Sunday 25 February 2018

Moving to her own beat

Ciara Dwyer

Moments before Dame Evelyn Glennie sweeps into the music room in the School of Music in Cork, there is an air of anticipation. There's excitement but trepidation too. A bunch of bright-eyed students gather around xylophones and marimbas, eager to assist the world-famous percussionist the day before her performance there. Her plane from London had been delayed, and the minute she arrived in Cork, she set to work.

Delayed she may have been but she was far from harried. A fresh-faced smiling woman with brown eyes, and a magnificent mane of long grey hair, she popped her head around the door, then came in fully.

As the students were introduced, I watched her lip read and noticed how we all spoke very distinctly, making sure to face her. It was clear that the students wanted to soak up as much knowledge as they could. They knew how lucky they were. It's not every day that they get to meet a percussionist as talented as Evelyn.

Although I'm no music student, I too was more than a little nervous meeting Evelyn. I'd never interviewed a deaf person before and as she states clearly on her website -- "I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf." Totally? Profoundly? What was the difference? A hell of a lot, I was to learn later on. How would we converse? And even more to the point, how would I ask her about overcoming her deafness to play percussion if she seemed so touchy about that very subject. On her website she moans about how it only seems to be journalists who focus on it. ("I simply hear in a different way to most people," she writes.) She doesn't seem to think of this profound deafness as a difficulty. Well, I'm glad of that for her sake, but it didn't ease my worries. The minute she appeared, the whole deaf thing felt like the elephant in the room.

I thought that if we could just overcome that and deal with it, then we'd be fine. Then it dawned on me. That's exactly what she has done in her life. Maybe it's everyone else who has to catch up with Evelyn. If it's no big deal for her and she has to live with it, then no wonder she wants everyone to get over it and listen to the music because Evelyn is all about the music. She calls herself "a sound creator" and urges us all to listen with all parts of our bodies, just as she does.

So who is Evelyn Glennie?

Within moments of meeting her, on my own, the twice Grammy- award winner is tucking into a chocolate fudge brownie and referring to her career as "the business". The girl who grew up on a farm close to Aberdeen has done very well for herself. Much in demand, she plays more than 100 concerts a year worldwide. As well as the solo percussion work, she is a motivational speaker and a jewellery designer. Not bad for someone who was advised to pursue anything but music. And, of course, there is the obvious yet pretty sensational paradox that she didn't let her deafness deter her from being a musician.

Evelyn is a trailblazing bastion of strength and determination. The 46-year-old Scotswoman is the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Before she came along there was no such thing as a solo percussionist. You were either in an orchestra or a band. It was as simple as that. But life is rarely simple and neither is Evelyn's life story and that of how she became a solo percussionist.

It was her fading hearing which brought her to percussion. At the age of eight, having had the mumps, she tells me that the nerves simply started to deteriorate. By the time she was 12, she was profoundly deaf. She had been playing the piano and recorder in school but the music teacher encouraged her to do percussion, where she could feel the vibrations of the instruments on the flimsy walls of the prefab room. No longer was music something you could simply hear; suddenly, listening was about feeling the music and Evelyn was listening with all of her body.

"My hearing began to go when I was about eight. By the time I was 12, I was reliant on hearing aids. But when you're young like that, you adapt. You're not thinking -- 'Oh my God'. Everybody else is thinking 'Heavens, what are we going to do?' but you yourself are not. That's why it's so difficult to talk about it because it wasn't a tearful or frightening time. A confusing time, yes, and sometimes daunting but it wasn't such an emotional time because kids don't have that depth. They're hugely resilient and adaptable."

When Evelyn was a young girl, a careers advisor visited her school one day. Here was the opportunity to talk about her plans for the future. At the age of 15 she had decided that she was going to be a musician but she was advised against it.

"I was told to be an accountant, or anything at all but I was not to go in for music," she says.

Her brown eyes widen in disbelief as she recalls that day.

"I couldn't quite get my head around the fact that this person could sum up your whole being in half an hour and say 'don't do that'. I found that extremely dangerous. Fortunately I'm the sort of person that keeps things within myself and tries to work them out inwardly and then I will go and do something. When the career teacher told me that, I thought 'that doesn't feel right. I have made up my mind and that's what I'll do'."

