The other day I was introduced to video of a Deaf Rapper, who goes by the name of Signmark, performing at NYU (you can find the video here). In the video, a young Music Therapy student says something that really caught my attention:
“I hope that what [people] get from events like this, is not just knowing that people who are Deaf like Music, but people who are Deaf have this huge culture that we’ve not really understood or paid attention to.”
Many of us have heard the phrase “Deaf Culture”, and thought it just to be a community of people who are Deaf, but that is only partially true. The reason for the use of the word “Culture” is more appropriate than we give it credit for here – there really is a Culture of beliefs and practices unique to the world of people who identify themselves as Deaf that doesn’t exist in our hearing world. As such, interactions may literally seem “foreign” to those of us outside of it, but while I think that may lead some folks to believe that people who are Deaf don’t enjoy the same things hearing people do – music in particular – it couldn’t be further from the truth!
Have you ever heard the phrase “Music is Universal?”
I always like to define my personal take on this phrase to people as, Music is “universal” in the sense that every culture has a musical language, but it is not “universal” in the sense that all cultures use the same language – I believe every culture has its own unique way of expressing itself through music, and that those ways may not necessarily translate between each other in a way that any person from any culture can understand the music of any other one. Let’s apply this to Deaf Culture. In the hearing world, music is something we primarily hear and listen to – the rise of music videos recently (as in, the last 20 years “recently”) have made music something we enjoy seeing too, but overall the music that is popular today always involves a vocalist – we find and identify artists who resonate with us based on the lyrics that come out of their mouths and they way that they vocally express themselves – that is our musical language. In Deaf Culture, music relies less on what we listen to, and more on what we see and feel. Though individuals who are Deaf also look to a song’s lyrics to identify with the artist performing them, they see, rather than hear, the words performed in ASL (American Sign Language) – that is their language. One thing is certain, though, even if a person is profoundly Deaf, they can feel the beat in their own bodies just as truly as someone who is hearing does.
When I showed my students at the ND School for the Deaf (NDSD) the video of Signmark performing with his vocal interpreter, in addition to one of his own music videos you can find here, they first greeted it with confusion. One of them even asked me “How did he learn to sign so fast?” thinking that Signmark was interpreting his interpreter! When I told them that Signmark was Deaf, and that he was the one being interpreted, the students reacted with such excitement! Here was an artist they could officially call “theirs,” someone who not only came from, but shared with the world, their culture in just as cool a way as all the artists they had heard of day in and day out in their mainstream schools, but had long struggled to understand.
So, what was my role in all this? As a hearing person, I first of all recognize that I will always be on the fringes of Deaf Culture – someone who is very close to it, but still truly on the outside looking in. So, I see myself and the Music Program at NDSD as a bridge to help close the gap between my students’ existing musical understanding and the culture of music that exists both within and outside of themselves and their own culture. My youngest students start with extra time spent learning songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” and the “ABC’s,” songs that are so familiar to us growing up, but that teachers and parents often avoid with children who are Deaf because they think they won’t get anything out of it – but they do! There are so many academic concepts included in music, and no matter how profound the hearing loss, children still enjoy the feeling of a beat. You can sing the song while they hold a hand to your neck to feel the air forming the sound of your voice, or tap a beat on a drum that they can feel and share in the making of music to as well. The older my students get, the more we focus on the phenomena of music itself, how artists have helped shape the history of our country and the cultures within it, including Deaf culture. Learning about artists like Signmark are good for us hearing folks too, to recognize how far people who are Deaf have come and struggled to be recognized as having the same creative and intuitive prowess that any other person has, as they’ve always had, but haven’t always been recognized. It’s humbling to say the least, but it’s a lesson anybody can learn – you can never assume that the people you interact with in this world, no matter their ability or disability, have or don’t have the same understandings as you do – that’s why the constant pursuit of knowledge and creative expression is so important.
To that end, it’s been my exciting pleasure to be on what I consider to be a Continuing Education Cruise, with lots of presentations this past month (and more to come!) on Music Therapy in the field of both Visual and Hearing impairment – it’s been a pleasure to share with events like the Dakota Chapter AER conference and the ND School for the Blind’s Family Weekend this past Saturday, talking to people about what Music Therapy is and how it can help them, and I look forward to sharing more in places like Kat Fulton’s Music Therapy Ed, which debuts July 1st (and you better believe when that website opens, I’ll be there taking a class or two as well as teaching one!) It’s the true mark of a good field when it requires those who practice it to be constantly reinforcing and building their education with continued coursework and proof of progress. It’s my joy to be able to say I choose a good one!
In the next few weeks, we’ll look more closely at some of my work with Adults who have Developmental Delays and Family Music Groups for Infants and Toddlers. Until then, if you’re in the Grand Forks area, stop by 12 Houses for our Drum Circle Saturday, April 28th, at 7pm, or come take in a family-friendly, full costume and lights performance by 12 Houses Bellydance May 11th at the Firehall Theatre – if you aren’t in the area, take in a live performance or active music making experience near you – even better if it’s a little something you hadn’t heard of before!