Earlier this week, I learned of a 29 year old woman named Mandy Harvey, who became deaf at 18. She is a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” (2017). She played her own ukulele and sang a song she wrote herself for the competition called: “Try.”
She is said to sing with near perfect pitch. Knowing that she is deaf, we are all left to wonder just HOW she can do this if she cannot her herself sing! She takes off her shoes so she can feel the vibrations from the floor and she watches some kind of visual sound system that helps her know where on the scale to begin the tune. She says that she simply sings by memory and trusts her own pitch.
Mandy tells one the judges that she lost all of her hearing when she was 18 years old. When asked how she lost her hearing, she explained she has a connective tissue disorder. She went on to say, “So, basically, I got sick and my nerves deteriorated.” There is suddenly a dramatic pause while the audience and judges take this in. This is then followed by a round of sympathetic cheers and applause.
She explains that she had been singing since she was 4 years old, but that she left music after she lost her hearing. But at some point, which she does not define, she figures out a way to get back into singing using her memory muscle and some kind of visual tuners. She added that she is able to sing by “trusting her pitch.” The camera pans to her shoeless feet and they marvel at her ability to follow the music, beat and tempo through the floor.
When asked what she will sing, she tells them she will sing a song she wrote called “Try.” She explains that after she lost her hearing, she “gave up.” But she has come to realize she wants to do more with her life than “give up.” The audience, once again, break out with cheers and applause. Simon Cowell gives her an approving nod, claps his hands and says, “Good for you.” Mandy sweetly replies with the ASL sign for applause by shaking her hands in the air. The audience immediately copies her.
She then motions to her two other band mates to come out onto the floor and the audience looks at her, wide-eyed and ready to be astonished. She sings the first two stanzas and mouths begin to turn up in smiles. Light applause begins. She sings a few more and mouths begin to drop. The judges tilt their heads in awe and with sappy smiles on their faces as they watch her adoringly. The camera pans to a couple of women wiping tears out of their eyes.
The song is a brief and simple one. The lyrics bring up much emotion for onlookers. She tells of not feeling like the same person she was, a reference to her changing identity, and how the sky is more gray than blue. This is probably pertaining to depression that may have accompanied her shift in identity from a hearing person to a deafened one. But her song brings inspiration and hope, as she sings of knowing that she will get through this change and find her place again if she just gets out of her own way and just tries.
Her song says she is tired of settling into these gray days. (It appears that the gray days = her deafness, a difference she may still struggle to accept). She is sad to have surrendered her music dream and tired of giving up what she loves, i.e. singing. She concludes that the only way to change this is to try. (Perhaps this meant try to connect with her former hearing self again. Now that she has found a new way to sing, she is able to put back on her former musical identity, and it’s blue skies once again!) At the end of the song, she belts out in perfect pitch, “So I will tryyyyy… I will tryyyy…”
She is surprised and suddenly giggles when the audience and judges rise to their feet with explosive applause. They give her a standing ovation before she even finishes the song. You can see a bit of sympathy and inspiration mixed on the judge’s faces. One of the judges is using the ASL hand-wave while others clap. People in the audience shake their heads in disbelief. They seem simply amazed!
Sweet Mandy shows her nervous appreciation. Then, a judge tells her she will not need her interpreter for what is about to happen next. He simply reaches over and gives her a golden ticket to proceed by hitting the golden buzzer. The audience rises in an uproar of applause and Mandy holds her face in disbelief. Golden confetti suddenly falls from the ceiling over Mandy as if she has just been crowned the winner in a beauty pageant. Mandy looks humbled and shows happy tears, while one judge hugs her interpreter.
The audience has now begun to make the hand-wave sign for applause and Mandy looks out to them and joins them in sign to acknowledge their connection to her. Her father enters the stage and smothers her in a long embrace. Simon Cowell walks up to her on the stage followed by Mandy’s interpreter. He reaches out to her to give her a hug. She reciprocates. Simon looks a bit full of himself, as if he wants to be acknowledged for what he just did for her. He tells her that her performance was “incredible.” Then he gives her a double thumbs up. Mandy thanks him several times.
Simon then says through her interpreter that he has been judging vocal talent a long time and that hers is one of the most amazing performances he has ever seen. He draws her to him saying, “Come here. Good for you, and thank you so much.” He then goes to her father on the stage and eagerly shakes his hand and tells him again how amazing Mandy was. He offers more congratulations while the other judges silently look on with smiles. For a while, this seems to be more about Simon than about Mandy. Mandy wipes away a final tear, makes a single hand-wave and bathes in the bliss of a still standing and cheering audience.
But, the judge, Simon Cowell is not done. He says he doesn’t think he can be surprised or amazed at people anymore, but then Mandy shows up and blows him away just by being herself. Her deaf self, that is. He then talks about her voice, the tone and how beautiful her song was. He congratulates her again and tells her she is going straight to the live shows. More smiles, giggles and applause. But still, Simon is not done milking this. He tells her that they “have found each other” and how exciting this was. He’s definitely taking credit for any success she gets from this.
