Last night, deaf singer/songwriter Mandy Harvey came in 4th on America’s Got Talent. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Mandy went viral after her first performance. No less than 20 of my friends either shared it with me or tagged me in it saying how much she reminded them of me and how I persevered through my hearing loss. Everyone from Lady Gaga to Marlee Matlin tweeted how amazing she is, and she IS. Since she’s gone viral, I’ve had a lot of people commenting or asking me what I think, so here goes.
Someone like Mandy has an innate musical talent that has been honed and developed over many years. She clearly worked very hard prior to losing her hearing, and even harder after to be the musician she is today. Her songwriting is uplifting and positive and her voice is pitch perfect and clear as a bell. She and I are in some of the same circles, so I’ve known of her for years – I seem to recall meeting her once when we were both in Colorado and if I’m remembering correctly (it’s been a long time and another life for me) being introduced to her as “another deaf singer” and there was a very brief discussion about feeling vs hearing while singing. We’re both involved with the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, and we have a lot of mutual friends. For everything I know of her, Mandy is a truly genuine and sweet person with massive musical talent.
When someone learns about my hearing loss and learns I still sing with it, or wanted to be on Broadway, there are always questions. I love answering those questions. I say the same thing I said to John Moore in the Denver Post in 2003 – I have an amazing voice teacher who has taught me that singing is not really about hearing yourself, it’s about feeling and trusting. I don’t know how well that works for people who did not have musical training prior to losing their hearing, but I’m answering from my experience. I rely often on the music theory I learned and the piano and flute lessons that I hated while I was taking them but regret dropping now. That’s where Mandy and I are the same, although her music theory education went much further than mine, as she became a vocal education major at Colorado State University where I went into theatre at Iowa to hone my acting chops instead.
Our stories of hearing loss are also pretty similar. The paths we choose after, however, are dramatically different. I embraced hearing technology for all it’s worth, and keep upgrading and changing what I use and keep working really hard at being ingrained in the hearing world. Mandy chose to not use hearing technology and embraced sign language and many more facets of the Deaf world, where I don’t sign at all (not for lack of trying, which is another story for another day).
So my feelings about Mandy? I am ridiculously proud of Mandy and all she’s been able to accomplish. She’s a huge inspiration and a wonderful story. I’m also incredibly envious. I think that if maybe I had worked a little harder or didn’t let other people and priorities interfere with my music that I could be in that spot now. But I made my choices and still have (hopefully) half my life ahead of me – if it’s something I decide to pursue further I still have that option. I need to remember that.
Over the last 17 years since I lost my hearing, I have had other singers say things to me like, “oh, I’m losing my hearing, my life is over, I’ll never be able to sing again.” Really? You’re saying that to ME? I get it, I probably said those things during depressive moments. These people are scared. Losing one’s hearing is not an easy thing to go through. I’ve been there, I know that better than anyone. But look at me – use me as your inspiration. Use Mandy. We didn’t go through those things and work really hard to “overcome” them just for ourselves. We did it for all of you too.
When you’re a true singer, or musician of any sort, you have innate music inside you. It’s going to come out. You’ll find ways for it to come out, even if they are not how you envisioned as a hearing person. It has to come out or you’ll go insane. The reason I tell my story and write this blog is for people going through similar. You can do it. If I did, you can do it too. I promise. There’s a saying in the world of the chronically ill that often applies – and I think of it every time someone comments on how “strong” I am. “We don’t know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice.” If you’re losing your hearing, and music is important to you, you will be strong enough to find a way to keep it because it’s the only choice.
Clearly, Mandy was able to figure that out too, and I hope whatever I might have said to her back in our Colorado days ages ago might have helped with that. What I’d say to her now is this: Even though I’ve already been through it, you still inspire me. You make me want to work harder and go further. Things are just getting started for you, and I really hope you keep going and keep talking about the tools and tricks you use as often as possible. The more we tell our stories the less other people will have to hurt if they face what we did. And if you ever want to duet with another deaf girl, you know where to find me 😉
Here’s Mandy’s finals performance and her amazing, uplifting original song: