Evelyn Glennie interview, copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2004
Evelyn Glennie is a giant of a woman. That’s not to say she’s physically large, -in fact she is tiny,- but she’s a mammoth individual. A pioneer. Among other things, she is the world’s first and most in demand solo percussionist. Before she came along, such a thing was not possible. But Evelyn is nothing if not determined. And impossible is all in the mind.
Perseverance and unwavering self belief have paid off for Evelyn. She has already won two Grammys, a BAFTA nomination, countless honorary doctorates and an OBE. She performs for royalty, and is constantly touring the world. If she isn’t doing that, she’s recording with different musicians, from the Indonesian Gamelan Ensemble to Bjork. She has been on ‘This Is Your Life’ and the BBC have made several documentaries about her, the first was filmed while she was still a student. She is known across the globe.
But apart from being a brilliant musician, Evelyn is also profoundly deaf. A fact which cannot help but attract attention and inspire curiosity. To the ordinary, uninformed mortal the concept of a deaf musician is inconceivable. ‘So if you cant hear what you are playing,’ people ask, ‘How do you know when you play a bummer?”
For the uninformed, this may seem like a perfectly reasonable question. As reasonable as asking a blind painter ‘How do you know when you’ve painted something good?’
It is a question that irritates Evelyn, having had to answer it, as she has, many times. I am due to meet her in London, where she is rehearsing at the Albert Hall for her solo spot at the famous Proms. And I am worried that I will be another source of irritation.
Before I meet her, I am directed to her website, where I learn that Evelyn was the first classical musician to have her own website. It is a fact that is listed among ninety nine ‘fun facts’ about Evelyn. There are the fact that she began performing piano for Old Folk’s homes, at age ten, but wanted to be a hairdresser, as a teenager. The fact that she has her own tartan and speaks Doric, -a dialect of Scot’s Gaelic that is only spoken in the Northeast of Scotland. Her favourite TV programme is Eastenders, she collects many things, including jewellery and different modes of transport, including motor bikes, She endorses Rolex watches and is currently studying Law with the Open University. From the website, one gets the impression of a femme formidable who never sits still, but is constantly striving and achieving something more. There is an essay on the website that Evelyn has written about her being deaf, which I am also encouraged to read.
‘If the audience is only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion, then Evelyn has failed as a musician,’ it says. ‘For this reason, Evelyn’s deafness is not mentioned in any of the information supplied by Evelyn’s office to the press or concert promoters.’ In her own words, the essay is designed to ‘set the record straight and allow people to enjoy the experience of being entertained by one of the world’s great musicians, rather than by a freak of nature.’
Because the essay is written in the third person, there is a strange sense of chippiness, of defensiveness.
‘To summarise,’ it says. ‘Evelyn’s hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bother’s her. Evelyn doesn’t know very much about deafness, what’s more she isn’t particularly interested.’
Because I am writing this article for the health section, I am duty bound to enquire about her deafness, when we meet. And to be frank, I am just as curious as the next person as to what it might be like to be a deaf musician. I may anger her, I decide, but I will have to take that risk.
We meet in a pub, in Kensington. Evelyn is accompanied by her technician and her publicist. She has lustrous dark hair and bright, bright brown eyes. She is brightly dressed, too, in orange jeans, orange snakeskin high heels and a pale blue diamante studded jacket, which puts me in mind of Suzi Quatro. As we sit down to speak, I notice that there is nothing noticeably unusual about the way we are communicating. I am not speaking loudly, there is not an interpreter. She doesn’t have any speech impediment. WE are having a perfectly normal conversation. Later, she explains that she has been lip-reading, that she wouldn’t have been able to have the conversation if she couldn’t see my face and body language. And far from being chippy, she is extremely jolly. I ask her how she got to be such a high achiever. She laughs.
‘I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do,’ she says. ‘I think it helps to be especially passionate about what you are doing.’ She tells me that she has just been watching the athletes training for the Paralympics and admires them for rising to the challenge. It requires a kind of passion that borders on obsession, she says. You have to be a little bit obsessive to pursue a musical career, particularly if you do what Evelyn has done and create a precedent. Is she obsessive? She laughs.
‘ I am mellowing a bit now. I was very obsessive when I was younger.’
She is also highly focussed. She began to lose her hearing in childhood, but worked with a teacher to learn to feel the vibrations of the instruments.
‘There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence,’ she says. ‘But to understand the nature of deafness, one has to understand the nature of hearing.’
She goes on to point out that we do not hear only with our ears.
‘When a truck passes in the street, even if we did not hear it with our ears, we would feel it with our whole bodies. Every sound emits a vibration which is felt, more than it is heard. Even somebody who is totally deaf can still feel sounds.’
Evelyn worked hard with her teacher and trained herself to feel where different frequencies vibrated in her body, and to distinguish them. Of course it was hard work, she says, but she has had the advantage of developing levels of sensitivity that ordinary musicians wouldn’t have. So deafness has in fact enhanced her playing. And she doesn’t see herself as disabled.
‘But I am physically handicapped,’ she says. ‘Because I wouldn’t be able to be a heavyweight boxer, or a supermodel! We all wish we could do absolutely anything, but it doesn’t happen like that.’
It is clearly a fact about Evelyn that she won’t let obstacles stand in her way. And she wont let herself be labelled, even if some people still see her as a curiosity.
‘How we categorise ourselves, more than any other impediment is what stops us from being able to achieve the highest levels of attainment,’ she says. And she has proved it.