And so she did. The Royal Academy of Music in London was initially reluctant to take her in as a percussion student because of her hearing difficulties but after the second audition, which was as impressive as the first, they relented, acknowledging her outstanding musicianship. Her attendance became groundbreaking and later the admission rules were changed because of her.

Both the career adviser and the Royal Academy of Music had valid concerns about Evelyn's hearing difficulties but they underestimated this woman's force of will.

"I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf," she says. "Profoundly deaf means you do have residual hearing and a hearing aid may help in certain situations or with certain frequencies. It's a completely different thing to totally deaf but very few people are totally deaf. Even if nothing is coming into the ear, you'll still receive sounds through the body and you'll still hear a lot. It's just whether you accept that feeling through vibration as a sense of hearing or not."

What's it like to go gradually deaf? Is it like someone turning down the volume?

"It was extreme really," she recalls. "There were certain noises that were so painful and where you're hearing so much of it, that you couldn't control the sound. There were other sounds that you couldn't hear at all but you knew you could hear. Things like conversation -- if there were a lot of people in a room, that was a no-go area. I found myself becoming much more insular. Playing the piano and playing the recorder was great. I could be alone with those instruments. I enjoyed playing by myself. One of the reasons I chose to be a solo percussionist was because playing in an orchestra was quite difficult."

Watching Evelyn perform (which you can do on Friday with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra in the National Concert Hall), is a unique experience. She is always without shoes. She feels through her feet and every part of her body. Also she regards each individual venue with a specific acoustic as an instrument.

There is much talk of music in my time with Evelyn, and she is good company, very lively, and laughter is never too far away. She is delightfully girly too. When I admire the lovely condition of her hair, she tells me that she believes it's because she stopped dyeing it a few years ago. "It's very liberating," she says, in that lovely Aberdeen accent which has her rolling her Rs. She was getting grey hairs trying to cover the grey hairs and she even mocks her own people.

"Not wanting to be too Scottish about it, but it's great for my bank balance, too."

She swears by baby shampoos she tells me -- Johnson's or Tesco own brand.

There was a time when Evelyn did a lot of long tours and was often away from home. Now she does shorter ones and happily spends larger chunks of time at her home in Cambridgeshire.

She has a very practical attitude about her working life and as a result, she has many strings to her bow -- the motivational talks and the jewellery designing. These may have started in a quiet, casual way, but once Evelyn embarks on a project, there are no half measures with her. She is equally passionate about them.

"I don't know how long the professional lifespan of a solo percussionist is because it hasn't existed before," she says. "For me, it's important not to become hostage to a situation. If you lay the groundwork, it's not going to be such an upheaval in your lifestyle. One thing flows to the next. The motivational speaking happened through the master classes. You motivate young people. You're not showing them how to do something, you're asking them to ask themselves questions and listen to themselves. The master classes haven't stopped but the motivational talks stemmed from them. It has to be organic. It's the same with the jewellery design."

She is wearing one of her designs -- a striking silver pendant with musical notes.

"I started collecting jewellery and I'm a girl and I thought, I can do this myself. Again, it's a strand that can happen even if you've broken your legs or arms. If percussion can't continue, the motivational speaking and master classes can continue. I don't want to be a hostage to just being a musician."

As I listen to her talk, after a while, even I forget about her profound deafness and the lip-reading thing. Once we manage it, it's fine. But sometimes there are situations she has to deal with. For example, if there is a grill obstructing a bank teller's mouth, she asks them to move position. When she was doing her driving test, she had to ask for another tester, as the first one had a bushy beard which hid his lips. And what about men?

Evelyn was once married to a brass player but they are divorced. She didn't have children and nor did she have an urge to have them. Now she has a new partner in her life. She won't say too much about him except they met at a function and no, he's not a musician. When they go out, he always drives, so she can read his lips.

"Fortunately my partner is one of those guys who naturally gets into a position where I can see his mouth. When we go to bed, he knows that when the lights go out there ain't going to be much of a conversation, unless I speak on, only. But if he speaks, he's only speaking to himself. That's the way it is. If we need to speak to each other we'll have to get a torch."

Then she throws back her head and laughs loudly. What a lovely sound. And you don't need to lip-read that.

Evelyn Glennie performs Rouse's 'Der Gerettete Alberich' with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor Alan Buribayev in 'Clash of the Titans' on Friday, December 9, at the National Concert Hall. Tickets from €10. See or Tel: (01) 417 0000

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