Striking the right note you can't hear

Oct 14, 2018, 07:21 IST | Jane Borges

Meet the Mumbaikars who are enabling the hearing impaired master musical instruments they never thought they'd play

Striking the right note you can't hear
Students of St Stephen High School, Prabhadevi, learn to play the djembe. Pic/Bipin Kokate

At Prabhadevi's St Stephen High School for the Deaf and Aphasic, the racket of children playing on the grounds is welcome. Sound, if there is, means different things to each one of them: sometimes a hum, otherwise a disturbing buzz and for a few fortunate, muffled, incoherent words. In this universe, audible frequencies barely matter. It's here that 30-year-old Vashi resident Arvin David carried out an unusual experiment earlier this week.

David, who runs the music company Connect, with the help of a women's group Spreading Smiles of Joy, introduced students from the campus to the beats of the djembe - a rope-tuned goblet drum with origins in West Africa. For most of these kids, to whom music, let alone playing an instrument, is alien, the late afternoon workshop was a break from the monotony of articulating themselves through otherwise, soundless art. David is not alone. Breach Candy resident Nicole Fernandes recently joined hands with her former colleague and friend Nandita Venkatesan, 28, who suffers from 90 per cent hearing loss, to start an electronic keyboard tutorial on YouTube. The trio is motivated by a common dream - to bring music into the lives of those who didn't know they could feel it.

(Right) Nicole Fernandes teaches Nandita Venkatesan to play the electronic keyboard. Pic/Ashish Raje
(Right) Nicole Fernandes teaches Nandita Venkatesan to play the electronic keyboard. Pic/Ashish Raje

Good vibrations
It was in 2016 that David first started conducting workshops for those sufafering from hearing loss. Until then, he organised djembe sessions as part of their drum therapy programme, at social and corporate events. "I was told that those unable to hear, can experience sound or music through vibration," says David.

Nishita Mohandas, audiologist and speech therapist at PD Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mahim, agrees. "A person with a hearing impairment can play a musical instrument depending on the type and degree of hearing loss," she says. While those with mild to moderate hearing loss can engage with music, those suffering from severe to profound impairment find it tough. "The instruments that would then work best for them would be from the percussion group. From these, they get tactile cues and vibrations as well as beat and rhythm, which are enhanced through visual cues," she says.

Nicole Fernandes (left) teaches the electronic keyboard to Nandita Venkatesan, who suffers from 90 per cent hearing loss, by breaking down every key on the instrument into a number. Venkatesan recently learned how to play the nursery rhyme, Twinke Twinkle Little Star. Pic/Ashish Raje
Nicole Fernandes (left) teaches the electronic keyboard to Nandita Venkatesan, who suffers from 90 per cent hearing loss, by breaking down every key on the instrument into a number. Venkatesan recently learned how to play the nursery rhyme, Twinke Twinkle Little Star. Pic/Ashish Raje

However, most percussion instruments, like the tabla or drums, tend to leave a distinct echo, on being played. "If I were going to solely rely on vibration for the kids to experience music, I needed something that wouldn't disturb the sounds coming from the instrument," he says, adding that the djembe, which has a "loud and sharp sound that doesn't sustain" was hence, the perfect choice. Having surmounted the first step to realising his vision, David then worked on modifying the instrument kit.

He invented the "vibration box" - a two-seater box, made with wood of a particular thickness and width, inside which speakers are placed. David's djembe is connected to the speakers via a wireless microphone. The player sitting on the box can feel the vibration, when David, who sits at a comfortable distance, plays the djembe, thus, receiving cues to follow suit. "The box was created after several failed attempts. We had to keep experimenting with the thickness of the wood, so that the person sitting on the box could experience the djembe from head to toe and respond accordingly," he says. Mohandas describes this method of teaching sound as "vibro-tactile".

During the two hour-long workshop at St Stephen's, children with varying degrees of hearing loss, attempted to play the instrument for the first time. The group was split into five batches, comprising 10 to 12 students each, starting with Std V students. Two students were asked to sit on the box for five minutes each. David first played a short bar for them, and the students, who kept their eyes shut through the playing time, repeated after him. He only continued, if and when, they managed to pick up more complicated cues. Most students had hearing aids to help enhance the sounds they were hearing, but Olivia Moraes, headmistress of the school, says that hearing aids only help amplify sound by 50 to 60 per cent.

