And I am the music inside

Here I am contorting this body into shapes like a game of Twister on Sunday night, trying to play a barre chord with my head pressed directly into the speaker grill foam while lying on a rug covered in dog fur. There’s a function on these hearing aids that cuts out sound over a certain number of decibels; stir in a directional microphone that seems to flirt exclusively with conversation, and garnish with a few tech glitches possibly owing to getting hit in the head too many times during the Aussie rules season. Here I am befriending the amplifier, trying to convince my hearing aids to directionally converse with a loud guitar to escape the non-sound of engineered hearing protection.

When my mum and dad realised I was deaf, they were sitting in the cinema with their hands covered in popcorn grease watching Mr Holland’s Opus – a film about a music teacher with a deaf child. They realised that I probably shouldn’t have slept through Mr Holland’s grand orchestral bangers. That trip to the cinema was followed by multitudinous hearing tests, hearing aid fittings and many trips to Taralye, which is the oral language centre for deaf children. The only thing I remember is that they had pet hermit crabs in the waiting room hallway. The only thing Mum remembers is the beginnings of a lifelong love of early childhood invention. Everything else is a post-memory film-nostalgia trip recorded on VCR which has my own name as a title. Official diagnosis: severe bisensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) and many elderly people very impressed that I know how to turn my hearing aid on.

If you asked me what my first language is, I would reply written English. As a proud member of the subtitle fanclub, I was raised on a diet of the ABC news with those fluoro yellow subtitles against a black background giving live transcript of soothing Ian Henderson, with many typos. Unless, of course, the television remote was hidden somewhere between the couch cushions or was broken in a fight with my siblings and not even fixable with duct tape, in which case I would upon gaze upon the lips of people onscreen like an infatuated lover. My marriage with the written word led to an obsession with reading that became so intense I was once accused of stealing books from my primary school library. I remember a dull ache in my back as Mum and I lay on a rug covered in dog fur reading picture books when I was a toddler. Faint recollections of getting tucked in to my little single bed with a rendition of Dr Seuss by my father who smelled of the oil from merino wool. I was filled with a deep inner euphoria when I learned how to write my first word in the spare room with Nanna Hazel and then filled a notebook with a repetitive HO while sitting with Dad as he tried to fix a tractor.

If the written word is my first language, lip-reading is my second. In the Ballarat Base Hospital, a chronically ill relative had lost his voice and was about to depart to be with the angels. Mum and Dad didn’t know how to converse with him. I managed to translate that he was talking about the fire engine outside. Some words went astray. Dad wondered whether I could have a career as a journalist informant that gets gossip from celebrity conversations by lip reading.

And drawing parallels between seeing and perceiving and hearing and listening, I noticed I have an observant nature. Spotting koalas in trees randomly on a family trip to Portland. And while the kids in class fed Tamagotchis under the desk as the teacher spoke, I learned to listen through a combination of written words, lip reading, hearing and reading the situation.

The first instrument I attempted was violin. I wanted to play it because I saw someone play it in an orchestra on the television and I thought it looked beautiful. By then old enough to make decisions based purely on the aesthetics of beauty, I headed over to the music room with Mum for my lesson. For whatever reason, Mr Pearson insisted that I should learn violin while kneeling on the floor (perhaps posture), after a few lessons of leaving the music room with indentations of the less-than-comfortable carpet on my knees, I quit the violin. Farewelled the little doll’s violin vibrations against my beating heart. (I took a quiet revenge on Mr Pearson in high school when I watched him sit on a chair covered in science-class slime.)

I took piano for a few years in my early teens with a lady named Ruth Pfitzner. My father wasn’t a fan of her hourly rate and called her Ruth Shitzner. When I was 17, I did a minimal amount of drumming with my cousin Mandy and then I spent several months annoying the people in surrounding rooms at boarding school as I did basic drumming techniques on my rubbish bin, especially the paradiddle. I fell into choir in my senior year and down the alto end, my friend Alice would sing directly into my ear, our quiet agreement. In my first year of university, I revisited the piano and spent some of my rural housing bursary on a ukulele and a Yamaha acoustic guitar from Cash Converters. In my first share house, I found a keyboard in the shed and once on a trip to the music store for guitar strings, I ended up buying a banjo and having a cringeworthy you-look-familiar conversation with someone I matched with on Tinder. Add a glockenspiel, an electric guitar, and an 800-metre-waddle-with-a-dull-ache-in-the-back cradling an amp I found on special, I realised that at some point I had become a deaf musician.

If I asked you to think of a deaf musician, you would probably say Beethoven. Maybe you would say Evelyn Glennie, the percussive genius. Maybe you wouldn’t say either but make a comment about how cool it is that we sometimes have sign-language interpreters at major popular music gigs. My understanding of AUSLAN is incredibly basic owing to growing up in the middle of nowhere, 80km from the nearest school with an AUSLAN speaker, and the inaccessibility of the AUSLAN course I took, which was so obviously designed for people with A+ mint-hearing. My understanding of American sign language is non-existent. Much to the disappointment of random hearing strangers that sign thank you to me when I serve them at work, not all hearing-impaired people know sign language. At a gig I try to get as close to the speaker as possible so that I can feel the music. But sometimes I’m in the corner, I am looking at A to Z lyrics on my phone and trying to work out if I am smelling my body odour or someone else’s, wishing I was at the opera where the subtitles would be flashing across the screen.

