Evelyn Glennie: How Do We Listen When We're Unable to Hear? Percussionist and recording artist Evelyn Glennie is almost completely deaf, which means she listens to music with her body, not her ears.
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How Do We Listen When We're Unable to Hear?

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How Do We Listen When We're Unable to Hear?

How Do We Listen When We're Unable to Hear?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. On the show today, listening as an act of generosity and listening as a source of discovery.

EVELYN GLENNIE: Shall I do another level?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, if you could please.

GLENNIE: One, two, three, four, five. A, B, C. Percussion, percussion. Drums, marimba. One, two, one, two.

RAZ: All right. So first of all, can you introduce yourself, please?

GLENNIE: My name is Evelyn Glennie. I am a solo percussionist. And therefore, I go around the world giving solo percussion concerts.

RAZ: Evelyn is in fact one of the best-known percussionists in the world. You're hearing some of her music right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVELYN GLENNIE SONG)

RAZ: She's won major prizes. She's played with the top orchestras. And when she spoke with us from a studio in the U.K., sitting right next to Evelyn...

Hello, Maria (ph).

MARIA: Hi, Guy.

RAZ: Evelyn's friend Maria, who is repeating my part of the conversation so that Evelyn can lip read because she is almost entirely deaf. And she started to go deaf when she was a kid, but she can still perform with incredible precision and amazing sensitivity. So the question is how.

GLENNIE: Well, that's a huge question.

RAZ: Yeah.

GLENNIE: And it's actually a very broad question. So it's always allowing the body and I would say also the eye to be the two main factors. So rather than depending on what the ear is telling you and you're reliant on that - in fact, I'm basically, you know - or I have discovered that - the heavens above - you know, sound is vibration, and that can feed through the entire body. So in a way, I see the body as a big ear.

RAZ: Here's Evelyn demonstrating that on the TED stage with a marimba and a set of mallets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GLENNIE: My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That's my only real aim in life. We have to listen to ourselves, first of all. I remember when I was 12 years old and I started playing timpani and percussion. And my teacher said, well, how are we going to do this? You know, music is about listening. How are you going to hear it? How are you going to hear that? And I said, well, how do you hear it? He said, well, I think I hear it through here. And I said, well, I think I do, too, but I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on. And so we began our lessons every single time tuning drums - in particular the kettle drums or timpani - to such a narrow pitch interval, so something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: That of a difference. And then gradually...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: And gradually...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: And it's amazing that when you do open your body up and open your hand up to allow the vibration to come through, that in fact the tiny, tiny difference...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: ...Can be felt with just the tiniest part of your finger there. And together we would listen to the sounds of the instruments - the type of sticks...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: Et cetera, et cetera. They're all different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA BEATS)

GLENNIE: Same amount of weight, but different sound colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA MUSIC)

RAZ: How were you able to feel those differences between two different kinds of mallets? I mean, it seems like they would - that would be really hard.

GLENNIE: Yes. I mean, sometimes the differences are extremely subtle indeed. But if I'm using very, very soft mallets where the wool is quite loosely wound around the head, you know, you won't get the attack so much, but you're much more prepared to listen to the resonance of the sounds. If I'm using really hard sticks, well, those are like bullets in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA MUSIC)

GLENNIE: The feeling will come much higher up in the body from about the chest, the neck, the cheekbones and so on. And it's much more of a sharp attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIMBA MUSIC)

RAZ: And when you play a really resonant note, you actually feel that note long after most people feel that note because you're sort of attuned. Your body is attuned to experiencing it that way.

GLENNIE: Yes, very often - you know, if I'm playing a big bass drum or something, I mean, I can see the actual drum skin resonate. You know, you really can. You can see it going up and down. And it's interesting because in my early years, I found that a lot of the sounds that I now appreciate I really didn't appreciate early on. So a lot of the gold-like sounds - so cymbals and triangles, glockenspiels, tubular bells - because I was feeding them through the ear, it just completely distorted everything and was quite painful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLENNIE: But actually, it's those sounds that I disliked early on that really do resonate in the body and I really hang onto because I've managed to just physically open myself up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GLENNIE: As I grew older, I then auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in London. And they said, well, no, we won't accept you because we haven't a clue of the future of a so-called deaf musician. I just couldn't quite accept that.

(LAUGHTER)

GLENNIE: And so therefore, I said to them, well, look; if you refuse me through those reasons as opposed to the ability to perform and to understand and love the art of creating sound, then we have to think very, very hard about the people you do actually accept. And once we got over a little hurdle and having to audition twice, they accepted me. And not only that, it changed the whole role of the music institutions throughout the United Kingdom. And every single entry had to be listened to, experienced. And then based on the musical ability, that person could either enter or not. And so therefore, there was an extremely interesting bunch of students who arrived in these various music institutions, many of them now in the professional orchestras throughout the world.

RAZ: What is it that people who have their full ability to hear - what is it that you think they don't quite understand about listening and hearing?

GLENNIE: Well, I mean, we're all so different. But I know that when I was losing my hearing, you know, it was a confusing time because of course I thought that all sound was fed through the ears. And therefore, I thought I needed volume. You know, I needed loudness in order to hear. So with hearing people, of course there's sound everywhere, and you can't get rid of that. Well, sometimes you try to by putting more sound into your system using earphones and whatever else. But that's just then overload.

RAZ: Yeah. And there are so many dimensions to this because different people listen in different ways.

GLENNIE: Yes, and it's interesting because sometimes, you know, if I'm with sight-impaired people and I give them an instrument, you know, the first thing they do is to spend a good time literally feeling that instrument before any sound is being produced whereas, you know, when you give most people a handheld instrument or something, immediately it's bang, bang, bang, bang, bang (ph), you know?

And it was quite fascinating because then suddenly, when the youngsters did in their own time decide to make a sound, we were already paying attention to them, sort of ready, waiting for that sound and wondering what that sound would be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLENNIE: So they had created this wonderful emotion and really created that palette of listening. And ultimately, listening is about paying attention. It's about focusing, and it's about concentration.

RAZ: Evelyn Glennie - she's a percussionist and recording artist, and she just won the 2015 Polar Music Prize. It's an award given to pop and classical musicians. You can see her entire performance from this TED talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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