Organized Vibration: A Profile of Evelyn Glennie by Michael Ford

Dame Evelyn Glennie is a farmer’s daughter from Scotland who became the world’s solo premier percussionist. She is the first person in history to create and successfully sustain a full-time career in her field, performing with the greatest orchestras, conductors, and artists across the globe. She has over 30 CDs and more than a hundred international awards to her name.

By any standard, it is a phenomenal achievement. The fact that she has suffered from profound deafness since the age of 12 makes it even more remarkable. But it is not something she prefers to dwell on. She is a first and foremost a musician with a mission “to the teach the world to sing,” envisioning a society where communication and social cohesion are improved through good listening.

“I’m just asking people to think about what listening is for them,” she explains. “Have we really thought about our listening capacity and how we listen? Do we think about our sound environment, and how does that affect our listening? Do we attend to it?

“As a musician I try to open up a note and discover what is in that B flat or C sharp, rather than closing it up and saying, ‘That’s how I am always going to play that.’ We need to open situations up. I don’t think there’s a shortcut to listening. There aren’t any methods or systems. It’s just something that is, and it happens at that time. It isn’t something that can be planned. It takes time to listen.”

Many people assume that musicians are automatically good listeners in social situations but that’s not necessarily the case. When Evelyn met elderly people living with dementia in residential homes, she found herself completely out of her comfort zone. “It was the most extraordinary lesson in listening I think I have ever had,” she disclosed. “They were teaching me. It was simply a case of sitting and being with them. They almost became the conductor. I was observing every movement they made—any eye contact, any kind of visual aid or expression that I could then create a bridge with. The depth of it was so extraordinary and so refreshing. I found that, after that experience, my playing as a musician actually changed in terms of my whole observation of spacing between notes, the weight or pace of a phrase or the letting-go of a sound.”

Highly engaging, warm, and insightful, Evelyn Glennie believes music is a daily medicine which can contribute to the healing of the world.

“I feel we are all musical beings,” she enthuses. “As we move around and react to vibration, and the whole orchestra of our mother’s womb, we discover what sound is. That’s what music is. It’s organized vibration.”

Evelyn thinks we all have the capacity to build bridges with one other. For her, even prayer is “building a bridge.” Although some people may be inclined to offer excuses such as “I’m not rhythmic,” “I’m not musical,” or “I can’t sing a note,” that isn’t what music is, she insists. “Music has so many ingredients but there are so many aspects of it that I find very difficult to do or I have to really work hard at or it doesn’t come naturally, but that doesn’t stop me being a musician or from sharing that experience with another person.”

Evelyn admits she has been in many situations where the spoken word has been a barrier. But when people connect through music, it’s as though they have almost known each other for ever. Music is an international language, and the internet has allowed people to break down the barriers, especially in the way music is categorized.

Now in her 50s, Evelyn grew up in Aberdeenshire to the sound of tractors on the family farm. Her mother played the organ at the local Presbyterian church, which Evelyn and her brothers were expected to attend on Sundays. Always looking for inspiration, she found the services dull, but by the time she was 13 she had composed a piece for the marimba entitled Little Prayer. As a teenager, she found herself inspired by the New Testament, scoring phrases which spoke to her, something she still does. “It’s made me wonder why I underlined certain phrases back then. There’s not that big a difference from how I think now. I am still eager to be inspired.

“The New Testament is like a new piece of music. That’s why I’ve been inspired by Glenn Gould or Jacqueline du Pré, who both died far too early, but their repertoire, although written hundreds of years ago, was played as though it was still wet on the page. They found inspiration within themselves, through their instruments, through the pages of the music and then inspired us as audience members. I want to be inspired like that: to take a piece of music I have played for so many years or given so many performances of, and to think of it as a world premiere.”

As a child Evelyn could play the piano by ear—”the most crucial thing I did”—but later on it became difficult for her to listen to notes and “pick them up.” However, her curiosity for creating sound didn’t abate, and this drew her towards improvisation. “I was very lucky to grow up with Scottish traditional music where there wasn’t any expectancy. You weren’t graded or examined on that. So I was able to progress in a really natural way. I loved to create little pieces myself. Whenever the exam pieces came about, I always chose contemporary works to learn because it was a sound world: I was really eager to explore. These weren’t sounds in an organized way. I was experimenting with them. And that really led to part of my fancy towards percussion because of the huge sound array. It was so vast.”

