinning and thickening of vibrations." Higher pitches produce thin vibrations; lower pitches, thick ones. "Really high pitches," she says, "feel like a sharp needle being driven into my eardrum, while really low pitches make my eardrum feel like it's taking a bath . . . bathed in vibration instead of warm water."

Chords are thicker than single notes, and "the arrangement of tones within the chord generates different vibrations. A major chord feels more solid, substantial, while a minor chord seems a little, I guess, tentative. Dissonance feels twangy and kind of hollow [while] consonance is smooth and solid."

Short, sharp tones in rapid sequence are a problem. "I am able to perceive five to four articulations per second" individually, she says. More than that blur into a single tone. She also has difficulty distinguishing between rich tone colors and chords, both of which she senses as thick.

For rhythm, the heartbeat is her guide: "The stronger your heartbeat, the stronger the pulse. This would represent my perception of the beat when [it] is clearly defined and unchanging." With more complex or irregular beats, she senses a weaker pulse.

The toughest thing she has to deal with is information overload. "I'm getting all these vibrations from all directions at the same time," a jumble of music, speech and ambient noise that can be exhausting to sort out. "I spend 80 percent of my day with the hearing aid turned off."

Aldridge finds Willis' ability to compose remarkable because modern music is based largely on elements, "such as chord qualities, tone colors, the differences between major and minor keys and dissonance versus consonance, that she should find the hardest to distinguish between."

"Somehow she has made a leap of the imagination into the world of musical affect without being able to experience it directly.

"I would be very curious as to what's going on in her brain when she experiences music," he says. "It would be interesting to see what an MRI shows."

Willis will continue her studies at VCU, pursuing a doctorate in higher education with a focus on music education.

"My ultimate goal is to teach," she says, "but I have to prove myself. The issue is going to be, 'If she can't hear music, how can she teach it?'

"I don't want to be evaluated on the basis of my deafness. I want to be evaluated on my own. The trouble is, there aren't that many deaf musicians to compare me with. And I have to have a way to convey to hearing people what kind of meaning I get from [sound-wave] vibrations."

Despite those challenges, Willis feels "empowered" by music. "I had a sense taken from me. I study music to take it back. Although it's not the sound I used to experience, I'm doing more with it than I did when I could hear."

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