by Stan Griffin
Graphics by Heather Peck
Profoundly deaf since the age of 12, Evelyn Glennie refused to accept rejection of her desire to become a solo percussionist. She continued to follow her dream; and today she is recognized as the first classically trained solo percussionist, one of the finest in the world.
Evelyn was born in northeast Scotland on her family's farm, about 20 miles from the city of Aberdeen. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Evelyn attended a small rural elementary school close to her home. Later she was a student at a secondary school about nine miles away. Her mother played the church organ; and every Christmas, her father got out his accordian. There was no phonograph in the Glennie house, so Evelyn's interest in music had to come from outside sources. She was not influenced by any particular type of music. As she put it: "I ... followed my own instincts... (learned by) playing and reading scores ..."
Evelyn began taking piano lessons at age eight, and her teacher soon discovered that she had perfect pitch. Later that same year, she began to notice that her hearing was gradually failing. This loss continued for the next four years. Doctors finally diagnosed the cause as nerve damage.
Once Evelyn's interest in music was firmly established, even diminished hearing couldn't discourage her. By the age of 12, when she began working with percussion instruments, her loss was almost complete. (She does have some residual hearing.) However, she simply refused to worry about it! She said, "Deafness was part of me...it developed in a natural way..."
Evelyn was fitted with a hearing aid, but she discarded it because it "distorted sound" and was a "distraction." She learned to lipread and has functioned well without aids ever since, although she says today that she believes in "total communication" for the deaf. She has no trouble speaking, partly because of her perfect pitch.
Evelyn gives much credit to her elementary school teachers for encouraging her to pursue her goal of a musical career. She first learned to recognize high notes and low notes by placing her hands on the outside wall of the music room while a teacher inside performed. Some of the notes made her fingers tingle, while others were felt all the way down to her wrists.
One day she saw a classmate playing percussion instruments. Her interest was roused, and she asked for lessons. After a few days, Evelyn said that it just "felt right" for her.
There are more percussion instruments than any other type, and some of them are among the oldest in the world. The percussion section of a band or orchestra is often called the "kitchen," or the "kitchen sink department"; a percussionist is sometimes called a "jack of all trades" because of the large number of available instruments.
The word itself is defined as any musical instrument in which sound is produced by: striking; hitting; scraping; or shaking. Only the hands are used with some of them, but others require a stick or mallet.
Some examples of percussion implements follow: (1) drums of all kinds; (2) cymbals (struck against each other); (3) xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel (struck with mallet); (4) tambourines, bells, castanets (shaken); (5) triangle, chimes (struck).
The purpose of percussion instruments is to provide color and texture to the music coming from an orchestra while highlighting its rhythm.
By the time she had completed secondary school, Evelyn came to see that her deafness would not allow her to participate fully within an orchestra. So she began consider a future as a solo performer on percussion.
To that end, Evelyn applied for admission to London's Royal Academy of Music. Teachers there were skeptical of the possibility that she could succeed. She was forced to go through TWO auditions, each with a separate set of faculty panelists to judge her abilities. She convinced them that she could function at a high level with percussion, despite her hearing deficiencies; and she successfully completed her studies in three years.
After graduating with honors, Evelyn gave a number of recitals and concerts in Great Britain. She spent a year in Japan, studying the five-octave marimba. (Her seventh CD was made up entirely of music by Japanese composers.) Currently she gives over 100 concerts a year. She also writes music for British television: commercial jingles, theme songs, and documentary backgrounds.
Evelyn has recorded a large number of songs, some of which she composed herself. She won a "Grammy" (award for recordings) for her version of Bartok's "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion."
Evelyn was chosen "Scotswoman of the Year" in 1989. She is also an author. Her book, "Good Vibrations," was a best-seller in Great Britain.
When Evelyn "takes on" a new selection, she uses some unusual techniques. She has been known to play a recorded version of the song on a stereo while she "hugs" the speakers. She sometimes uses a tape recorder which she places between her knees as the music flows.
During a performance, Evelyn has as many as 50 instruments in front of her. She frequently removes her shoes so she can "feel" the music through her lower body as well as through her hands. She identifies notes by their different vibrations. Reverberations from the stage on which her feet rest also assist her.
In 1994 Evelyn married Greg Malcangi, a recording engineer, who has normal hearing. They live in a house north of London. A barn on their property houses approximately 600 percussion instruments that Evelyn has collected. She is constantly finding new ones, some very uncommon (flower pots, calf bones, parts of autos).
When Evelyn decides to master a new instrument, it takes more time than a hearing person might need; but when her very thorough learning process is completed, it has become a "part of her."
In March of this year, Evelyn made her debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center. The "New York Times" review said in part: "Ms. Glennie is...a phenomenon as a performer ... and the fact that she is ... deaf is the least of it."
She is president of the "Beethoven Fund," an organization based in London. It is a charity that provides music-based treatment for hearing-impaired children. Glennie believes that music may be an effective way to link them to the outside world, Musical sounds seem to be easier for them to pick up and to identify; at times they are the only ones. She strongly disagrees with individuals or groups who attempt to discourage the deaf from listening to music or taking a more active part.
How does Evelyn evaluate her success in life? This quote from her gives us some insight: "I'm not a deaf musician. I'm a musician who happens to be deaf."