Guest Post by Stefan Honisch: “Musical experience as a Mode of Consciousness: The Pedagogy of ‘Deaf Men Dancing’ “

The following post by Stefan Sunandan Honisch is the next installment of our guest blog series on music and disability, which features the work and activities of scholars involved with music and disability studies. Stefan Honisch is a music and disability studies scholar, an accomplished pianist, and a PhD Candidate at the Center for Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education, University of British Columbia.

“Musical experience as a Mode of Consciousness: The Pedagogy of ‘Deaf Men Dancing’ “

     Among the urgent critical tasks performed by recent Music and Disability Studies scholarship is a reckoning with the forms of exclusion on which normative accounts of musical experience depend. Musical experience, normatively conceived, has placed participation in musical activity along a frequently inaccessible continuum of ability spanning the “normal” and the “severe” (an allusion to Paul Longmore’s memorable formulation “the severely able-bodied;” see Garland-Thomson, 2005, p. 33). In this way, formal instruction in music has been made available to the disabled body only to the extent that a person who inhabits such a body successfully manages to overcome its limitations, and to gain access, as far as possible, to such forms of (attenuated) musical experience as the inability to see, hear, or move “normally” permit.

    Joseph Straus (2011) has developed a capacious theoretical framework for understanding the multiple ways in which people with disabilities, including musicians and non-musicians, make sense of music not in spite of sensory, cognitive, and physical disabilities, but rather because of these differences: disability, in other words, makes rich, lively, and unfamiliar musical experiences possible. Straus’ exploration of “Deaf Hearing,” in particular, destabilizes the long-standing assumption that deafness, “a life of total silence” (p.167) is antithetical to musical experience thereby offering a useful entry point to the following discussion of Deaf Hearing in performance.

BBC’s “Ouch” blog offers commentary on a range of disability issues. A recent posting about the recently-formed dance ensemble “Deaf Men Dancing” (available at: demonstrates the importance of finding more opportunities to connect formal music pedagogy, historically an enterprise that normalizes musical experience (Straus, 2011, p.150) with modes of musical experience that do not always fit comfortably within the various sub-fields of music studies, and, in point of fact, may even call into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about music as primarily aural, or as some combination of the aural and the visual (as in the case of musical performance; see Howe, 2010; Lerner, 2006; Straus, 2011). The question with which the disabled body confronts music pedagogy is: where is the space for music as a fully embodied practice in which different bodies can be included?

Mark Smith, the founder of “Deaf Men Dancing,” recollects that, having lost his hearing in childhood, “I ran over to the piano…]” and put my hand on it to feel the vibrations of the music” (Vibrations from floor help dance troupe keep time, para.1) raises pressing questions about the complex position of deafness in relation to musical experience (Maler, 2013; Straus, 2011; Wood, 2009). The blog post locates Mark Smith’s role as both a dancer and an educator, in which latter capacity he works with deaf people, enabling them to learn expressive movement. However, it seems to me that the educational work done by Smith, and by the ensemble as a whole, extends well beyond their collaborative work together, and instead opens up pedagogical spaces for their audiences. This aspect of “Deaf Men Dancing” is briefly mentioned in the blog posting, in reference to the idea that their work helps audiences gain a measure of understanding of what musical experience through deafness is like (para. 6 & 10). Again, however, it seems to me there are larger transformations in understanding to be gained from encountering their work, ones which get at the very heart of what musical experience means.

Through their commitment to asking what music feels like (a question that the career of Evelyn Glennie also raises; see Glennie’s “Disability Essay”), “Deaf Men Dancing” teaches us that apparently common-sense definitions of ability and disability sometimes transform musical experience into a space of needless silence, of unnecessary exclusion. The different modes of consciousness (to invoke the phrase from Peirce’s anecdote) that make music mean something to people with different eyes, ears, and bodies, whether in the home, the classroom or the concert hall, merit greater inclusion in how music is taught, learned, and experienced. The work of this dance troupe reminds me of an anecdote related by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1893), worth quoting in full:

A friend of mine, in consequence of a fever, totally lost his sense of hearing. He had been very fond of music before his calamity; and strange to say, even afterwards would love to stand by the piano when a good performer played. So then, I said to him, after all you can hear a little. Absolutely not at all, he replied; but I can feel the music all over my body. Why, I exclaimed, how is it possible for a new sense to be developed in a few months! It is not a new sense, he answered. Now that my hearing is gone I can recognize that I always possessed this mode of consciousness, which I formerly, with other people, mistook for hearing.

This vignette offers a way to situate the work of “Deaf Men Dancing” within a larger terrain defined by resistance against the idea of disability as loss. Peirce’s friend showed him, and Peirce shows us, how to embrace bodily difference, in this case deafness, as a “mode of consciousness” instead of clinging to the familiar idea that the loss of a sensory ability negatively impacts musical experience.


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