It is not often mentioned that the deaf community held widespread protests during the introduction of the cochlear implant – a piece of technology designed to ‘cure’ deafness. Deaf people do not need fixing. I have been judged by the hearing community for expressing the desire that I not be fitted with technology as a baby. There is so much fragmentation between the community which speaks AUSLAN and the hearing community and the people with hearing technologies who occupy a nonspace between deaf culture and hearing culture. You cannot assume solidarity between all people with hearing impairment. Some people love hearing technologies, some are passionately against them, some are trying to find some sort of balance in an oscillating middle.

The hearing community carries a lot of socially held theoretical perspectives about how deaf people experience music, many of which make me want to turn my hearing aids off. Videos of babies hearing for the first time often result in the baby damn well bawling its eyes out. Many hearing people interpret this as self-gratifying inspiration porn. How beautiful it must be to hear for the first time! they sigh. Many of these crying babies are crying because they are experiencing a sensory overload and are in overwhelming pain. I still cry after my annual hearing check when my ability to hear is plugged into the computer and adjusted with a few buttons, because the sound of the whole world is altered and my brain physically hurts as it must rewire.

I guess many people just assume deaf people don’t listen to music but there is more than one way to listen to music. Interpreters sign the words and the music, creating a whole experience, their faces are so emotive and communicate so much. Deaf people can physically hear music with their core by touching speakers, interacting with the vibrations of instruments, slamming percussion like dance, rhythm, feeling air and thuds of instruments. Those utilising hearing technologies can Bluetooth sync music straight to their personal hearing devices, they can wear headphones over the top of their hearing aids, they can take their devices out and listen to muffled bass lines. The first time I ever tried to write a song ‘me and my teddy bears/ have no worries/ have no cares’ the piano vibrated beneath me. I utilised the pedal to make my three notes go further, filling the room and my body with sound. I remember having a spa and feeling the vibrations of the water and mumbling lyrics based on books I read by Morris Gleitzman. I remember sitting in the back of the Ford Falcon when I was a kid with flat-batteries in my aids, pressing my hands into the side speakers and hearing the echoes trapped by the car. In the shower I notice patterns in the water drops on my shoulders and how they gurgle down the drain. Trudging around the farm rounding up the sheep, I notice a musicality in the art of walking, a squelch in the damp of my gumboots.

In the process of making music I often wonder whether I am hearing correctly or how much I can truly rely on my hearing aids, especially since every time I take them to an audiologist I seem to get some kind of software upgrade forcing me to violently uproot my whole perception of sound and leaving me physically aching in a way I didn’t know possible. Then I am up late at night wondering what percentage of robot I am? Is this posthumanism? My little ears with start-up music like a computer. My best friend Bec relies on an insulin pump to live. My Mum relies on her mobile phone to live. Is there a difference?

I often think about the grammar lessons of youth riddled with the correct punctuations and now ee cummings sits on my bedside. I was taught the rules only to break them much later – imagine the dada poetry I could have created in youth! Eventually my music practice got to the point where I decided I was done with convention. I can’t hear well enough to know if I am achieving just tonality. When I play a cover I usually am just listening to a ‘brain recording’ of the actual song. Once I knew enough music theory, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Western Equal Temperament, I left traditional music in the bin for the ibis. I probably should have found this conclusion sooner given that my primary school art teacher told us to embrace our wiggles and messy lines instead of using an eraser. I chased after a street sweeper with a phone recording the action and started hitting the banjo with a ballpoint pen and fashioning it into experimental music that I complemented with videos of liquid, exploring multimedium artform. I found accessibility in the creation of experimental music and sound design, in the company of few at niche experimental gigs with glitch art videos that offer audio-visual narratives, which for me, were more encapsulating, appealing to more senses.

There have been times where I have collected those pity tickets offered by the hearing community and slurped them like a milkshake of self-hatred. I have also collected those ableist slurs and insults of disbelief and disrespect. Heaven forbid a hearing-impaired person could win a prize on the beam in gymnastics because I am not supposed to know balance. Heaven forbid a hearing-impaired person graduated high school, then university. And heaven forbid my mother taught me to read so that eventually I could teach myself everything that slips through the cracks and build serious research skills. And heaven forbid I revisit The L Word in 2018 and fall in love with Jodi (Marli Matlin). And heaven forbid I find a musicality in something other than Radiohead. And yet, every time I ‘climb another mountain’, one of my mum’s middle-age friend enjoys it voyeuristically, some free disability inspiration porn.

And like the speech pathology of youth I did for a Chupa Chup, I see a musicality in words, in the movements of lips. I live and breathe music in emotive faces, in theatrical arms that express a story. And while the hearing world may listen to their Apple Earpods with an ease that I will never know, I understand a harmony in the deep sunken vibrations in bodies of water, nuts in the blender, when someone walks around the house and I am lying on the floor on a mat covered in dog hair. With my hands and head pressed up against the speaker, I am caught in freefall like a rollercoaster; feeling truly overwhelmed in the best way possible: euphoria gifted by the possibilities of music, sound and quivering vibrations.


Image: Eric Nopanen / Unsplash

Jasmine Shirrefs

Jasmine Shirrefs (they/them) is a zine maker, hospo worker and social work student.

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