Mar 25th 2018 by Niight_Hunterr • 50 Questions • 6900 Points
My short video for proof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDbem9iK48Y
Hello! I’m Dr Paul Whittaker OBE – a profoundly deaf Musician from the UK. I was born deaf, but I can play the piano and the organ. I have a Music degree from Oxford University and 2 honorary degrees. In 2007, The Queen gave me an OBE for services to music.
For 27 years, I ran a charity called Music And The Deaf encouraging deaf people, and those who live and work with them, to take part in music. I ran workshops, worked with orchestras, choirs, dance companies, theatres, to encourage them to engage with deaf people, and gave a lot of speeches about my life as a deaf Musician. 3 years ago, I left that job to start a freelance career. I still work in music and deafness but most of my work is motivational speaking.
For many years, I’ve been passionate about signed song and recently set up www.SiBSL.co.uk – Songs in British Sign Language – to try and raise standards and awareness of this art form. I film a performance of a song along with a detailed teaching video, explaining why I use certain signs and how I’ve translated the song.
For 26 years, I’ve also worked in the theatre interpreting major music shows such as Les Miserables, Cats, Phantom Of The Opera, West Side Story, and many others. I’ve also signed Opera and worked with various choirs and at the BBC Proms. In 2010, I signed the Sondheim at 80 Prom and had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Sondheim and working with people like Judi Dench.
AMA about my life as a deaf musician, signed song, access issues – anything related to music and deafness.
In the summer of 2016 me and four of my friends won the second top prize of a of a trip to Las Vages for 4 people.
None of us spent a unusual amount of money but I did go to mcD's more than I normally would. We had two of the tokens we needed and actually my friend found the last on on a cup that he saw in the bin that still has a token on it.
Once we realised we had all the tokens we brought them up to the counter and the guys behind the till started going nuts and none of them could believe someone actually won. Basically all we had to do was enter the code of each token online and follow the instructions that were emailed to us. It took about two weeks after claiming the prize for McDonald's to get back to us and verify that we had won for real.
B, link to your favorite composition, please.
That's actually amazing and lucky, did you enjoy your trip? Also did you manage to make extra money in Vegas?
A: I rely entirely on the printed score to understand music. I cannot identify what voice is singing, what instrument is being played, melody, harmony, form - anything - but once I see it on the page, I know in my head exactly what it sounds like.
I would say this is linked to playing the piano. The piano is such a big, physical instrument with a wide pitch range; when you press a key down, you feel the hammer hit the string, the vibrations travel up your arm and every note feels different. It's easy to relate the note you depress to the one printed on the musical stave/score and therefore easy to relate what you see to what you feel.
I say "easy" as I never recall having any trouble learning music. I started playing the piano when I was 5 and, over the years, have tried playing many other instruments so I have some idea of their tone, timbre, etc.
There are some kinds of music which are harder for me to access, such as Jazz and Electronic as this cannot be written down and therefore I can't read and understand it.
B: To answer your second question, my favourite piece of music depends on what mood I'm in! I often think about what recordings I would take to that mythical desert island, and there are a few pieces that would always make the list:
Carilion - Herbie Flowers and Ian Gomm (Recorded by SKY on their first album) Ave verum corpus, K. 618 - Mozart West Side Story - Bernstein
I am a massive James MacMillan fan - I think he's a genius!
I won an apple pie and an ice cream yesterday. I'm still riding on a high from my fortune.
A, thank you for such a detailed answer. I think I kind of understand. I have zero musical talent besides being able to whistle a bit. But you helped me understand a bit what it's like to " be a musician".
B, I wasn't clear in my first B. I meant your favorite composition of your own.
Ahahaha, you want to add a porridge or hash brown to the list ?
As I'm not really a composer and have written very little stuff that I would share with anyone, I don't actually have a favourite of mine. There is one little piece I wrote for my chapel choir when I was at University which I like but that's about it, haha!
Still hunting for the elusive Marvin Gardens that would have given a 12 year old a brand new Dodge Viper.
