MTYT: The Deaf Musicians

The four of us (Desiree, Maria, Megan and Susan) are picking up where we left off in August 2016’s My Take / Your Take — looking at books that won the Schneider Family Award for the portrayal of the disability experience. We looked at five global picture books in our previous discussion, and now we are shifting our attention to four other award winners, this time set in the U.S. The first is The Deaf Musicians.

My Take Your Take, global perspectives, The Deaf Musicians

MARIA: Lee plays his piano every night at the jazz club, something like this: plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink. Gradually, Lee begins to lose his hearing until one day he hears sounds no more. His band decides to let him go. While the story does not elaborate on how Lee copes with both losses of his hearing and the band, the next page describes a hopeful and persistent Lee already ready for a new adventure: maybe I can learn to do something new. And he did! Lee enrolls in a school for the deaf, where he learns sign language, and meets Max, a deaf sax player. Most important, Lee learns that music can be felt on his body and heard in his mind.

Lee and Max quickly discover they can play their beloved jazz songs by following each other, Lee on his piano, plink-a-plink-BOMP-plink-plink, and Max on his sax, boo-bang-bing. Soon, Rose, a deaf stand-up bass player, bomba-bum, bomba-bum, joins their regular subway rehearsals. The new band finds their sign-language singer in Ellie, who is also passionate about jazz. Together, they share their passion for music with “Everyone!”

After reading The Deaf Musicians I explored additional resources that could help me understand the deaf experience, particularly as it related to music. The music videos, documentaries and TED Talks that I watched had a theme in common: the importance of challenging narrow understanding of what it means to have a voice. I think the authors, Seeger and Jacobs, invite readers into this self-reflective journey when they ask, “Who will listen to a deaf musician?” The character asking this question assumes that sound is fundamental to voice, so no sound, no voice. In this regard, I wonder why the authors make no reference to deaf musicians who have learned to produce sounds, such as Mandy Harvey, Sean Forbes or Beethoven’s Nightmare (band), among others. My interpretation of this decision is that the authors are committed to help readers think about voice beyond conventional vocal sounds. Lee discovered his new voice and shared it with determination.

SUSAN: I approached the book in the same way — I went for help! I am not a jazz musician nor am I deaf, so I needed some perspective from someone who could “hear” the story more than I could. While I trusted that the Schneider Award committee would have selected books that accurately represented the deaf experience, I wanted to think about how that experience is portrayed to readers. I asked a special education professor to read the book with me. She read the book with a focus on the contrast of disability and ability.

Lee at first is ABLE, a regular participant in a band that plays gigs at various places. Because of his increasing hearing loss he is no longer able to follow along with the other jazz musicians. I found this interesting in a musical sense because jazz is flexible with different musicians soloing while the others play background. But in order for that background music to work, they have to hear each other, and follow the tempo and key the solo musician has set. In the story, when Lee is no longer able to follow the lead of his fellow band members, he has to drop out and can no longer “jam” with his friends. Later he is RE-ABLE when he can play with his fellow deaf musicians. This makes me wonder if the bandleader had sought out ways to help Lee hear the music, would Lee still be in the band? Was the disability portrayed really the bandleader who was shortsighted in how he viewed Lee and in his definition of “hear?”

Another aspect of jazz that intrigues me is the community aspect. It seems like jazz musicians often play for the pure joy of making music together. The community is important. In the story Lee could no longer be a part of an important group in his social and work network. He had to go find another group. He learned how to communicate in this new group and then took his new language (American Sign Language) and linked it together with his old language (jazz music). His new language gave him even more of an audience than he had before.

Maria, your perspective of this story comes from someone who teaches the development of young children’s language. I am curious to see what you noticed in the development of Lee’s new language or voice.

