Can a profoundly deaf person learn to sing (well)?

I’m taking a break from professional issues this Christmas to write about a very personal, special journey. I hope that my experience is useful to others as I found very little information when I started my exploration into voice production and deafness.

Voice – it’s a very personal issue, but how much do you really think about it? You open your mouth, the words come out. You may think about what you say, how you say it – but what about the mechanics of voice production? It’s something I’ve been interested in (to an almost obsessive extent) for some years.

I am profoundly deaf and my parents brought me up to function in a hearing world. I can lipread pretty well, don’t know any sign language, and communicate aurally and orally, using my ears and my voice. I’ve had feedback over the years that my voice is a bit… different. Well, it’s bound to be, isn’t it? Until I was 14 I wore hearingaids, and I could hardly hear myself speaking. As a result I used to produce sound very far back in the throat, and push a lot of air out through my nose as I spoke. This produced useful resonant feedback so I could tell a) that I was actually producing sound, and b) how loudly I was speaking.

I had a lot of speech therapy as a young ‘un, and, as an adult in my early twenties, I elected to go back. It was an emotional journey, with a wonderful therapist called Patricia, and I learned a lot about efficient voice production and how to produce different speech sounds clearly. I know my fricatives from my alveolars! In my sessions we used to talk about ‘coming forward’ – raising where the sound is produced in the throat, and projecting it clearly out of the mouth. I had an extremely weak soft palate and was given exercises to strengthen it, such as sucking and blowing through a straw, humming different vowel sounds, and humming songs into a glass of water (I quickly learned not to overfill the glass!)

I have two cochlear implants, which provide me with a sense of sound. I don’t hear through my ears. I hear through microphones, which transmit to magnets on the side of my head. The signals are pushed through to the internal implant. I have twelve electrodes, which play over and over, like a xylophone (these electrodes replace the missing hair cells in my inner ear, which can number up to the tens of thousands in a hearing individual). The resulting sound was very ‘robotic’ to begin with, like a series of beeps and buzzes, but over time the brain naturalises it. Learning to hear with an implant is hard work – it’s not like putting on a pair of glasses, where the sight is immediately corrected. 

I have always been musical. I started playing the clarinet aged eight and the piano a few years later, and have taken several music examinations. Last January I took the plunge and started attending singing lessons. I have never, in all my life, felt confident about my voice, about standing up in front of a group of people and talking (and believe me, I really do love talking!)

Lego opera singer
Lego opera singer by Ted Drake, available under a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.
I discovered that I could hear pitch very well. I can hear the difference between notes, and the sharp and flat, with no problems. I even did a ‘tone deaf’ test and scored 100% – all thanks to my marvellous cochlear implants. But tuning my own voice has been difficult and frustrating and tiring, and ultimately wonderful as I gradually and oh so slowly get better at it. I have a piano at home which I use to tune, and my excellent singing teacher produces ‘phrase copies’ where I can sing along to sections of songs that she has recorded. It really helps to have a teacher with a singing range similar to mine (soprano). I have decided to take my first singing examination in 2016. I’ve set up a little music studio in my spare room where I sing, speak, hum to my heart’s content. I’m finally using my voice, and getting joy from it.

Can I sing?

Yes.

Can I sing well?

I do not know if I can reach the standard to pass a singing examination, but I’m having a lot of fun finding out. And that is a gift in itself.

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