Cork woman Orla O’Sullivan became deaf in infancy through a side-effect of medication. As a new RTÉ documentary shows, it didn’t stop her pursuing her love of music, writes Marjorie Brennan
FOR most parents, the moment when they hear their child sing for the first time is a precious one. When Orla O’Sullivan’s mother Betty heard her 3-year-old daughter humming Brahms’ Lullaby as she sat on the stairs one day, it was an event made even more momentous by the fact that Orla was profoundly deaf and visually- impaired.
Orla, who lives in Frankfield in Cork, went on to achieve what many thought was impossible, becoming a piano teacher. Her story is told in the documentary Good Vibrations on RTÉ One tonight.
Through a sign-language interpreter, she describes how her incredible journey began.
“I remember the first time my mother put my fingers on piano; she put my fingers on the keys and that woke me up. The floor was wooden and that helped me feel the vibrations of the piano. My mother and father played a lot of classical music on the record player, like Brahms’ Lullaby, so I always remember singing that. My mother was a teacher herself and she sang me nursery rhymes every day and played the piano for hours.”
Orla’s sight and hearing were damaged due to the medication she was given when she contracted double pneumonia at six weeks old. She wears two powerful hearing aids which allow her to hear some sounds, but is able to experience music through feeling the vibrations.
“With my hearing aids on, I can ‘hear/feel’ some of the notes. The notes I can not hear, I hear in my imagination. What I hear is normal to me. What everyone else hears is normal to them. You can hear birds singing, I can not. You hear high notes from stringed instruments, I can not. But I can imagine the sound,” she says.
While Orla was nervous about making the documentary, she was also keen to show people in the deaf community that they can pursue music as a hobby and career.
“It will make people more aware, to show them what life is like for a deaf and visually impaired person. If I don’t tell the world, the world will never know.”
In the documentary, Orla’s parents remark on how she is never beaten by anything. Where did her determination come from? “A lot came from my mum. She would always tell me I was able to do everything that other people can do. My mother always paid attention to me, every single day. She was always on my side.”
When she was six, Orla went for piano lessons with Jean Downey, a neighbour who was influential in her musical education.
“She understood me, she was very patient. I was very lucky to have her. She always praised me, she never got cross with me. She used positive words. I practised the piano every single day.”
Orla received her primary and secondary education in mainstream schools, which was beneficial in some ways but also isolating.
“Being in the hearing world made me work harder, which helped me. I didn’t meet a deaf person until I arrived at Bishopstown Community School, there was a deaf facility there. I was so shocked, all of them were able to sign.”
Orla had not learned sign language and also found lip-reading difficult because of her impaired vision.
“Thinking was different back then, there was a misconception about Irish sign language — people thought it was wrong to teach it. They thought if deaf people learned sign language, it wouldn’t help with speech. I think my parents were afraid of that, that I would lose my voice if I learned sign language. I didn’t become my real self until I was 25 and I started to join the deaf community. It took me a long time to understand deaf culture and Irish sign language but I persevered.”
Orla finished her piano diploma in 2010 and has taught scores of students.
“I teach one-on-one in my home because I can see the person quite close to me; if I teach a group, they are far away and it is hard. I love teaching. I love passing on my knowledge to deaf people as well. There is nothing to stop a deaf person learning music. I believe all schoolchildren should be given the option to learn music, regardless of disability. A lot of deaf people aren’t involved in music because they start late in life as they weren’t offered music as a subject in school; they are more likely to do drama and dance or something visual.
“Many deaf and deaf-blind people believe it is impossible for them to understand and appreciate music. That is not true. I, and others, like deaf-blind music therapist Russ Palmer, the deaf Finnish rapper Signmark, and the deaf music teacher Paul Whittaker are examples of what can be achieved.”
Technological advances have also made the process a lot easier.
“Until recently there was no technical aid suitable for me to read a music score and play simultaneously. So it was a very long and tedious process for me to learn a piece of music. It meant I had to memorise thousands of notes and composition directions. It was my love of music that gave me the patience and determination to do it but it was exhausting.
“There is a tool now called Music Scholar which allows me to read easily and play while I read. The iPad is also fantastic because I can increase the size of the notes; I am waiting for new technology at the moment which is very expensive. The National Council for the Blind has applied for it so hopefully I should be able to get that this year.”
Orla also uses a ‘sound sense’ box which can be connected to any keyboard or musical instrument. “The deaf students can feel the vibrations and play to the right rhythm, which is very important and helpful. I am very good at counting because my father teaches maths and he always helped me with that. Music and maths are strongly connected, I can get the right time and rhythm. I have a few deaf students who have improved in time and rhythm with this box so they will be able to do their exams. A deaf girl I teach did her first exam last year and got 98%, which was a great achievement.”
Orla and her partner Dan have a five-year-old son, John Amadeus, who has full hearing and is already showing signs of musical promise. “I teach him on a small keyboard; later on, he can use the grand piano. He has no fear of anything. He loves singing and is learning Irish sign language at the moment. He has learned to sign and sing ‘Ireland’s Call’.”
Another young musician inspired by a truly remarkable teacher.
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