David's djembe is connected to the speakers via a wireless microphone; those sitting on the box can feel the vibration, when David starts playing. Pics/Bipin Kokate
David's djembe is connected to the speakers via a wireless microphone; those sitting on the box can feel the vibration, when David starts playing. Pics/Bipin Kokate

The session was particularly challenging for those with severe/profound hearing loss - some were trying to experience this sound through surgically fitted cochlear implants. "It [cochlear implant] bypasses the normal hearing mechanism and stimulates the surviving neurons or nerve fibres. While the hearing aid is an amplification device that helps make inaudible sounds audible, the cochlear implant produces an electronic sound," says Mohandas.

Many of the students required David to play a couple of times, before they could, if not exactly and every time, get the cues right, and follow him. The difficulty in recreating the sounds based mostly on vibrations notwithstanding, by the end of the workshop, most children were beaming ear to ear. "They were making an effort and were enjoying themselves. That in itself is therapy," says Moraes.
After the session, 16-year-old Amman ur Rehaman Siddiqui from Std VII, shared a written note about his experience since he was a unable to articulate it verbally - "I was trying to match the beats with the teacher. It was very difficult for me, but the experience was amazing." Vajra Praddepkumar Patel, 13, described how the djembe "made my legs vibrate". David is now working on making a djembe performance band, exclusively with players challenged by hearing loss.

Arvin David invented a vibration box, inside which speakers are placed.
Arvin David invented a vibration box, inside which speakers are placed.

One count at a time
Meanwhile, Venkatesan, who has been learning to play the keyboards, is not afforded the luxury of vibration or sound, because of the nature of the instrument and the fact, that she has profound hearing loss. Venkatesan lost her hearing four years ago at the age of 24, as a reaction to an anti-tuberculosis injection. She just returned from the UN General Assembly meet in New York, where she recollected how she woke up from a short 10-minute nap on the afternoon of November 22, 2013, right after taking a shot following a second bout of TB, only to realise that she couldn't comprehend what her mother was telling her. At the time, the loss was at 80 per cent in the left ear and 50 to 60 per cent in the right ear. It has since deteriorated to over 90 per cent in both.

"In 10 minutes, my life was not what I knew it to be," recalls the business journalist, who uses a hearing aid, but says the sounds she picks up are nothing but a buzz.

Arvin David
Arvin David

Having battled depression for several months after the incident, Venkatesan decided to rise up to the challenge. It began with going back to Bharatanatyam; she had been training since the age of seven. But, how does one dance without music? "I have certain techniques that I follow. For starters, I memorise the lines of the song, and convert the beats to numbers, to make it easier in my head," she says. So, for instance, if the beats are, tat tai ta ha, she converts them to numbers 1-2-3-4. "Also, the person, who is standing in front of me, is my cue to begin. I have to be very attentive, compared to normal dancers."

Fernandes, a PR professional, who moonlights as a music teacher on the weekends, met Venkatesan during a brief stint at a media house. "At the time, she had mentioned to me, how it would be wonderful for people with hearing loss to play an instrument. That stayed with me," she says. Earlier this year, the duo, with the help of Konark Institute of Performing Art (KIPA) in Vashi, where Fernandes formerly taught the keyboard, uploaded a series of five tutorial videos on KIPA's YouTube page, with captions to make it easier for the students to read.

Their work is an extension of the technique that Venkatesan adopted in her dance performances. She currently has only managed to perfect the nursery rhyme, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which took her over four sessions to learn. Here, every key has been broken down into a number; so the first key on the keyboard, which is a 'C' is 1, while 'G' is 5. The one advantage that Venkatesan has over most others born with hearing loss, is that she understands language and can speak, effortlessly. "When a person's sense of hearing is affected, his/her other senses compensate in some way, especially vision and hence, these children can lip read/speech read better than others," says Mohandas. Lip-reading Fernandes's counts, and with a certain rhythm, has helped her recreate the music, even if, she cannot hear a thing. "I cannot differentiate between the sounds, so practically speaking, I am not enjoying the music," she says, haltingly. "Yet, it is therapy for me, because certain things in life are no longer accessible to me. But, the reassurance that this aspect has not ended, and that I can still do the things that others can, is comforting."

A different song
Researchers at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons's Music Engineering Group are currently looking at ways to adapt music to be better attuned to those with hearing devices and implants. Dr Anil Lalwani, co-director, Columbia Cochlear Implant Centre, says they are working on a software that can, in essence, take an original piece of music and reconfigure it for listeners with cochlear implants. "The software would allow the listener to adjust the various music parameters (harmonics, reverberation, bass, treble) to their listening pleasure."

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