Guest Post by Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones: “Encountering Deaf Spaces in Washington”

This is another installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones is a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology at Boston University, and is a contributor to the OUP Handbook on Music and Disability Studies (forthcoming 2014). Her master’s thesis, completed for degree requirements at Louisiana State University, is a study of The University of Pennsylvania MS. Codex 436.

“Mommy, guess what I want to do for my job?” “what?” “It starts with an M.” “music?” “yes, I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.”

My seven-year-old son and I were sitting in a cafe on a cold, rainy evening in February in Washington, D.C. having just come from the Kennedy Center. My son, Ellis, was beaming in the warm afterglow of seeing Signmark for the first time, the Deaf rapper from Finland. As a parent, I’ve taken my kids to concerts before, but this one was different. I was at the Signmark concert as a musicologist, taking notes for my own research, and I brought my son all the way from Boston to see this, because he’s Deaf, too.

In February 2013, Signmark performed at the Kennedy Center, representing Finland as one of the featured performers of the month-long Scandinavian festival at the Center, called “Nordic Cool.” Including Signmark in a cultural festival distances his work as a deaf artist from medical implications of deafness and shifts them more in a political and cultural light, which is consistent with Signmark’s artistic goals.

The audience rippled with the signing hands of Deaf and hearing people, communicating together, or simply waving their hands in applause. Signmark called from the stage, “Rhythm isn’t something we hear, but also see and feel,” as he encouraged the audience to move their hands and bodies along with the music.

Through the performance in a spoken language and a sign language, Signmark creates a musical experience that is accessible to both hearing and Deaf cultures. Signmark works closely with his partner, vocalist Brandon Bauer, who is Finnish-American and who performs the spoken translation of Signmark’s signed raps, to create a bilingual performance. Signmark states, “Through my music I want to break prejudice and fight for equality between cultures. I want to show to people that being different can be an asset. My message is that nothing is impossible for the deaf; we can do all the same things.”

I underestimated how much seeing Signmark would resonate with my seven-year-old. Ellis has a fair amount of auditory access through the use of a cochlear implant (CI), but he also signs. American Sign Language is his first language. During a bilingual concert, he could choose either modality listening with his CI or listening with his eyes. He chose the latter.

As the music started, Ellis took in the first few songs in his seat, but then as he latched on to Signmark’s performance, he became more engaged, waving his arms, and fist-pumping the air along with the music. The show is worked out between Deaf Signmark who signs and his colleague Brandon who speaks. They are well coordinated in the dialogue in-between songs, but sometimes there is some variance between how they are interacting with the audience. Ellis was completely tuned into Signmark. He responded to all the signing, and for the last song, when Signmark invited everyone to the front, Ellis ran up to the front to be closer, joining in, jumping up and down. When it was over, I said we could meet Signmark. My somewhat shy Ellis surprised me. He was frantic to meet him, running and pushing his way ahead to find Signmark. We were rewarded with this sweet picture.


At the age of seven, my son has not yet encountered the prejudice of the hearing world that deaf people can’t or don’t experience, enjoy, and perform music. After his encounter with Signmark, he will know that this is not the case, and he has taken to writing his own songs at home now.

But the Signmark concert was only a part of a journey I took with my Deaf son that weekend. My little Ellis became my Ellis Island, a portal to a world that I would’ve never known about if it weren’t for him, DEAF-WORLD, in ASL. And our trip to Washington, D.C., gave us a physical space for DEAF-WORLD. We stayed in the dorms at Gallaudet University, the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. To get to and from there, we took a special Gallaudet shuttle that runs from Union Station every half hour, which fascinated Ellis, “A Deaf bus!?” And he was eager to make small talk in ASL with every generous college student who made eye contact with him. Later, he remarked, “I think we should move to George Washington, D.C. Everyone is smart here; everyone is signing.”

The next day, I took him to see the monuments. Perhaps the most significant one for me to show him was the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial represents the struggle for minorities to gain equality and social justice in a majority world that would otherwise oppress them. We remember M. L. King, Jr. standing on the steps declaring his dream. But many don’t realize that King’s dream was echoed over twenty years later by the Deaf students in Washington, D.C., who borrowed banners from the civil rights movement to declare their own dream of having a Deaf president for the first time at Gallaudet University—which would symbolize the rejection of nearly two hundred years of paternalism perpetuated by hearing medical and educational professionals.

If you look closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands, it is said that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, formed the ASL letters “A” and “L” for “Abraham Lincoln.” Standing there with my deaf son, I felt proud that he could say to me just the night before, “I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.” To know that he stands on the shoulders of so many who have advocated for the rights of the deaf. And to know that as a musicologist, I have a role to play.

