According to some musicians, hearing is actually a form of touch. Both senses rely on vibrations--the rumbling of a floor during an earthquake, the trembling of an eardrum as a cymbal crashes.
That's how Grammy-winning classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie, profoundly deaf since age 11, experiences music during concerts. Those tactile cues, along with a percussionist's dance-like movements, are a more complete package--a way to appreciate music that encompasses multiple senses.
When Glennie performs Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.'s annual Toyota Symphonies for Youth, that's exactly what she plans to give her audience of parents and elementary school kids: a total package.
"Music is a medicine, really," Glennie says. "I use the word 'experience' music, as opposed to hearing."
Concert attendees aren't likely to find out much more about Glennie's disability, at least, not from organizers at the philharmonic.
To Glennie and Llewellyn Crain, the philharmonic's director of educational initiatives, the musician's hearing condition is simply not relevant, no matter how impressive her accomplishment in the face of that disability. They'd rather have people judge her on the quality of her performances, which, during the course of her 17-year professional career, has earned her scores of critical accolades.
"It is not an issue," Crain says of Glennie's hearing. "It has no bearing to me as an audience member."
Instead, Glennie and Crain describe the show as a journey through the world of rhythm. It's a crash course in percussion, titled, aptly enough, "BAM!"
Before the concert, kids and their families will be invited to hang out in the lobby, where they can touch and try out various instruments, watch dancers and listen to storytellers. Later, during the orchestra performance, Glennie will play an array of percussion instruments. The water gong, vibraphone, snare drum and a clanging instrument called an Almglocken each will be left to the mercies of what she calls her specific "attack."
"You can stroke the instrument, or bite at the instrument, or fall into it--whatever," she explains.
Between songs, she and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya will take questions from the children and parents in the audience.
This planned spectacle of sight, sound and interaction contrasts sharply with Glennie's own childhood, which, for a long time, was practically devoid of music.
"I was brought up in the northeast of Scotland, where music did not play a huge part at all in my family life," Glennie remembers. "I was brought up in a farming community. We didn't go to concerts.
"Music was not played in the house. My father didn't know anything about classical music or anything like that."
A pair of events changed her outlook forever.
A mysterious illness--no one is sure exactly what--left Glennie with nerve damage so drastic that she became largely deaf. She could still hear some human speech and other sounds. A ringing telephone, for example, registered as a kind of crackle, she says.
Soon after, she met a music teacher who introduced her to percussion, and Glennie fell in love with it. She quickly learned the basic mechanics of playing, but the teacher pushed her further, showing her how to create with her instrument--how to improvise, how to write a piece of music. "He saw us as musicians first and instrumentalists second," Glennie says.
She learned to read lips and pay attention to vibrations. While her percussion teacher played notes on the timpani, she would press her hands against the classroom wall to feel the difference in pitch and volume.
Eventually, Glennie managed to distinguish rough tones by associating a pitch with where on her body she felt the vibrations. Low sounds she feels in her legs and feet; the high sounds might register on her face, neck and chest. Music became as much a physical and emotional experience as an aural one, hence the birth of her musical philosophy--that sound is "experienced," not just heard.
Since then, Glennie has gone on to collaborate with some of music's most creative forces, including singer Bjork.
As for her show on Saturday, she has no doubt that every listener will hear--and feel, and see--something different.
"We are all experience a particular concert from our own, tiny little space," Glennie says. "We all hear quite differently. You might get 10 [people] lined up, and their hearing ranges are going to be so varied that sometimes even the very moods they are in will change how they hear."
Evelyn Glennie plays the Toyota Symphonies for Youth Concert on Saturday, 11 a.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. $10-$12. She also performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic today and Saturday at 8 p.m. $12-$78. (213) 365-3500.