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Column: 'I am determined to make music available to the deaf'

I was the first and only deaf and vision impaired student to choose music as a Leaving Cert subject, writes Orla O’Sullivan.

Orla O'Sullivan Music teacher

Orla O’Sullivan is a deaf and visually impaired piano and keyboard teacher to deaf and hearing students.  

While Beethoven became deaf in adulthood, Orla was only six-weeks-old when she became profoundly deaf as a result of receiving life-saving medication given to her for pneumonia. This makes Orla’s achievements even more extraordinary. 

Orla also juggles her music teaching with motherhood – she has a five-year-old son, John Amadeus. With her partner, Dan, she has devoted many years to developing and continues to refine a unique music teaching tool for the deaf called Sound Senses. 

MY LOVE OF music began when I was 3-years-old, on the day my mother put my fingertips on the piano keys, as she was playing a nursery rhyme for me.

She saw my fascination as I felt the vibration from the piano keys. She watched in amazement herself as I began to bang on the keys. She also saw how happy it made me. I spent hours and hours every day as a child playing the piano. The piano was my playground. I loved the way it made me feel.

Most other sounds around me were just noise. I could not make sense of all those everyday sounds. It was just noise in my head. I can not hear the birds singing. I would love to hear that.

Even if I can’t hear the higher notes, I can imagine them

But the music and feeling from playing the piano is different. There is a beauty to that music. There is order. I taught myself to understand the different notes from each other.

Even though I can not hear the higher notes at all I can imagine them and also feel them.

I have been banging on piano keys ever since then. And I can play a tune now as well. And I teach. Playing my favourite pieces of music help me in times of sadness and frustration.

Chopin lifts my spirits when I am sad. One example would be Chopin’s Nocturnes.

Beethoven’s music is magic in the way some of his pieces light up my imagination. His music for me is all about feelings. Emotional feelings like anger and frustration. Moonlight Sonata is a good example.

Mozart can be funny and entertaining in the way he twists and turns his melodies. Liszt’s consolations makes me think of love, romance, and family.

Starting formal lessons

My mother arranged formal piano lessons for me at the age of 6. My first teacher was Jean Downey, who now lectures in music at the University of Limerick.

Jean was and is a fantastic teacher. I was a very good pupil. As I got older I became more and more interested in music. Being deaf and vision impaired was an obstacle, but not a barrier. I was determined in my study of music to make exam standard.

When I reached the higher grades in learning I realised I could become a teacher. It took about 8 years of study for me to achieve my dream of becoming a music teacher. I did my training in Cork City Music College, which is a private music college. I am a registered music teacher with Victoria College of Music, London.

There was no mainstream education facility anywhere at the time I was a second level student that could teach music to deaf and vision impaired pupils.

First deaf and vision impaired student to choose music as a subject

I was the first and only deaf and vision impaired student to choose music as a Leaving Cert subject at my secondary school. I got honours. This amazed my teachers.

I passed all my exams. I know from what people tell me that it is supposed to be impossible for deaf students to do this. The only way I can explain is that music, in fact all sound, is vibration. Without vibration there is no sound. Without sound there is no vibration. No sound and no vibration means silence.

Even though I am deaf I do experience sound. I don’t experience it the way fully hearing people do. But I do experience it in my own way. I can teach music as well as any fully hearing, fully qualified, music teacher. My pupils exam results are the proof of this.

Finding a way for the deaf to learn music

For many years I have tried to find an easier way for the deaf to learn and appreciate music. In 2014 we found Brian Leach, a musician, and an inventor. He listened to what I had to say. He then went off and built the Sound Senses Tactile Box.

We also made contact, through research, with Ciarán O’Kelly of CronDesign.com. He had, in 2004, developed visual software that connected coloured light to sound. He allowed us to use his software programme to connect with the Sound Senses Box. This allows a deaf pupil to feel and see the music at the same time.

With this system I was able to better teach deaf pupils. One of my pupils has passed her first stage music exam using the system. She is the first deaf pupil ever to pass a music exam using Sound Senses.

This gives us great hope for the future. We are now looking for an investor to help us make the system better. We are also trying to interest the Department of Education in our system.

I have a wonderful 5-year-old son that keeps me very busy. I have a hard working fiancé, Danny, who is a brilliant father to our son. He is also my PR. He helps me in every way he can to make my dreams come true.

I am very lucky to have such an interesting and happy life. I am determined to make music available to the deaf and other sensory impaired people. If I can do it anybody can. All you have to do is love music.

Good Vibrations airs on Thursday 25th May at 10.20pm on RTÉ One.

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About the author:

Orla O'Sullivan  / Music teacher

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