The focus of this blog is West Yorkshire based composer and musician Danny Lane. I first met Danny in 2006 when I was researching and developing a new music-theatre work that included performative BSL (British Sign Language), live music, animation and poetry. I met him then in the context of his role at Music and the Deaf - the only UK charity entirely dedicated to providing access, education and opportunities in music for deaf children, young people and adults.
Firstly, an introduction to Danny and his role at Artistic Director of Music and the Deaf.
Ailís: Tell me about your background in education. Did you ever attend specialist education for example?
Danny: My first school was a primary school in York which had an oral deaf unit. From the age of 8, I went to my local primary and secondary school with the support of a note taker, which helped me to understand what was being said in lessons. My mainstream education was very different to what I was used to in York as I had a peripatetic speech therapist visiting me on a weekly basis and I wore a portable radio aid. I was the only pupil with a hearing loss in both my primary and secondary schools. My primary school teacher expected every child in the school to play a brass instrument so I was introduced to music then. I played the cornet and joined in brass bands and music was a very natural thing to be involved in. Finding the right college where I could access a music course was incredibly difficult so I left home at the age of 16 and went to Mary Hare School for the Deaf [in Berkshire], where I studied A level music.
Ailís: I know you went to Keele University to study music and French. Could you expand on your experience of studying music at university?
Danny: I was attracted to Keele University as the music department was very much focussed on 20th century and contemporary music. I was studying Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and 20th Century French music at Mary Hare and wanted to learn more of this! My music degree at Keele was largely focussed on analysing music and composing. I was taught by Sohrab Uduman who encouraged me and stretched my creativity as a composer. I had my pieces performed by the Keele University Orchestra as well as visiting musicians including Jane Manning OBE and Ian Pace. During my final year, I was awarded a Jack Ashley Millennium Fellowship to research music in Brazil and write new compositions.
Ailís: You are profoundly deaf but I notice you wear hearing aids - does that mean you have some hearing?
Danny: I wear analogue hearing aids, which I have been accustomed to all my life. They will never replace perfect hearing but they give me a sound world which I’ve grown up with and understand. If there are sounds that I don’t hear at all i.e in music, then I make sure that I am aware of everything through score reading. I have never been satisfied with digital hearing aids as the ones I’ve been recommended were giving me acoustic feedback and distortion. My audiologist did recommend implants but I do worry that if I go for the operation and they don’t work for me, I’ll never be able to hear music in the same way again. I’m happy with analogues so I’m staying with them for as long as they last!
Ailís: When did you start composing?
Danny: I started composing at the age of 11. I had a book which included arrangements of piano music by the ‘great’ composers and I loved reading the descriptions of who the composers were and why they wrote their music. I started to aspire to become a composer myself and began writing short piano pieces.
Ailís: Tell me about The Amsden’s Yorkshire Suite. How did it come about? How influenced were you by Emma’s photography?
Danny: Amsden’s Yorkshire Suite started when Ruth Montgomery asked me to write music that linked to Emma Amsden’s photographs. I was blown away by Emma, as she described her photographs in such graphic detail using British Sign Language and she described how representative her photographs were to her life. Following my meeting with Emma, I became wrapped up in a bubble for a long while, making sure I don’t forget Emma and keep composing until I felt it was complete. I experimented on instrumentation and harmony to try and express the emotions that Emma experienced. Sometimes the music was composed to match the hand shapes that Emma used in her signs, which I thought was an interesting new challenge for a composer! Ruth wrote descriptive text, to add narration to the performance. We also had photographs projected at the same time and a BSL interpreter.
The Amsdens Yorkshire Suite by Danny Lane (courtesy of Audiovisibilty)
Ailís: Why did you form the North West Deaf Youth Orchestra and what challenges did you face?
Danny: We don’t run the orchestra now, but this was set up initially to help widen instrumental music opportunities for deaf young people. The orchestra’s legacy is still very much alive, as it influenced the setup of similar groups around the UK and overseas and we occasionally receive requests to provide consultancy and training to Music Education Hubs across England. The vast majority (approximately 85%) of deaf children are now integrated in mainstream schools and as a result, are more dispersed around the country. Attendance will often be extremely low for long term community music projects that are set up exclusively for deaf children. I think it’s far more important nowadays for schools and Music Education Hubs to work together and make sure that deaf children are not missing out where music education is provided.
Ailís: What barriers do you face – that the reader might not realise?
Danny: To an outsider, deafness is always invisible so if I meet a person for the first time, it’s usually necessary to let them know the best way to communicate. Most of the time, I lip read but it’s never100 percent effective and it can be impossible to lip read everything that is said in meetings and in group conversations. Having a sign language interpreter at work makes a wonderful difference – it gives me instant access to communication and is more accurate than lip reading. Arts opportunities and events can be hard to access as interpreters and captions are not always available and more deaf awareness is needed. Pathways for deaf people in the arts are also extremely limited. The only way to get anywhere in life is to make yourself present and make it clear what your communication needs are.