In the background, an Elton John song plays out the stanza: “… and you can tell everybody, this is your song…. it may be quite simple, but, now that it’s done…” and the video dims as Mandy exits the stage.
A handful of my sweet, loving friends sent me this video clip on the day it became widely public. Some said her story reminded them of mine. I, too, became deaf at 17. I had been singing as long as I can remember. I was in choirs and ensembles, and performing solos since 6th grade. By high school, I was a talented, award-winning vocalist with big dreams of pursuing a career in vocal music. Like Mandy, music was my identity.
A couple of people who sent me this video, including my own husband, wondered if I might investigate and try out the same visual system Mandy used to help her sing. And perhaps, it would help ME sing with perfect pitch, once again. After all, if one deaf person could hang on, keep trying and achieve her music dream, then shouldn’t I be able to as well?
“If you just tried…”
“It wouldn’t hurt to TRY…”
… sigh … I’ll get into to that in a moment. First, let me explain how this video triggered me…
I was immediately struck with mixed feelings over this story. On the one hand, I was thrilled to see that she used a sign language interpreter on the show to translate what the judges said to her. This brings awareness to the need for communication access and it shows a way that deaf and hearing people can stay connected. Any exposure to ASL is good and beneficial for all to see. On the other hand, I was immediately filled with skepticism. Is she truly, fully deaf? Does she use any amplification? Hearing aids? Cochlear implant? Does she have any residual hearing at all? How on earth can someone without any of those things sing with near perfect pitch?! I wondered.
I wasn’t just skeptical, I had been there. After I became deaf at 17, I tried to continue singing. Oh, how hard I tried! I, too, once had perfect pitch, during my vocal music, glory-days. After becoming deaf, I, too, kept trying to find my way back to music and to my old hearing self. Like Mandy, I tried to invent some kind of system with my choir friends that might help me keep singing. We used guitars and pianos, tuning forks and pitch pipes, and I wore hearing aids in both ears to see if they would help, but the didn’t. Sounds I “heard” were dulled and muffled, distorted, and at some frequencies, unusually loud and full of overtones. I could never hear just one sound. Any note played competed with the tinnitus or ringing in my ears that came along with my deafness. How could Mandy do this?! I remained skeptical. “She must have some residual hearing,” I sloppily professed in a Facebook post, as I spewed muddy-water-thoughts in hopes they might become more clear as I signed them.
Before I continue, let me say that I think it is wonderful that Mandy Harvey has come up with a system that helps her sing and be in this competition. It is her way of overcoming her challenge with music as a deaf person. It is her way to stay connected to her musical identity and her hearing culture. Even cooler is the fact that she also knows and uses sign language and a sign language interpreter. This tells me she is also on a journey of deafhood. She seems to have one foot in both worlds and this works for her on some level.
But, I’m not Mandy. Nor are other Deaf or deafened people. Mandy is an anomaly. How Mandy does this music thing remains a mystery to me. More importantly, just because she is able to do what she does musically does not mean all of us deafies can or should do the same. It’s like telling us, “If you keep on trying long and hard enough, you will one day be more hearing-like and less deaf.” Sorry. It just doesn’t vibe well.
So what is on the other side of “just TRY?” If I refuse to try does it mean I’ve given up? Is that bad? What if I tried and failed a thousand times, and one day, I finally decided to stop trying? What if I decided one day to face my own truth and accept that the talented vocalist and musician I had been was gone? I could no longer be that person. What if I finally stopped the struggle to be something I was not (hearing) and pay attention to the feedback life was giving me? The day came when I accepted that the road to vocal music or my old hearing self was no longer the road I would travel.
Becoming deaf was not a choice, but rather, a “call to adventure.” I was being invited to embark on a new path, a journey into Deafhood. The choice was to accept that I was deaf, or not. I decided to answer the call. I chose to embrace my Deaf identity rather than thwart it.
Over time, on this new journey, I would learn several things:
1) It was ok not to be “hearing” anymore.
2) It was perfectly ok to call myself “Deaf.” It was actually something to be proud of and not pitied.
3) I could love, accept and embrace my Deaf self.
4) I learned that with ASL, I could not only survive, but thrive as a Deaf person.
5) And that each person’s journey of Deafhood is their own and need not be compared with others.
Answering the call to be Deaf – accepting and loving myself as a Deaf person – was on the other side of try. I had come to an awakening…. an inner-wise-knowing that told me it was false to keep trying to be “hearing.” It was okay to stop trying to sing. I was okay to let go of one dream because there would be a hundred more that would follow! Peace came when I finally and fully accepted that I was Deaf. There was no going back. But that’s okay. I’m not going that way anymore.