AL (did you know the statue was carved by a Deaf man?) #lincolnmemorial #washingtondc

Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on Deafness and Music: An Introduction, by Anabel Maler

Anabel Maler’s essay on nineteenth-century American deafness and music is the first installment in a series of blog posts written by members of the disability and music scholarly community. Anabel Maler is a PhD student in Music Theory at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Society for Music Theory Interest Group in Music and Disability. If you are interested in writing a blog entry, please contact Samantha Bassler, the Social Media Officer, at samanthaebp at .

When the topic of my research comes up in conversation, I always pay careful attention to peoples’ reactions when I describe my work on music, deafness, and sign language. Some react with pleasant surprise and excitement at what is perceived to be an unusual area of interest.

Others express their skepticism about whether the deaf can really experience music, or create it through sign language. Of course, possibly the most common reaction of all is to make a reference to this scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus:

The second reaction is the one that interests me right now, because although many people have responded to my projects with skepticism, this reaction still manages to take me by surprise. The concept that deaf people cannot experience music, or can only experience it through technological intervention, is one that seems ingrained in our culture, and that usually goes unquestioned. For my next research project, I decided to go back to the nineteenth century to try to find the roots of our attitudes towards deafness and music. My questions about the historical relationship of music and deafness has led to many hours perusing issues of nineteenth-century American journals on deaf education, and I would like to present some of my findings here. First, though, a brief explanation of nineteenth-century American views on deafness and education is in order.

There were two main methods of deaf education in nineteenth-century America: in one corner, the manualists, and in the other corner, the oralists. In 1817, Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the first school for deaf students in the United States: the American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut. The school’s head teacher was the deaf Parisian schoolteacher Laurent Clerc, who used sign language to instruct his students at the American Asylum. This manner of instructing deaf students was known as the manual method. For the first half of the nineteenth century, the manual method flourished in America, led by Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet.

By the mid-nineteenth century, another method of deaf education entered the American consciousness: the oral method, led by Alexander Graham Bell. Proponents of the oral method forbade the use of sign language in their classrooms, instead focusing all of their attention on teaching speech and lip-reading. Deaf Americans thus found themselves at the center of a heated debate in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

You may know Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but there are a couple of other things to know about A.G.:

  1. He was a supporter and practitioner of the oralist method of deaf education.

  2. He was also a supporter of the eugenicist movement, although presumably he wasn’t a practitioner of that one (I hope). Alarmed by the tendency of the deaf to intermarry, Bell feared that allowing the deaf to continue forming communities that communicated via sign language would lead to the formation of a “deaf race.”

While manualist instructors were concerned with the moral and religious education of the children in their care, oralists were mostly interested in assimilating deaf people into hearing society. These views were reflected in how the two types of educators thought about music in relation to deafness. For example, in 1848 W.W. Turner wrote the following in a manualist publication:

“If the question be raised, ‘Cui bono?’—what possible benefit can result from teaching music to the deaf or from exercising them in musical performances when learned?—it may be answered: What benefit is ever derived from teaching music? It is a source of intellectual gratification. It is a means of intellectual cultivation.”

Oralists, by contrast, viewed music as completely absent from the lives of the deaf before technological intervention. Let’s look at a quote from an article called “Music for the Deaf and Dumb,” published in 1897:

“With the aid of Professor McKendrick’s invention deaf persons can attend the opera and occupy their boxes in any part of the house, however remote. They can dress as others dress, converse as others converse, do as others do, with nothing conspicuous about them, differing thus from other deaf process treatment. […] This applies to all deaf people and especially to the deaf and dumb who will, for the first time, enjoy musical rhythm and hear the notes of human warblers.”

Unlike manualists, oralists were not concerned with how the deaf could experience music on their own terms; rather, they wanted the deaf to experience music as hearing people did through technological innovations, in order to assimilate them into the hearing world. They saw this experience as the “first time” that the deaf were able to enjoy music, although it is clear from manualist publications that the deaf had been experiencing and enjoying music in other ways for many decades prior.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the oralist movement gained immense popularity and experienced several important victories, like the Milan Congress of 1880, the suppression of sign language such that by 1920 only 20 percent of deaf students were taught using sign, and the near-total purging of deaf teachers from schools for the deaf. At the same time, technological advancements made the oralists’ dream, for the deaf to experience music in the same way as the hearing, seem like it could become a reality. In 1883, A.G. Bell published his famous lecture on the formation of a deaf race, which fed into the public’s fear of a race seemingly without sound or music.

Although we have ceased to fear the development of a deaf race, and although sign language experienced a major comeback when it was finally recognized as a natural language, our present day views on deafness and music remain pretty much the same as they were in the late nineteenth century. While articles on music therapy and cochlear implants abound, scholarly articles on the deaf experience of music are rare, and as such, the history of music in Deaf culture remains a mystery. My hope is that researching music and deaf education in the nineteenth century will help fill some of the gaps in our knowledge, and eventually bring our understanding of music and deafness into the twenty-first century.