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Deaf Composer Feels the Music - 2003-08-10

This past May, 34-year-old Tammie Willis received a Master's degree in Music Composition from Virginia Commonwealth University. Like thousands of other budding composers, she earned her degree by writing several substantial pieces of music. However, unlike those other musicians, Ms. Willis is profoundly deaf.

The piece of music you're listening to is Tammie Willis' composition, Hide And Seek, performed in recital by students at Virginia Commonwealth University. But although the composer was in the audience, she couldn't hear it. Ms. Willis lost her hearing after being violently assaulted in her home nine years ago.

At first she was severely depressed over losing one of her senses, but the story of Ludwig Van Beethoven who composed some of his most famous works after becoming deaf inspired her to pursue a musical education. "I started studying music because I really, really didn't like the silence I was living in, and I wanted to find some other way to acknowledge, appreciate, or be aware of sound," she says.

However, Beethoven lost his hearing after several decades as a successful musician. Ms. Willis had to construct a whole new sense of music based on the vibrations she can feel using powerful hearing aids. "I have no functional hearing. I wear the hearing aids and they do not provide me with sound but they amplify sound so I feel a vibration on my eardrum. I started studying music, and that's when I discovered I could feel the vibrations on my eardrums, and that there were patterns to them, things that I could recognize and assign a meaning to," she says.

And meaning is what music is all about, according to Bill Eldridge. He's one of the instructors who guided her studies. "A lot of the emotional content of music comes from changes in the pitches, A-B-C-D-E-F sharp, not only the rhythms, or the sounds," he says. "Without having the ability to hear, to listen on her own to how it makes her feel when the notes go up and down and when certain chord combinations occur, it becomes very speculative for her. And so what she's done is to some extent is a great leap of imagination."

Mr. Eldridge calls Tammie Willis' pursuit of music 'a heroic achievement.' He says her scores also reflect a critical understanding of the last hundred years of music history. "She has managed somehow to write music so well even if she comes at it from different angle and has to use a whole different set of skills, but she's managed to write music that doesn't sound like whatever one imagines a deaf person's music would sound like, it holds, it definitely stands on its own, and holds its own against other composers," he says.

To compose, Ms. Willis relies on a theoretical knowledge of how musical scales function. But in order to add her own voice, she has developed a sense of how vibrations can stir musical feelings. "There are certain vibrations that I find increase tension or become very unstable and there are vibrations that feel very stable," she says. "And it's how I put the stable and unstable vibrations together that seem to make things move, make the music move, make the vibrations move and change and that's really what it's about, it's about how things change."

Composition hasn't come easily. Ms. Willis says it often was frustrating to figure out how to connect those vibrations with notes on a page. "Part of the problem comes from the fact that I don't perceive individual lines of music. If you've got two or more instruments performing at the same time, I can't tell what vibrations are coming from what instrument, because they all combine to form one instrument, or one vibration," she says.

Ms. Willis says she feels she has imbued her music with a sense of emotion, especially in this piece, called Mad Woman in the Attic, a reference to a character in Charlotte Bronte's classic novel, Jane Eyre. "It's based on the experience of Ms. Rochester from Jane Eyre, and it's this idea that you've got this woman who's been locked in the attic," she says. "She's being kept locked in the attic by angels, which are people who think they are helping you, keeping you safe, but in truth, they're what's driving her insane. And that the only way to get rid of the angels is to kill herself."

"The flute represents the angels and it's a very melodic line to the flute throughout the entire piece. And then you've got the piano which uses a pitch set, and the pitch set is D-E-A-D. And then at the very, very end, what I think makes it unique is that the pitch set, the piano goes from D-E-A-D to D-E-A-F," she says.

Tammie Willis says the piece is largely autobiographical. When she first began to study music, many people discouraged her from studying music because they thought she would fail. "I don't want other people dictating to me what I can and can't do. I don't want them setting my limits. And part of studying music, I went in with the idea, okay, this is going to help me identify what my limits are and through he course of my study, I've not found any limits."

Tammie Willis is going on to pursue her Doctorate in Music Education and plans to continue composing.