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October 18, 2003

Deaf percussionist feels the beat

From: Salem Statesman Journal, OR - Oct 18, 2003

Evelyn Glennie connects with children she can relate to —those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Statesman Journal
October 18, 2003

PORTLAND — When the adult is famous and accomplished and the audience is fifth-graders, it’s not easy to break the ice.

But the hesitation melted with the warmth of spontaneity and shared joy, and it didn’t seem to matter that most of those involved were deaf or hard of hearing.

Deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who performs with the Oregon Symphony in Portland today through Monday, welcomed a group of 20 deaf and hearing-impaired students from Salem Heights Elementary School on Friday morning for a rehearsal and a personal meeting.

The meeting was appropriate, given that Glennie, who lives in England, will receive the Mark Hatfield Leadership Award for Outstanding Service to Deaf Children at tonight’s concert, in which she performs under music director laureate James DePreist.

“I think they’re thrilled at the thought of meeting a famous person,” said Salem Heights teacher Marcia Zegar, a speech/language pathologist in Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

She created a music program for deaf/hearing impaired students five years ago, fighting the perception that deaf students cannot benefit from music. She also organized the visit to the symphony.

“The kids are so excited to see you,” Zegar told Glennie, who met in a Schnitzer Concert Hall lobby with the youngsters, mostly fifth graders.

Glennie, a vibrant and personable young woman who rehearsed onstage barefoot, broke the ice.

“I have a question for you: Do any of you play percussion?” she said.

Fifth-grader Jordan Hill responded, “I’m taking band class at school; I started when I was 8.”

“So, super!” Glennie exclaimed.

Gradually, coaxing the kids to respond to questions about orchestras and their favorite instruments, she struck paydirt with fifth-grader Danny Regan.

“Do you have a favorite instrument,” Glennie asked.

“My favorite is the marimba,” Regan said.

“What sort of thing happens when you deal with sound?” Glennie continued.“What does sound mean to you?”

“Like the rain,” responded Regan, who spoke through an interpreter (Glennie doesn’t understand American Sign Language, though she knows the British version).

“I can feel the pounding it makes.”

Soon Glennie grabbed the metal rim top off a waste can and coached Regan into coming up front as the other kids sat on a carpet.

“Oh my gosh, I love your trousers,” she said of his camouflage pants. “Would you create the sound of rain?”

Regan started drumming his hands and fingers on the rim, creating the clattering of rain.

“I need an umbrella; it’s raining,” Glennie responded.

“Did you notice how Danny used many parts of his hand to create rain?” she asked the students.

Soon she had everyone joining, drumming their feet on the floor, waving their hands in the air.

“We’re all individuals, so we all have our own way to create sound,” Glennie told the young people, who rewarded her with personal letters, a book of artwork and requests that she sign a children’s book about her, “Moses Goes to a Concert.”

Glennie, who encouraged the kids to come back to a concert someday (many have never been to the symphony, Zegar said), said later that she has long fought the concept that the deaf and hard of hearing people are shut out of music.

Glennie herself became deaf at age 8, due to a nerve condition, but took up the piano the same year with her parents support.

“For these kids, they can hear,” she said.

“You really have to be dead not to be able to do anything.

“If one sense is damaged in some sort of way, it triggers other senses.”

Glennie worried that it was hard to make a connection in the 15 to 20 minutes she spent with the Salem Heights students, a kind of encounter she rarely sees kids experience.

“I think it’s a vital experience for them,” she said.

“It’s more vital that they are able to follow it up. It would be great for the orchestra to make a connection with them.”

Zegar has worked hard to make that kind of connection happen.

For the last two years, she has brought in Western Oregon University percussionist Brad Hirsch to work with students, not just her 50 deaf/hearing impaired students but the entire school population.

“They can feel the vibration of the music,” Zegar said.

During the rehearsal, the children clutched balloons that helped them feel the musical vibrations.

Zegar said she also is careful to see that her students are mainstreamed, put in classes with hearing students, and American Sign Language classes are made available to all students.

Salem Heights is the main site for the deaf and hard of hearing program in Salem-Keizer schools.

“They just need a different approach to appreciate music,” Zegar said. “It’s not that they can’t appreciate music.”

“It’s interesting the domino effect of all this,” Glennie said. “It’s important for a seed to be planted.

“There needs to be the support, that kind of support.

“Everyone should have an opportunity to try music.”

Glennie, who has been called the First Lady of solo percussion, which sees her perform on a wide array of instruments, said she is a rarity as a deaf professional musician.

But the Scottish-born percussionist has not been hindered by deafness; she has performed music from classical to esoteric and avant garde and joined with major symphonies and conductors worldwide to perform.

Glennie also collaborated with Children’s Hearing Institute to establish the Evelyn Glennie National Scholarship Award Program to encourage deaf and hard of hearing children to pursue instrumental music.

The award she will receive tonight honors that commitment and is presented by the Tucker-Maxon Oral School to deserving individuals who have made significant contributions to the lives of deaf and hard of hearing students.

Oregon Symphony Classical Concert

When: 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1001 SW Broadway, Portland

Cost: $17 to $76

Call: (503) 790-2787

Copyright 2003 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon