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January 23, 2006

Tuba's low notes are music to ears of deaf children

From: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MO - Jan 23, 2006

By Steve Giegerich

The first time Michael Sanders and his tuba performed at the Central Institute for the Deaf, the students "listened" to the music by placing their hands on the bell of his instrument to feel the vibrations. That was years ago, before medical technology forever altered the way the deaf learn and live.

On Monday, when Sanders executed a deliberately flawed G below Middle C to introduce the tuba to a roomful of pre-kindergartners at the institute, the students jumped at once with a startled gasp followed by muffled squeals of delight.

Sanders, who in 15 years with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has played in major concert venues around the world, was equally thrilled.

"To see those little kids look up with that look on their faces was unbelievable," he said, recalling his previous performance at the institute. "It's music, we had an audience and this became their concert hall."

Through its Community Partnerships Program, orchestra members perform in various permutations - string quartets and the like - in nearly 300 concerts throughout the region for free or at a nominal charge each year. At least a third of those performances are at schools.

Even institute director Robin Feder acknowledged, however, that an appearance at a school for the deaf seems, at least initially, counterintuitive.

Enter Jim Meyer, composer, 40-year veteran of the Symphony's clarinet section and the husband of Virginia, the institute's school nurse.

To Jim Meyer, an audience united by music becomes a family. And it is not a family, he believes, exclusively for those in the hearing world.

So, in the spirit of narrative children's classics such as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," Meyer last year composed a 25-minute piece for violin, cello, French horn and clarinet that revolves around a mischievous tuba.

With his audience in mind, Meyer composed "Tuffy, the Silly Tuba" in a low register, summoning tonal reverberations perceptible to children with a limited or low hearing range.

"For little kids with hearing problems, the highs are very difficult, so, for a listening mechanism, we stayed away from that," Meyer said. He believes "Tuffy" may be the only piece of music ever composed specifically for "children of the silent world."

Virginia Meyer, who was cast by her husband as narrator of "Tuffy," credits medical research and technology for helping students with hearing disabilities develop an appreciation for music at the same pace as the hearing population.

A Missouri infant testing program helps identify babies with hearing problems and allows them to receive hearing aids at six months. And cochlear implants, which stimulate hearing and speech, can be surgically attached to the inner ear in children as young as 2.

The result: Unlike Sanders' experience during his first visit, students at the institute are better able to feel the music in the true and intended sense.

"It probably means even more to them" said Feder, "because it is so exciting for them to hear any sound."