MARIA: You’re bringing in two interesting points Susan. Did you know that Jazz has some core pieces, like classic songs that every Jazz musician should know? A saxophonist explained this to me after I asked him how was he able to follow the other musicians when this was the first time they all played together. He pointed to the fact that each of them built from those core pieces well known to everyone. I wonder if Lee used a similar strategy? Especially since each band member was described in terms of the instruments they played and their knowledge of jazz. As jazz musicians, I wonder if this core knowledge allowed them to listen and feel the music.

I also wonder about your comments regarding the concepts of able and disable, especially your idea of the bandleader as being disabled. I think that as a society (without generalizing) we have a tendency for deficit views when individuals’ experiences and stories do not fit dominant discourses. Does the teacher you worked with have a more inclusive term that looks at different abilities, rather than disabilities? Sounds like the terminology for engaging in conversations with children who think, act, look, feel different has been historically framed by perspectives that only consider limitations and differences, rather than multiple abilities, including new ones that we learn at different moments in life.

Love your question about Lee’s language development! I think that my strongest connection is around language as a social practice. Lee seems to be learning a new language through social interactions that encourage him to see the connections between thinking, signing, and meaning making. His teacher also introduces Lee to a community of learners who share multimodal literacies, as well as, a passion for jazz and music in general. I see this community as a space that will also support Lee in reflecting upon language ideologies around the concepts that we have mentioned in this conversation: able, dis-able, and re-able. It is an opportunity to read and interpret his life and the world from a new perspective.

SUSAN: Maria, your response sent me down an inquiry path. I did not know that jazz is played from a core set of songs. That helps me understand how deaf musicians could play together and how the subway band could be formed so easily. Lee, Max, Rose and Ellie were playing jazz standards they all knew by heart. But it still leaves me with questions — how do musicians who are deaf play music and stay in sync with other musicians?

While searching, I landed on an interview with jazz trumpeter Jon Sieger. He described jazz as having “the feel, the energy, the looseness with just enough structure and ‘not structure’ — enough room for personal expression” (Rochester Chronicles). That supported what I thought about playing jazz together — the style and beat are consistent but with lots of room for individual musicians to add notes. But it still left me wondering HOW??? So I kept digging and discovered that jazz singer Mandy Harvey senses the vibrations of the bass. She also was a pianist before losing her hearing so she watches the hands of her accompanist so she can sing in sync with his playing. Opera singer Janine Roebuck watches her fellow performers carefully to see when they breathe in so she can come in with them. Evelyn Glennie, world-renowned percussionist, plays in bare feet so she can feel the music more easily. All this information about the clues musicians use helped me understand the role sign language played for Lee in the story. For him the body movements looked like jazz. So hands danced with a doodle-bop-bop, fingers talked with a boo-bang-bing, and bodies moved with a shish-shish-shoogle.

As I read and reread this book and thought about the community aspect, the final pages took on more of an impact. We had talked about how the school for the deaf and learning sign language gave Lee a new community to be a member of and a new mode of communication. The plot shows the changes in Lee’s social group as he moves from membership in a band to having membership rescinded to finally gaining a new membership within the deaf community. Then the book narrative takes on a crescendo feeling as the four deaf musicians play in the subway to larger and larger audiences. Pete Seeger, in the Afterword, adds the final thunderous joyful note, describing what it is like to play with thousands of people joining in on a song. He concludes that the real music is people joining together. The vibrant illustrations communicate that deep joy in making music together. Words in a variety of fonts and colors dance across the pages and characters are excited with arms in the air and bodies in motion. Readers can see the happiness Lee feels as he is once again creating music in community.

Representation of multiple disabilities is something that seems to concern the Schneider Family Award committee. The books that win the award represent a wide range of disability experiences. We also tried to cover some of that range as we selected books to discuss. So our discussion is going to move from characters who are deaf to a person who lost the use of his arm due to a war injury.

Title: The Deaf Musicians
Authors: Pete Seeger, Paul Dubois Jacobs
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0399243165
Date Published: 5 October 2006

This is the first installment of February’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, check the WOW Blog every Wednesday.

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