There are thousands of different percussive instruments. Percussion has the largest frequency and dynamic range of any instrument family, and a massive variation in attack: soft to loud, hard and short to resonant, deep, light, and so on. How you play fortissimo on a triangle is very different from how you play it on a base drum. The entire body is fed through the frequencies of percussion, which can also be redesigned to become more accessible to a person: a cymbal, for example, can be attached to a wheelchair, or a shaker to somebody’s feet.

“While playing percussion, the body is usually in its natural state so it’s balanced. With a drum, for instance, the whole body will be open and receptive to the sound it gives. But if you’re playing a violin or a flute, then take the instrument away and you’re left with a really unnatural posture, yet the body has to be in that position to negotiate the instrument. With percussion, however, you can really adapt your body and that helps to receive the sound.” Evelyn feels there is a healing quality to this practice.

“I’m just asking people to think about what listening is for them,” Evelyn explains. “Have we really thought about our listening capacity and how we listen?”

A stroll around Evelyn’s Aladdin’s cave—a suite of modern offices in Cambridgeshire, England—illustrates the point. In her private collection of more than 2,000 global instruments, which are played in different bodily positions, there’s the changgo from South Korea; a damaru, which is a Buddhist drum; Chinese cloud gongs; a pronged instrument from the Caribbean called a marimbula; a RAV drum from Russia; an amadinda, which is a large African marimba; Utters, an effect instrument made by the brand Latin Percussion; the Lambeg, a large northern Irish drum, and a thumb piano called a sansula—not to mention a batonka, made by a British designer, and a barimbulum, her own invention.  

Percussion became Evelyn’s route into a mysterious world. “I started out with hearing, then began to lose that hearing at the age of 12 and went through stages of hearing aids and phonic ears,” she told me. “I thought hearing had to come through the ears, but I realized that was a massive wall. Then I discovered the body as a resonating chamber and developed a whole new relationship with sound. But I wanted to be regarded as a musician and not as a deaf musician.

“I was really struggling to hear through the ear because the hearing aids would boost the sound but not give the clarity. That affected my sense of touch because I was pounding and pounding trying to get everything louder in order to hear it, which was absolutely the wrong direction to go. When my percussion teacher, who believed in us as sound creators, suggested I put my hands on the wall and asked if I could feel the drum through any part of the body, I said I could—through my hands. It was internal so I couldn’t show him what I was feeling or let him see my hand vibrate, but I could feel it within myself. That made me think: ‘What is underneath this drum? How is a drum resonating? It may not be necessarily something I can see but something will be happening inside of that drum.’ That really had an impact on almost searching for the sound underneath the surface.”

Evelyn had been desperate for sound to come through the ear. “I just hated sound because I couldn’t control it. It almost became the enemy.” But sound was experienced as complete overload in the head and ear areas which became extremely painful. “I knew about dynamics, texture, and the sense of touch, but I wasn’t able to control it because of the imbalance of the sound. Once I could feed that sound through the whole body by really tapping into the vibration of the sound, I discovered my body was a big ear and a resonating chamber.

“There had been nowhere else for the sound to go. It had been going through my ear and that had been it. I was feeding more and more sound there. It was as though I had almost capped the rest of my body, almost choked myself. Once I had released that and realized that sound could be fed through the body, suddenly that diet was unblocked and allowed the sound to seep through me.”

In her autobiography Good Vibrations, published 30 years ago, Evelyn writes: “I never hoped they would find a cure for my hearing—I experienced music with a profundity I felt was God-given. I didn’t want to lose that special gift.” This clearly has implications when she reflects on Beethoven’s famous line “In heaven I shall hear,” for that is not something she feels she can resonate with. The musical depths that her deafness has taken her to, and the sounds which have been created from her own unique experiences, are not dimensions of her being she would necessarily wish to see removed in an eternal life.

Although she is more circumspect now about her spiritual beliefs because of her association with people from so many religious and cultural traditions bound together by music, in the book she describes God as “a major support” of her early life, “a force that has quietly sustained me through a number of ups and down” and as “a friend who I can talk to in private moments.”

She told me: “I’m often asked if there such a thing as silence. I don’t believe there is in the world. Even if all machinery stopped, there’s still the sound of the earth itself. In a way death is the time when I can imagine silence happening. When I strike a drum, I am aware of the sound of the immediate impact, aware of the vibration I feel through my body, but then there comes a point when you no longer feel that, you no longer hear that. Where has that sound gone? It must dissolve into some situation, but what happens to it? We don’t know. That’s my question mark. What happens to us when the time comes—when that silence happens? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to that.” ♦

Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at hermitagewithin@gmail.com.

Image: Evelyn Glennie in her music studio. Courtesy Michael Ford.

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