What? That's a bit weird, no? Music for people who can't hear?
Well, no, actually. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales last week held a short series of concerts especially created for Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences. I was delighted to be able to go to one of them and I had a really great experience.
I'm a classical musician by training, and I really like orchestras, so I go to a lot of concerts. I've never been to one like this before. I'd expected there would be a sign language interpreter, and perhaps some way to touch some of the instruments. Both of those things were included, but there was so much more to it.
The concert was presented by Dr Paul Whittaker, who is Artistic Director of an organisation called Music and the Deaf. He spoke and signed simultaneously, and started off by introducing the orchestra, creative musician Andy Pidcock and conductor Grant Llewellyn. As many of the audience members (mostly groups from schools and day centres) had never experienced any kind of concert before there was a focus on explaining how an orchestra works and what to expect from a concert.
Each section of the orchestra was introduced, and played a range of different sounds - high, low, loud, quiet - and a 'showcase' piece to demonstrate the type of music they make. Everything was described as an opportunity to 'feel' the music rather than 'hear' it which, I reflected, is what we all do anyway when listening because there's much more to an orchestra than what you get through your ears.
Members of the audience were invited to sit within the orchestra and feel the vibrations of instruments as they were being played. The impact of this was obvious in smiling faces and expressions of wonder from people resting their hand on a violin, harp or double bass while it was being played. There were also large boxes at the front of the stage which amplified the 'feel' of the music and could accommodate 4 or 5 people sitting on them at a time to feel the music.
Alongside the orchestra, the concert included performances by a group of deaf and disabled pupils from local schools, and a song performed by Llantarnam Deaf Choir, who perform using British Sign Language. I've seen them perform before, and sung with them, at the BBC National Chorus of Wales Christmas concert, for which we learned a verse of 'Silent Night' in BSL. A BSL choir is a really beautiful thing to watch, and I highly recommend the experience if you get the opportunity.
There were plenty of opportunities to join in and make music too, from having a go at conducting the orchestra to playing percussion instruments alongside the rest of the audience. I really enjoyed being part of the experience, and watching the faces of children, many of whom were completely new to music, as they felt it all around them and started to love the sound.
As my colleagues will attest, I'm known for going to concerts and events and coming back to the office buzzing with ideas. This time was no exception. I'm now starting to have a think about ways to make theatrical experiences more accessible for people. At NTW we usually have a signed performance, and audio described performance, of our shows but I'm interested in what more we can do. How can we go beyond the 'bolt-on' approach and create something that's a great experience for everyone, no matter how they access words and images?
Watch my blog for more ideas in the coming months and, hopefully, some project updates and inventions later in the year!
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