LONG BEACH — The wooden floor of the gymnasium at Hughes Junior High School vibrated last week with the strains of Beethoven, Mozart and Bizet. On it--divided into two separate sessions--sat about 500 hearing-impaired children who otherwise might not have heard a thing.
"The loud music felt like you were driving over a bumpy road and the soft music felt like you were floating on water," declared Stefanie Ellis, 11, speaking in sign language through an interpreter.
It was exactly the kind of reaction that teachers had hoped for as they came from districts throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties for the special concert by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.
"The vibrations help them feel the music," explained Kathy Williams, a teacher at Venado and Deerfield elementary schools in Irvine. "The rhythms and patterns are related to their speech, and I think it's a source of enjoyment for them. If you don't bring deaf students to this kind of thing, they don't even know it exists."
Murry Sidlin, the orchestra's music director, said he first became interested in giving concerts for hearing impaired persons about six years ago, partly out of fascination with the career of Ludwig Van Beethoven who composed some of the world's greatest music despite being deaf.
"My love for music is so great that I just don't want it to be unavailable for these kids because of an accident of birth," said Sidlin, who estimates that he has performed for more than 5,000 deaf children since 1981 both in Long Beach and in New Haven, Conn., where he conducts another orchestra.
Besides picking up on the vibrations, he said, deaf children are very attuned to the visual aspects of an orchestral performance--the graceful rise and fall of the violinists' bows, the rhythmic intake and exhalation of the wind instrument players' breaths and the silent language of the hands and face with which the conductor communicates his musical intentions.
"Most of us go to a concert, close our eyes and don't notice," Sidlin said. "These kids don't close their eyes. There is an artistic method that I am certain can be perceived on some level."
Indeed, seated on the gym floor among the musicians, the children seemed to be using every sense available to them as some reached out to touch a vibrating instrument or two, registering on their faces the surprise and delight of the resulting sensation.
Included in the program were pieces by Beethoven, Bizet, Mozart, Copland and Tchaikovsky, all strung together in a medley featuring individual instruments and explained by a singing narrator as interpreters translated everything into sign language.
"I liked the clarinet best," announced Maria Luisa, 12, at the end of the concert after marching out with her peers to the beat of a piece by John Philip Sousa. "It felt softer."