The French musique concrete composer (and synth pioneer) Pierre Henry designs synthesizers, to produce sounds he may or may not use in the future. Each of the designs is accompanied by a drawing of the sine wave of the sound it's intended to produce. Could you perhaps study the typical patterns produced by instruments you're familiar with to give yourself a basis for comparison, then infer what electronic instruments sound like from that? (Source: Partially deaf music journalist who had tea with Pierre Henry)
I am hoping for the second blue piece, but it's unlikely
Definitely something I could look into, though I admit that my knowledge of physics is extremely limited, so I may struggle to understand some of Pierre Henry's designs, but I'll have a look into this. Thank you.
My father in law won a xbox360 some years ago. He bought guitar hero and didn’t really play it after a couple months. Used it for a DVD player.
In regards to the tones "feeling different" how does that relate to a synthesized instrument vs. an actual piano?
Any prize is a good prize from these multinational corporations
They are completely different. Every 'real' piano you play feels different whereas most synthesised instruments I've tried feel exactly the same. The latter are not alive to me at all whereas acoustic instruments have their own character and personality.
When I was in college before the Internet, they had a scratch off trivia game. During Christmas, I didn't go home so me and about 8 guys ate at Mcdonalds for all three meals. There were only about 30 questions, so we just went around and grabbed the wrongly scratched ones off the tables until we had all 30. When we got a game piece, we'd look it up from our set, scratch the right answer off, and you'd get a free meal at the next meal. They also had to give you another entry, so as you can see, we only bought the first meal and then ate for free from then on.
They changed the questions every three days, so our luck ran out when the manager noticed what we had been doing and started cleaning the used game pieces off the tables immediately.
No problemo, we went to the library before we scratched them off, and to our surprise, they were taking all their questions out of three trivia books that were in the library. We checked out all three books and ate free the rest of the two weeks we had off.
So would this be similar to Beethoven when he went deaf, and relying on vibration? I imagine the experience being similar, but never having heard the actual sounds..kudos to you man, that's rather mindblowing! Is there no tech available or in the pipeline that you know of that might make it accessible? Do cochlear implants not work? Anyway, you're an inspiration man, like someone who's denser than water but swims the Channel, has no arms but takes up shot put, damn, I have no good analogy, like a guy who does what you do. Inspiring, makes me think I should do more with what I have. Hope the road ahead works out curiously wonderful for you.
Love your comments, thank you so much. I don't feel an implant would work for me at all. I like my current curiously wonderful life. Hope yours is equally curiously wonderful!
Kinda related I guess, but I worked with a guy that used to work at the factory that printed the monopoly pieces. Whenever they printed boardwalk, security escorted the piece out. I believe they already know which city they send it to.
How did you get into music?
Also how do you describe the feeling of music?
Also congratulations and I think you are cool! X
Thank you very much!
Even though I was born deaf, music was always around in the house when I was growing up. My Mum played the piano and my parents had the radio on or played records nearly all the time, so I was aware of this phenomenon which affected people in profound ways. Perhaps if I had grown up in an environment where there was lots of art or dance, I may have pursued that path instead!
Finding a teacher was often a challenge as they were unsure of how to communicate and to explain music to someone without hearing. I always rely on what I call the 'played example' where the teacher showed me what they wanted me to do, then I watched and copied it.
Describing the feeling of music is a tough one to answer. Sometimes, I can attend a performance of a piece of music and feel that I'm going to burst because it's so overpowering; at other times, it makes me happy or sad or makes me cry. Music can bring people together, and divide people, can be used as a political tool, can be experienced alone or in a crowd. You can have several thousand people attending one physical performance of a piece of music, but everyone goes away having responded to it differently. That's the power of music! For me, it's something that I just have to do and I can't imagine life without it.
So I didn’t win the jackpot, and this is going back several years, but in the U.K. we used to have “experience vouchers” for websites that you could win like £500 towards whatever you wanted.
I was working in television/film industry at the time, and I ate at a lot of different McDonald’s, probably had nearly every space filled but for those last ones. I always buy large meals and therefore got like 6 stickers per large meal deal, I didn’t spent more than £50 I reckon though.
I did receive the prize, and even though the prize had a 12month use by limit, I managed to extend it to 24months and it paid for a “mini-moon” after our wedding in 2012.
When you win you call the number on the game sheet and verify some personal details and then they ask you to confirm the stickers and codes. They ask which McDonald’s you ate at, how many times, where any donated to me etc...once I’d jumped through a couple hoops they asked me to post the stickers and Game board to them recorded delivery and take a picture of me posting it, was a weird request. I just sent it insured and took a video of me sealing the stickers in the envelope. Oh also worth noting, once you win and redeem the voucher, I couldn’t win anything else above that prize, which was either a New Mini I believe at the time or £250,000 top prize.
