Mrs. Vicki Scott, former elementary music teacher in the Springfield School District, had several students in her school who were deaf or hard of hearing. She was a very gifted teacher and was able to teach her students with very limited hearing abilities to match pitch, keep steady beat, and demonstrate musicality. Alice-Ann Darrow, Professor of Music Therapy and Music Education at Florida State University, became interested in studying people with hearing impairments by watching her father, who was hearing impaired. Being deaf doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t hear at all; there are very few who can’t hear anything.
It means, “a loss severe enough that hearing alone cannot be used for the purpose of processing speech” (Darrow 2006). The purpose of this paper is to explore how students who are Deaf learn about music. Included will be: a brief on Deaf culture and history of deaf music education, strategies for teaching deaf students, and song signing. When using a capital ‘D’ at the beginning of the word deaf, the word changes from an adjective to a noun naming a culture; not all people who are deaf fit into the Deaf culture (Adamek & Darrow 2010).
In Deaf culture the people feel more at home without “hearing” and are primarily fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Many people who are deaf are also bilingual. Students are often encouraged to learn ASL prior to learning English. This is known as the bicultural approach (Adamek & Darrow, 2010). The only drawback to the bicultural approach is that it is difficult to find teachers who are fluent in ASL. Outside of the Deaf culture, there are people who use a cochlear implant.
The cochlear implant turns sounds into electrical waves that stimulate what is left of the auditory nerves (Schraer & Prause, 2009). The implant itself has mixed reviews. When implanted at a young age the child knows virtually nothing else. When implanted later in life, the tone heard by the listener isn’t always the actual tone being played (Schraer & Prause, 2009). With students who have recently gotten cochlear implants, it’s important to remain predictable in your classroom scheduling in order to reduce “hearing-stress situations” (Schraer & Prause, 2009).
The first step to successfully teaching a student who is deaf or hard of hearing is by testing them. This test can be conducted by singing a well-known song, preferably from a nursery rhyme, in three different registers to determine what the student can hear the best (Schraer & Prause, 2009). Once their comfort level is determined you may begin stretching their ability. Be aware that focusing on too many musical elements at once can be difficult depending on their experience and whether or not they have a cochlear implant (Schraer & Prause, 2009).
It is also beneficial to make sure the recordings used in class are of good quality and to use smaller ensembles, rather than full orchestras or bands. Music is a visual and a tactile subject within the deaf and hard of hearing community (Adamek & Darrow, 2010). Deaf students, who have not mastered ASL or English, benefit from using visual schedules. By using popsicle-sticks, rhythm becomes a manipulative, visual tool. Elke Jahns (2001) found that students with hearing impairments have an especially hard time understanding steady beat.
When deaf students play, their beats of time are rushed and then delayed with changing notes; there is also a disconnection between feeling the beat and the vibration from the instrument (Jahns, 2001). One strategy is to have students’ watch you play a rhythm and then notate it; an added level of difficulty would be to take away the ability to see and have students just feel the vibration. With students who are deaf, “hearing is a physical process” (Jahns, 2001). Song signing is a form of manual communication.
Manual communication “refers to physical messages received by the eyes” (Schaer & Prause, 2009). It is also seen as the traditional form of storytelling within the ASL language (Maler, 2013). Through song signing musical expression is easily achieved and can be quite beautiful. Maler (2013) states, “signs in American Sign Language songs can be seen as providing material grounding that can help constrain the slippery acoustic bonds of musical form. ” Song Signing can be divided into two categories: translated songs and percussion signing.
Translated songs are songs that are performed for an audience and translated from English into ASL. Within translated songs ASL, grammar is sometimes sacrificed to show musicality. Percussion signing is “arranging signs to certain beats” (Maler, 2013). When teaching students who are deaf or hard of hearing it is important to remember their history within music education, specific strategies to help students reach their goals and new ways of incorporating Deaf culture within the classroom using tools like song signing.