Ailís: How much do you think about audiences where you are composing? Do you compose the same kind of music for different audiences (hearing, semi or non-hearing?)
Danny: I think my style depends on the project. Most of my composing work has been for the Deaf Youth Orchestra and the Hi Notes Ensemble over the years – arranging music in different styles and making sure that musicians of different abilities and instruments were included. I also facilitate compositions in workshops, again, experimenting on any style of music. I always try to think about how I can communicate to the audience through my music. Amsden’s Yorkshire Suite was very much about deaf culture and I wanted to present this in an accessible way to both deaf and hearing audiences. The music itself wasn’t written to make itself accessible, it was performed with a live captions and BSL interpretation and projections of photographs which helped the audience to connect even more with the overall performance.
Ailís: Tell me about the Forte Ensemble, who’s in it and how it come about? And what are your ambitions for the ensemble?
Danny: The Forte ensemble started in 2016, when a number of musicians came up to me and said they would love to perform more often. The group consists of four music graduates with varying levels of hearing loss. We have performed at Kings Place, House of Lords and Sage Gateshead. The concerts were well attended and helped to raise the visibility and expectations of deaf people working as musicians. The musicians see me as the composer in the group so I do most of the arrangements and compositions which I enjoy very much. We have only been together for a year so we are very proud of what we’ve achieved so far. We want to continue working with venues and more widely and encourage them to diversify their programmes and audiences. We have been invited to perform at conferences and launch events so we seem to be taking on new experiences and working with new audiences. We would love to perform new music by modern day composers and link with other art forms and explore music and deaf culture.
Ailís: You are also a teacher, what challenges does young deaf/hearing impaired people have when wanting to access music education and playing opportunities?
Danny: I teach music, as part of Music and the Deaf’s programme of workshops which we run around the UK and occasionally overseas. I also provide training to music educators to give them the skills and confidence in working directly with deaf children. There are many challenges for deaf children accessing music education:
• Deaf children being excluded from statutory music lessons in schools is still happening. There still seems to be a paradox in the teaching of music to deaf children.
• Availability and quality of accessible music education for deaf people varies in each region.
• More deaf awareness and higher expectations are needed. Signed song is not the only thing that deaf children can achieve. There is comparatively less evidence of deaf children singing, performing instrumental music and using music technology.
• Music projects aimed at including deaf children are often short term and offer token experiences and as a result, have little or no impact.
• Music leaders often admit that they don’t have the skills or confidence to include deaf children in music making. More training and awareness is needed.
• More work is needed to connect music education providers in order to share existing knowledge and expertise and improve access to music making opportunities.
Ailís: Does your deafness effect your teaching or participatory work?
Danny: It doesn’t. I have sign language interpreters using Access to Work funding for ease of communication.
Ailís: When you are playing music with others, how do you ‘hear’ them?
Danny: I believe that hearing music is always an advantage, but I know that even with my hearing aids, I don’t hear everything so I have to access music in other ways as well. Quite often when ensemble music is played I experience a wall of sound that has no clarity and makes no sense. When this happens, I rely on my sense of pulse, use eye contact with other musicians and watch them as they play their instruments, if necessary, it helps if one of the players is conducting the music. I also think it’s important for anyone (deaf or hearing) to communicate with each other during rehearsals so that they are aware of each other and are able to perform as a united group.
Ailís: Do you improvise? If so, how do you approach improvisation with a hearing and or deaf musician?
Danny: I love improvising especially on my own as I’m in full control and am fully aware of what is being created. If I’m improvising with others then I need to understand what sort of harmonic progressions or musical structures are being used. I would find out this through communicating with the other musicians first to get a sense of what we are trying to achieve but over time, once I get to know the musicians more and the way they play, it gets easier, just using as much of what I can hear and what I see of them playing.
Ailís: When I improvise with musicians who play instruments which are out of my range of hearing I rely on my eyes and what I know of the instrument and how it’s likely to be sounding, how do you approach this challenge?
Danny: Absolutely yes, I use my eyes a lot and watch other musicians when I’m performing, for example, I will look at where the violinist’s fingers are to see which notes they are pressing down on the strings, to see what the tempo might be and whether there are any rhythmic movements which I can use as inspiration. The body language of the musicians gives away a lot about the emotions that they are sensing as well as dynamics that they are using and this can have an influence on my own playing.
Talking Heads from The Hearing Test by Ailís Ní Ríain (music/words) and Andrea Pazos (animation) commissioned by DaDaFest and AND Festival in 2012. www.ailis.info