I won £500’s worth of experience vouchers for buyagift.co.uk in 2010 and bought a spa break in Scotland... Loch-Fyne Hotel
I don’t have the prize anymore as it was a long time ago, they did send me a really nice congratulations letter and some paperwork, but nothing worth keeping. I still have the booking documentation from buyagift though in an email.
Out of interest, if you're attending a performance, but do not hear the music, what is it that's affecting you? I can understand the physicality of playing music you can't hear and engaging with it, but watching someone else play but not being physically linked to the music, how does that work?
That's actually amazing, hope you had a great experience
Part of the attraction of attending a performance is sharing that experience with other people. Being at a live performance also exposes you to the full harmonic range and a greater sense of vibration. I enjoy watching people actually playing music and can pick up differences in interpretation from watching them. Aside from the Sondheim at 80 Prom in 2010, which I signed, the most profound live music experience was a performance of James MacMillan's 'Seven Last Words' at Birmingham Town Hall by Britten Sinfonia and chorus 2 years ago. It was just phenomenal.
Hello Dr. Whittaker. Thank you for doing this AMA. As a CoDA (also from the UK), it is really wonderful to see a member of the Deaf Community spreading positive information about the fact that people who are deaf really can do anything that a hearing person can do. Apart from hear, of course.
You mentioned we could ask questions about access issues. What kind of access issues do you face in your work and/or personal life? Is there anything you would want to highlight to hearing communities as a particular issue that you (and other deaf people face)?
Hello, many thanks for your message and question. As we both know, deaf people can do anything that hearing people can do, apart from hear!
I'm fortunate in having a decent Access To Work agreement and have good interpreter support, but that doesn't stop me from occasionally wanting to pick up a phone and have a conversation with someone, or from wishing that I could listen to the radio. Generally speaking - I'm told - the level of conversion and debate on radio is far higher than it is on TV.
Probably the biggest access barriers are to do with every day leisure and entertainment. Things like not being able to go to the cinema or the theatre when you feel like it, but having to find when there is a captioned or signed performance. That restriction of choice is frustrating, especially if you're wanting to go with friends. Within that, there is the issue of whether the interpreter is actually any good, whether you can understand them, or whether the captions will actually work in the cinema.
Technology has improved the lives of deaf people in many ways and there is certainly far more choice and more opportunities than when I was young, but there is still a long way to go before deafness and deaf people are seen and accepted.
What still concerns me greatly is the quality and provision of deaf education in the UK. Teachers Of The Deaf often do a sterling job under difficult circumstances, but integration certainly does not work for all deaf children, and many deaf children fail to achieve their potential. Expectations can often be quite low and although this is not current political thinking, my view is that there should always be a place for schools for the deaf.
Greater recognition of BSL and having it as a curriculum subject in schools would make a vast difference, but we then have the issue of who would actually teach it as there aren't enough good BSL teachers around.
The amount of poor quality so called "BSL" signed song videos on YouTube and other social media is one of my bug bears. It's so disheartening reading glowing comments about how marvellous these videos are when they don't respect deaf people or their language, and shows just how ignorant a lot of people are about sign language.
What's your view on all this?
Is there any feedback loop that you use when playing music to make sure you are keeping time/pitch? Can you feel any vibrations that help you keep on track or is it just a matter of accurately transcribing sheet music into movement for you?
I guess this question is linked to signed song. I don't use any equipment apart from my hearing aids, but can only translate a song when I've seen the sheet music, learned it, and memorised it. I then spend time going through the song with my interpreters, checking timing, multi-tracking, and other musical elements. Once I've completed that process, the recording of a song is pretty well implanted in my brain, though I still have to rely on vibrations to follow it when performing.
On occasions, I do keep an eye on my interpreter so that they can mouth lyrics if I get out of time but this doesn't often happen. Rather, I mentally fast forward to certain chords and when those specific vibrations hit me, I know I'm in time.
I am doing fine, thanks. Hope you are too. As I'm not a medical Doctor, please don't ask me to treat you if there is anything wrong!
Hi Paul. I'm a CODA in the UK (you might know my mum, she lives in Reading and had her own theatre company in the 90s called Co-Sign and directed Titus Andronicus in BSL in Bolton - her initials are CT).
