Orchestra Helps Deaf 'Feel' Its Music

Mar 9, 2013
Originally published on March 9, 2013 5:04 pm
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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

When it's all around you, the propulsive joy of music seems as much a part of the atmosphere as the air. For deaf people, though, this rapture is largely absent. Now, a Welsh symphony orchestra is working to include them.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has incorporated the deaf into the concert experience with free workshops and performances, and they have the help of a transformative piece of technology called a sound box.

ANDY PIDCOCK: So that people can sit on, lie on, put their feet on, put their hands on, and they can actually feel what the whole symphony orchestra is doing.

LYDEN: That's Andy Pidcock, a freelance musician who works with the orchestra and who helped create the sound box. In a minute, we'll hear from a deaf person about what that's like. But first, Andy Pidcock explains how the box transmits vibrations from each instrument.

PIDCOCK: The whole orchestra is miked up, and that goes straight into the boxes. So you get the whole dynamics of the percussion department, of the strings, the horns and the double bases. So you get all the dynamics that are going on in a symphony orchestra. So you can actually feel those dynamics in your box.

LYDEN: "In the Hall of the Mountain King," this is one of the pieces played through the box. Let's listen to a little bit of it.


LYDEN: So that's an example of a piece that starts somewhat subdued and then it almost explodes. So how are different instruments and sounds transmitted differently through the box?


PIDCOCK: OK. Well, that particular piece just demonstrates just perfectly really a lot of the musical building blocks. So it does start quite low, but that's actually a really fantastic way to start, because you can feel that. So it's a combination of both a visual, it's using touch and also just being in the whole environment. So it's a whole-body thing. It's much more than just hearing.

LYDEN: Now, this music box is just one part of an outreach project by the National Orchestra of Wales to bring music to those who might otherwise not get a chance to experience it. Tell me a little bit about the whole outreach program.

PIDCOCK: It's gone on for many years actually, and we're always trying to find ways of making music and a symphony orchestra accessible. As well as having a visual indication of dynamics of the orchestra, we have big screens, and we invite audience to come and sit amongst the players. So whilst the orchestra is playing, people can put their hands on the double bass or the violin or the horns, and they can actually feel the instruments. And we also invite audience members to conduct the orchestra as well.

LYDEN: Why do you think that's important, Andy, that deaf people be able to experience sound in this way?

PIDCOCK: I think because music is much more than just sound. And it's about actually being, you know, in a hall with many other people who are also enjoying the same experience. But also, traditionally, if, say, the deaf community want to go to a symphony orchestra, it can be quite a passive experience. You go in, maybe try and clap at the right time, and then get an ice cream in the break, whereas this is not that at all. It's quite participatory.

LYDEN: Kate Galloway got to participate, and it was a first-in-a-lifetime experience.

KATE GALLOWAY: (Through translator) I'm a deaf person, never ever experienced an orchestra before.

LYDEN: Kate speaking through interpreter Julie Doyle. And she says when she heard about the free concert, she was a little skeptical.

GALLOWAY: (Through translator) Well, at first, I thought: An orchestra for deaf people? That can't be possible.

LYDEN: But Galloway, who works as an advocate for the deaf, figured it was something she and her clients just couldn't pass up.

GALLOWAY: (Through translator) We all came as part of a group, and we came to experience what this box would be like. And it really was quite a profound experience, something none of us would ever have thought that we would experience.

LYDEN: Kate, what was the sound box like for you? How did it feel?

GALLOWAY: (Through translator) It's really hard to describe, because it is such a new experience. It's really difficult for me to put it into words. Like a buzz - it was a buzz. It was vibrating, but I felt that when we were actually part of the orchestra, that was enhanced. And it was a weird, odd, fantastic and new experience. One person did not have the confidence to sit amongst the orchestra, so I said: Come along with me, you know, I'll take you along - and was just absolutely stunned by it actually having a chance to touch the instruments. I think we all just felt that we would never have an experience like it. The word that comes to mind is a buzz, an - physical buzz, you know?

LYDEN: Had you considered yourself a music fan before? Was it something that you were interested in trying to feel, or had you made up your mind that that just wasn't going to be part of your life?

GALLOWAY: (Through translator) Well, I certainly felt that music wasn't for me because I didn't feel it was accessible. When I did get the invitation to attend, I felt, well, this is a chance for me to experience what various parts of the orchestra might feel like and what part they had to play in creating music. I think if it was just an - any old orchestra that was for hearing people, I certainly wouldn't have felt that was for me. I would have felt, nope, that's not for deaf people.

But I think by creating this visual event, myself and all our deaf clients really found it fascinating. And everyone's been talking about it since. And they're all saying, please, when's the next event? We'd love to have another go at it.

LYDEN: Well, Kate Galloway, Julie Doyle and Andy Pidcock, musician with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, speaking to us from Cardiff. Thank you all so much.

PIDCOCK: Great. Thank you so much. Thank you.

JULIE DOYLE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.