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Interview: Paul Whittaker, musician

17 April 2014

'There's some contemporary music I enjoy - but there's a lot that makes me thankful I'm deaf'

As I was born deaf, I can't honestly say how my experience of music and sound relates to that of a hearing person.

My understanding of music is based entirely on what I read in the score, and on vibration. I have a strong awareness of pitch, rhythm, and dynamic, though. I don't need to "hear" a piece of music being played in order to understand and appreciate it. I can get that from reading the score, though obviously it's far more fun attending a concert and sharing that experience with others. It's fun making music on your own, but far more satisfying when it's a shared experience.

From the age of 12, I knew I wanted to help other deaf people access and explore music - and those who live and work with them. I started Music and the Deaf as a registered charity in 1988.

We offer advice and support, lead workshops, do talks, and provide training. For many years, we did signed theatre and concert performances. We run music clubs and signing choirs, and generally do whatever we can to promote music with and for deaf people.

We work with both deaf and hearing people. It's important that hearing people are aware of the value of music for deaf people, and that they can actually do it. Raising awareness is vital.

Being able to show how the music fits together, and conveying the meaning of the lyrics, is a challenge. I've signed the Messiah a few times, which is great fun, especially on Easter Day, and doing Bach's St John Passion with the Britten Sinfonia at Norwich's Theatre Royal. I've also signed for the Rambert Dance Company at the Edinburgh International Festival and at the BBC Proms.

For a few years, I did some signed concerts with The Sixteen, which was a challenge, because most of their performances consist of polyphonic music, and it's often in Latin.

I speak and sign in British Sign Language. I consider it useful being able to switch from speech to sign depending on who I'm communicating with, but I do use interpreters at work. 

I've always had involvement in church music. I was a chorister at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield, and had a very traditional Anglican upbringing. I got into playing for services and training choirs from the age of 12. 

While I enjoy and value a good choral service, I don't believe that worship should be a spectator sport for the congregation.

I love exploring liturgies and music from different cultures and traditions. It broadens our world-view, and makes us realise that we are part of a global Church. I've gained much from Wild Goose resources, and from New Zealand hymnody and liturgy. It deals with what I call "real, dirty hands" faith: about God and the Church in the real world, and being socially aware and active. 

I'm fortunate to be part of St Cuthbert's, Birkby, in Huddersfield. It's a church that is very community-based, has a broad range of liturgy, and welcomes variety and breadth.

Several composers inspire me, and for different reasons. There's J. S. Bach, who wrote such phenomenal music; Leonard Bernstein, for the sheer energy and variety of what he wrote; Kenneth Leighton, whose organ and church music has such immediate emotional impact; and James MacMillan, for wearing his faith so openly, and whose imagination is just stunning.

I play piano and organ, and would love to be able to play the cello. I like a wide range of music, and used to listen to it a lot. If I've read the score and memorised it, I then play CDs and put the vibrations I feel together with the memory of the score to enjoy it. 

I had a traditional Western classical music upbringing, but that doesn't mean I spent all my time listening to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. I love musical theatre and traditional jazz. As you've already gathered, there's some contemporary music I enjoy - but there's a lot that makes me thankful I'm deaf. My favourite band is Queen, and I was a huge fan of Sky, the group that John Williams, Tristan Fry, Kevin Peek, and others had in the late '70s and early '80s. 

I'm the youngest of three children, all born and brought up in Huddersfield. Dad died in December. He loved listening to music, and was immensely proud of us. Mum still lives in Huddersfield, and I see a lot of her. Mary is deaf: she's the first deaf Church of Scotland minister, in Elgin. Anne is in Dundee, and she's also a musician.

As a family, we always used to go to Sandsend, near Whitby; so I have a soft spot for there. I adore Plockton and north-west Scotland, and also Devon and Suffolk, and Mike and Anthea's lovely cottage at Castlemorton Common, near Malvern. I love exploring new places and finding wonderful B&Bs.

I'm drawn to the stillness of Wadham College Chapel, Oxford. I spent three years there as a music undergraduate, and the chapel has a calm and a sense of comfort I find nowhere else.

My family influenced me, and Hedley Teale, my music teacher at secondary school. Other influences: Paul Herrington, Michael Green, and Bruce Gillingham at St Aldate's, Oxford; Edward Olleson, my music tutor at Oxford; John Bell and Jan Sutch Pickard of the Iona Community; James MacMillan. . . Even the Women's Institute - a wonderful organisation, and one I love to visit.

I do read a vast amount. I have piles of books around the house, and not enough space for them, but can't bring myself to get rid of many. I like reading quirky books like Gulp or Consider the Fork - books that make you see everyday things in a new way. I like biographies because I'm keen to know what makes people tick. The New Zealand Prayer Book is wonderful, as are many of Geoffrey Duncan's anthologies, especially Courage to Love, an inspiring and challenging collection. I read crime novels, and love Brideshead Revisited.

I love the work of Marc Chagall, and find it endlessly fascinating.

Right now, I spend a lot of time praying for Mum, my sisters, and myself, as our lives have changed so radically. I also pray that the Church will be more accepting of gay people, lay and ordained, and realise how anachronistic it appears to modern society. There are far more pressing issues than someone's sexuality, but so much hurt and pain has been caused over the years. I've been on the receiving end of some of it, but I know that others have had far, far worse experiences than mine.

Obviously, there are numerous things I'd like to ask Jesus. Wouldn't we all? If I was locked in a church with someone, I'd want someone I can actually have a dialogue with, rather than being forced to listen to my companion's monologue. So it would be either John Bell or James MacMillan. Stephen Sondheim would be interesting. Marc Chagall. Stephen Fry. J. S. Bach. Can't I have a dinner party instead?

Dr Paul Whittaker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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