Paul's first night at the Proms – signing for Dame Judi Dench

PROMMERS have enjoyed a vast array of music over more than a century at the annual concerts in London.

Yet it was only last month that a new audience was introduced to a Promenade concert for the first time when an evening celebrating the 80th birthday of composer Stephen Sondheim was signed for deaf people.

A total of 19 works were performed at the Royal Albert Hall, among them excerpts from Sweeney Todd and Send in the Clowns sung by Dame Judi Dench.

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The Yorkshire-born star admitted to being slightly daunted about her debut at the Proms but her first appearance was not the only one that night as among those also making their bow was Paul Whittaker, who faced the formidable task of signing every one of the 19 works to about 150 deaf people in the sell-out audience.

The 46-year-old artistic director of the Huddersfield-based charity Music and the Deaf was born with severe hearing loss which deteriorated to leave him profoundly deaf by the age of eight.

Yet when he was five, he had set out to learn how to play the piano, at eight he was singing in the church choir and by 12 knew he wanted to bring music to other deaf people.

His efforts to study music at university met two years of rejection until he was accepted by Wadham College, Oxford, where he became the first profoundly deaf person to complete a degree.

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Following studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and aged only 24, he set out to bring music to deaf audiences, setting up the charity in the attic of his parent's home in Huddersfield.

"It didn't seem a very good business idea – I had no funding and no business plan," he said.

But some 22 years later, the charity is going from strength to strength. Dr Whittaker has signed scores of productions including Les Miserables and Grease in the West End and

on Tuesday was at the Edinburgh Festival for the first time for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

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"It's a very small organisation with a very big remit. Nine million people in the UK have a hearing problem – potentially that's a massive audience for us," he said.

He relies on being able to read music and see what is happening to convey it to

others – for instance, he is unable to identify an instrument by sound until he sees what is being played.

"Even then I can't pick up what the notes are or what is being played," said Dr Whittaker, who lives at Rishworth, near Halifax.

"What you do as a signer is communicate the words and

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the music but also get the characterisation and drama in it as well."

Some people with hearing aids can pick up some instruments and certain pitches but most

rely on vibrations and what

they feel, combined with what they see, the action and the

set design.

In a musical, his task is to memorise all the music and the words of every part, with the additional complication of explaining which singer playing which part is performing.

Within a short space of time he also has to explain what the music is, including the tone

and volume and the emotion within it.

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"Singers don't need to learn every single part. I do," he said.

"The difficulty for me is picking up those little nuances like small notes changes."

He said the experience of signing the Proms concert had been "absolutely fantastic".

"There have been Proms for 115 years but they've never before provided specific access for deaf people and there I was, a deaf guy from Huddersfield, signing music by Sondheim with Sondheim sitting there as well as Dame Judi Dench performing. She was the most normal

un-diva-like person you could ever meet," he said.

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"I knew what I was going to do so I wasn't nervous about that but I was about how people would react to it because for deaf people, classical music is not an area to which they have had a lot of exposure.

"It's great these major festivals are finally providing access for deaf people and hopefully this is something that will continue."

Signing remains only one part of work by the charity which also leads workshops to help deaf people make music.

A deaf youth orchestra has been set up in West Yorkshire which is about to become a national project.

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Work is also getting underway for a programme to encourage deaf children to sing with the aiming of setting up a national deaf choir.

"I'm often asked if I would like to be able to hear," he said.

"It would be interesting but also very difficult because I'd have to go back to the beginning and learn the different instruments and what the pitches sound like.

"I'm very happy with the way I perceive and understand music – it makes me what I am and it's certainly true that if I wasn't deaf I wouldn't be doing what I do.

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"I am very lucky to spend my life working in music and that I've been given the opportunity to work with such fantastic people and on touring musical shows.

"I'm also beginning to realise now the effect of music on the people that we work with.

"Young deaf people come to me and say, 'You've given me the opportunity to make music when I was at school which nobody had ever done and I still enjoy it now'.

"With the deaf youth orchestra, the children have much more confidence and much more

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self-expression but their families also get so much out of it as well.

"They realise that their child is doing something and they're sharing something as a family that they never thought they would. When it makes such an impression on people and makes such a difference to them, it's very humbling."