Deaf pianist imagines sound
By Pete Fowler
Editor: I’m always intrigued by people with hearing loss who continue to play musical instruments. Here’s a story about a pianist who became deaf at the age of 30 and continues to play and learn new material nearly 30 years later. This article originally appeared in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and is reprinted with their kind permission.
Bobbie Meriwether wakes up in the morning sometimes with sounds of a Chopin or Beethoven piece swirling around in her head.
Times like those she wishes she were still dreaming. After training to become a professional classical pianist, she went completely deaf at the age of 30.
“Music is something that … sometimes I go to sleep hearing it, sometimes I wake up hearing it and am kind of sad that I woke up,” Meriwether said.
But, at 57 years old, she plays a mean classical piano. It’s her way of connecting with the world of sound. The world that became so alien after she lost her hearing. She plays beautifully despite not being able to hear a nuclear blast if it were right in front of her, her husband, William Meriwether, said.
“She is a completely astonishing person,” William said. “You’ll never meet another one even remotely similar to her. … This skill of hers and talent of hers is world class.”
She’s able to play well despite being deaf because of her musical training, her ability to imagine the sounds and feel vibrations from the piano.
“Imagining the sound? That goes on all the time,” she said. “It’s like breathing.”
She describes it as a phantom voice. It’s like someone who lost a limb feeling that the limb is still there. It’s the sensation of hearing even though she’s not really hearing.
Bobbie started studying music at the age of 4 with the use of a hearing aid. William said she was a “child prodigy.” She later went completely deaf, she believes, as a result of antibiotics she took to treat a virus.
“I discovered that if I played the piano I could feel the vibrations and remember what it should sound like,” she said.
When she practices with her teacher and coach, Annig Raley, she puts her hand on the side of the piano to feel what’s going on. When she watches someone perform – even on television – she can often tell what they’re playing just by watching their hands.
For Bobbie, grasping the character or personality of a piece is even more important than it is for other musicians. That’s one thing Raley helps her with.
On Friday Bobbie’s fingers delicately brush across notes on a page in a Frederic Chopin Prelude in C sharp minor she’s been learning. Her hands move smoothly and deftly as she points out and explains nuances of certain phrases. It’s as if her hands and eyes are hearing the notes.
She sits down to play and leans forwards in concentration. Three of William’s black-and-white photographs hang on the wall above the piano.
Bobbie would play piano for five or six hours a day if she could. But she’s busy working in a frame shop and supporting her photographically talented husband, who’s battling cancer.
“I listen to live classical music every day of my life,” William said. It’s a rare treat to live with someone that talented and hear pieces evolve as they practice, he added.
He still carries a camera with him at all times and has been hand-making books of his photographs, which he plans to publish. Keeping busy and hearing music helps him deal with the stress of having cancer and not being able to go to a regular job. The couple worries they won’t be able to stay in Glenwood due to rising costs of living. Caring friends recently held a fundraiser to help pay the medical expenses.
“We’ve both been going through very difficult crises in our lives and music has been a source of sanity,” Bobbie said.