My question is - when you're doing stage interpreting what do you use as your timing clues when you're not able to see the actors? Have you got a screen prompt, do you follow the conductor?
I'm a big Sondheim fan, so good work on doing the Sondheim at 80 gig! Have you seen Hamilton? That would be a NIGHTMARE to interpret :D
Bonus question: what is your favourite sign?
Hello hello (and best wishes to your Mum).
Doing that Sondheim Prom was the best night of my life, but there was a lot of pressure. No, I haven't seen Hamilton yet.
When I do stage interpreting, I memorise the entire script, score and blocking. Obviously I find shows with dialogue really hard, so I tend to remember how long a speech is, where the pauses are, and then match my signing to the pauses. I've rely very much on the conductor and last year used a screen prompt for the first time. That was a massive help but I felt my performance lacked something through relying on a feed rather than my own memory.
I do very little stage work these days but do miss it.
I don't have a favourite sign. What's yours?
Have you ever composed any music? I imagine it would hard as you were born deaf.
I know how to compose and once or twice I have written short pieces for people I know, but would not call myself a composer. I prefer arranging music, especially for voices, as this challenges my imagination, but it's always easier writing or arranging for people or ensembles that you know rather than for strangers.
I don't find it hard to do simply because I've had a lot of musical training and have a lot of theoretical and academic knowledge. I admit that it would be nice to actually hear the performance taking place and experience the effect of sound in that specific building, but simply because I've never been able to hear, I don't spend any time getting upset or worrying about it.
How did you like working with Vin Diesel in the Fast and the Furious movies?
You should see my driving skills. I can sign and drive at the same time (don't try this at home).
Hey Doc! I have a severe to profound hearing loss and I've been thinking about learning an instrument. I have a cochlear implant and hearing aid. I am located in Australia!
I have had my eyes on piano or trumpet for a while now, what steps could I take? I might check out your website, that may answer my questions.
Hi! Great to hear from you ;) my simple answer is to have a go at loads of instruments then decide which ones you like best! Whatever you choose to play, I would recommend that you find a teacher but probably not someone who is too formal.
I don't have any info on my website about playing different instruments, but I do have a friend in Australia who has done a lot of work on music and deafness. Her name is Karen Kyriakou. Google her. She is based in Melbourne.
Do let me know if you contact her and how you get on. Good luck!
What originally got you interested in music, and did you have any hesitation about starting to study music?
For my original interest in music - see some of my other replies in this thread. I never had any hesitation about starting to study music and knew from a young age it was what I wanted to do. Nobody was going to stop me!
How did the queen look in person? Taller or shorter than you expected? And what did she say to you?
It was the third time I've met The Queen when I got my OBE. The first time, we chatted about my work. The second was a brief introduction as part of a welcoming party, and the third was congratulating me on receiving an OBE.
She was shorter than I expected but has immense presence and makes you feel like you're the only person in the room.
Hi, Dr Whitaker, since the advent of closed captions and text messages do you feel this equalizes both the hearing and hard of hearing people and how does it aid you in your engagement with the world?
Closed captions and especially texting have made a massive difference to me and to many deaf people.
Live captioning can still be frustrating when it doesn't give the right information and captioning on DVD's does not always give full information. Technology alone isn't enough for us to feel fully equal in a hearing world, but the situation is certainly better than it was when I was a child.
Texting, messenger, WhatsApp, things like Reddit, make a big difference if you have decent written skills but for a lot of sign language users, they have more limited use and impact.
I hope I am not late. :) Thank you for the AMA Dr Paul Whittaker!
Wow. I am shocked!
Was ever, anyone jealous of you? :)
I am not a musician, not sure how to write this down, but sometimes when you press 2 sounds on the keyboard of the piano, those 2 sounds are totally NOT matching. It is something like a screech for my ears. Do you have anything like that when using the piano vibrations?
This might be a stupid question, but, can you whistle? :-)
I'm sure people have been jealous, but they've never come up to my face and told me so!
I think you're talking about dissonance here, which is where you get two sounds which don't sound pleasant together. Yes, it still feels like a dissonance through vibration. Scientifically, you have certain notes that work in harmony with one another, and others that don't, and it's both an aural and physical sensation.
I can't whistle. See other reply about that.