How music breaks the sound barrier for children

MUSIC is one of the most complex sounds processed by the ear and brain.

So the idea of enabling profoundly deaf children to enjoy listening to a concert might appear to be an impossible task.

Yet an internationally recognised composer has pulled off the feat and his specially designed work will be performed for the first time in Yorkshire at Square Chapel in Halifax on Friday.

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The original cast and musicians will perform The Farmer’s Cheese before an audience of all ages, many of whom share one thing in common: they are all profoundly deaf.

This not-for-profit event is sponsored by hearing implant manufacturer MED-EL, one of the world leaders in the research and manufacturer of cochlear implants, in association with the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Service and the Manchester Cochlear Implant programme.

The Farmer’s Cheese, was written by Geoff Plant of the Hearing Rehabilitation Foundation and MED-EL and is a tale of a cunning mouse, a cheese-loving farmer and the farmyard animals who try to catch the mouse and the stolen cheese.

In this musical adaptation, all the animals are represented by a different musical instrument.

The first half of the performance is narrated while the second becomes a highly animated pantomime including a “cheese ballet” and a bull fight. Composer Oliver Searle, who devised the music to enhance the experience for children with cochlear implants, is considered ground-breaking in this field.

Cassandra Brown, managing director of Barnsley-based MED-EL, said: “Music is life-enhancing and something most of us take for granted. The Farmer’s Cheese is world leading in bringing music to children with cochlear implants and we are very proud of the work that Oliver has achieved in this field.

‘’I am delighted that we will now be sharing The Farmer’s Cheese with families in Yorkshire. I can’t think of a more fitting way of celebrating MED-EL’s 21st anniversary.”

The complex nature of music makes listening a challenge for many cochlear implant users. It is made up of many elements including pitch, timbre, rhythm, melody and harmonies and due to its complexity, music appreciation can be more difficult for a cochlear implant user than for someone with normal hearing.

But this problem can be overcome by a cochlear implant – a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of hearing to a person with profound or severe hearing loss.

The implants have two components, a surgically fitted implant placed in the inner ear plus an audio processor which is worn behind the ear.

The audio processor picks up sound and converts it into electric impulses, these are in turn picked up by the implant which stimulates the auditory nerve which the brain then perceives as sound.

Dr Searle takes full account of the latest scientific research in this field, selecting instruments which are most easily enjoyed by cochlear implant users and keeping the orchestration clear and simple.

In recent years in conjunction with MED-EL, he has written several works for cochlear implantees with The Farmer’s Cheese being the first for children.

In addition to being awarded a composition fellowship from MED-EL in respect of his outstanding work for cochlear implantees, he has recently been commissioned to write an original piece of music called Technophonia as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The music is provided by the Glasgow-based ensemble Symposia. However, two of the group members hail from Yorkshire. Rachel Drury on saxophone and Frances Pybus on clarinet are delighted to have the opportunity to play once again on home territory.

Although the idea of deaf people being able to “hear” music may seem odd, music and deafness are not as unlikely bedfellows as they might seem. One of the world’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven lost his hearing and was completely deaf by 1818, but continued to write for another 10 years.

His solution was to hear music through vibrations and he is said to have cut the legs off his piano and played while sitting on the floor so he could feel the vibrations better.

And there have been several “deaf raves” in London, with an emphasis on bass and heavy rhythmic tracks, allowing clubbers to feel the music through their bodies.

The Farmer’s Cheese is on at Square Chapel in Halifax, at 3pm.

Currently almost 500 children per year are born sufficiently deaf to receive a cochlear implant or become deaf in early life and may need one. Implants among these groups is estimated at 70 per cent and growing with 430 children implanted in 2007.

One in every 1,000 children in the UK is deaf at three years old and there are currently about 20,000 children aged below 16 who are moderately to profoundly deaf.