Reflections upon the background of a deaf drummer by Andrew Arthur

Deaf people and music. Yes it does sound rather like a contradiction in terms, but only if you assume that deaf people have no hearing at all. In fact the great majority of deaf people do have some hearing and very much enjoy music. Just as there are some hearing people who are not turned on by music, so there are also deaf people who are the same. There are an unfortunate few who don’t get anything at all from music, but equally there are hearing people who are just the same.

So the conclusion I come to is that it doesn’t matter whether you are deaf or not, you can still have a lot of fun with music. because music IS fun. It was always meant to be something that people could share whether it was signal drumming or a group sing song. Even the most remote and primitive tribes on the planet have their own forms of music. Music is something that people do.

When I was at school some music was included in the curriculum. For example we sang hymns every morning. There was a piano in the school hall which was linked to the PA system on the stage and there were additional microphones on the stage so that teachers could lead the singing. So OK it was a deaf school, not so much singing as bellowing for most. We would also have communal sing songs, frequently on Saturday morning during bad weather when it was too rough to go out. Everyone was expected to attend and take part regardless of hearing loss. I’m sure this created many music lovers and probably a few haters!

My father had a musical past, he was a good violin player and had played in dance bands before WW2. I still have his violin but I’m afraid I can’t play for toffee. The reason for this is that my hearing isn’t acute enough to be able to tell when I am out of tune. A violin does not have frets to tell you where to put your fingers and so violin players learn to correct their tuning as they go. Some players do this instinctively like my father and he couldn’t understand why I can’t even play Three Blind Mice in tune. In those days parents were not given much information about deafness and he just assumed that trying to teach me music was a waste of time. I was never able to persuade him to let me have music lessons and so the little bit of music I know I have had to pick up by myself.

One day I found a large pile of old fashioned 78 rpm records in a cupboard and I decided to just play them and see what I liked. So I just worked my way through this big pile of brittle records that apparently had been in the cupboard since before the war. Back then gramophones had replaceable needles and I wore out dozens! I played every record to see if I liked it, there were classics  … Beethoven, Holst, Rossini, Mozart. The longer of these pieces came on several records, you had to change the record several times to cover the whole piece. The Planets Symphony was like that, it came on about ten records. And there was one missing!
Back then, radio was very popular. People would sit for hours listening to the radio, many comedians made their name on radio shows long before there was TV but as I couldn’t understand a word of the radio it meant nothing to me. I used to get quite bored as all the hearings would be sitting around listening to this incomprehensible machine leaving me with nothing to do. That’s how I became a bookworm. I used to read books about music, how it is constructed, how people came to write music, how to read music. I picked up all sorts of interesting bits and pieces about musicians and composers. Beethoven was deaf. I found that very encouraging. If he could do it, why not me?

In fact being deaf got to Beethoven, this is not widely known. He was a pretty tortured man at times, trying to get the music in his head down in some comprehensible form that others could play. He had the legs taken off his piano and it was set flat on a wooden floor so that he could hear and feel it. He was a bit of a drug addict, it was common for medicines to contain opiates and quite a few people enjoyed their regular doses of medicine. So you can get the message that he was a troubled, deaf musician. In the light of modern information about deafness, no surprises there.

Unbelievably I learned to sing from an opera singer. She was the daughter of the headmistress of my primary school and she was also a well known opera singer. She would often sing on the radio and she was in stage productions all the time. She had a practice room in the school and she would be in there every day, doing scales, practice pieces and generally rehearsing. She would also give us children lessons in singing. At the age of 5 I could sing a tonic sol-fa and I was able to do that right up until my hearing level dropped to the point where I could no longer sing. I was about 14. I still can’t sing for toffee and yet I was in the MHGS choir at one time!

The MHGS choir was purely a show piece and was run by a teacher called Mr Thomas. There were about 15 of us altogether and we would practice in the lunch hour and after school and sometimes we would sing to the rest of the school during morning assembly. Incidentally you were not asked, you were told. You’re in the choir. Oh thanks. We would give performances on Open Day, Speech Day, Christmas time and so on. I quite enjoyed it and it was seriously romantic to sing carols in the panelled hall of the Manor House, all done up with decorations and holly.

When I left school I discovered rock bands. My cousin got married and the reception was upstairs in a pub. Downstairs there was a dance hall and there was a band playing. I could feel the floor shaking. I had never seen a rock band before so I went downstairs and into the hall and there I encountered my first ever live band. I was absolutely awestruck. This was totally different to the classical music I was brought up with. It blew Mozart away that was for sure and from that day onwards I have been a rock/blues fan.

I found that a pub nearby had rock bands playing every Sunday night and so I hung out there every week. Strangely enough a number of people played there who are very well known now but back then were just making their way. Mick Jagger. Status Quo under their brand new name. But back then they were just guys in the pub. A year or so later I moved to Cornwall with my parents and met the same guys all over again in the Headlands Club at Bude. They used to book London bands and as it happened we had a number of people who are now world famous. How about that? Of course I lapped it up and not being very interested in guitars I decided I wanted to be a drummer.

Eventually I got my hands on a drum kit, a little beat up old thing that had belonged to one of the bands I knew and over the years I had a lot of fun (and a lot of complaints) learning to play it. Finally I got the hang of it after many trials and tribulations, mainly by copying other drummers I have seen. Never had a drum lesson in me life. I got together with some other guys and we formed a band, we would practice in the back room of a pub. Sometimes other musicians would turn up and join in, on occasions we had a regular concert going in there. I played a lot of blues, I remember and I am still a big blues fan.

After a couple of years playing in pubs I regretfully left the band, like many amateur musicians I found there were just not enough hours in the day to be a worker, a dad, a husband and a drummer on top. A lot of players have to make this choice. A fair number of marriages have broken up over it. I still play the drums regularly and since I retired there have been many more opportunities to practice and improve, so I have been working on that over the years. I must say it has been a bit of a struggle because I had no idea what I was supposed to sound like.

A few years ago one of my insurance policies matured and I decided to indulge myself. I bought a proper professional drum kit on Ebay. This is a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute. It cost an arm and a leg and since then I have added bits until it has threatened to take over the whole room so I had to stop. I do have my eye on an extra bass drum though. I try to play for an hour a day but it doesn’t often work out like that. As I am not currently in a band I am just drifting along, keeping my hand in.

Things have got easier post CI. I can hear the kit better and I am able to use the direct connection lead to hook into an electronic metronome. This is a really handy gadget and I couldn’t use a metronome before, because I could not hear it, but now I can and it has improved my playing a lot. Also I can hear the drums better and I am able to produce a more even sound. It’s a challenge to get it right. Currently I am working on playing in the style of various well known drummers, they all have distinctive beats and by playing bits of other people styles I will eventually arrive at one of my own.

One of the best things ever has been You Tube. There is every bit of music ever played on there, it’s a quite amazing repository of music and I use it almost every day. As a record player, as a learning tool or just for fun. My playing has definitely improved, it doesn’t do any harm when the world’s best drummers go online to teach their skills! But above all as drummer Chad Smith says… the object is to HAVE FUN! To quote Bill and Ted in their Excellent Adventure : Woah dude! That’s awesome!


One thought on “Reflections upon the background of a deaf drummer by Andrew Arthur

  1. You are right about Beethoven being deaf. Yet he was still able to compose music. Just keep drumming and I’ll keep fluting away.

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