Recently, I had the pleasure of watching Touch the Sound, a documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer about percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish-born musician who has been wowing audiences with her creativity for the past 25 years, and who is also profoundly deaf.
I was profoundly moved by the documentary, and learned the following lessons from seeing and hearing Glennie’s story.
- Don’t let perceived limitations or impediments keep you from doing what you want to do. Evelyn’s father was a musician, and they shared a deep understanding of the importance of music, even when her hearing began to fail early in her childhood. Her family was very supportive of her determination to become a musician, regardless of the challenges her physical condition presented her with.
- Let go of your assumptions of how your art is practiced. Yes, Glennie is magnificent on marimba, snare, bass drum and other traditional percussion instruments; but in one scene in the film where she is performing in a small venue (a bar?) in Japan, she makes music sitting on the floor playing a chopsticks and cans! Throughout the movie, she expands my mental set of ways to create rhythms.
- Cultivate a habit of exploration and free play. This lesson follows the previous one. Throughout the film, Evelyn experiments with ways to make music, both within and beyond traditional venues, and it is so completely part of her nature that it never seems over the top.
- Improvisation is not chaos. Despite an adolescence spent drenched in jazz, I’ve always been a little leery of other forms of improvised music. But the improvised compositions that Glennie creates with Fred Frith and other are simply some of the most melodic and lyrical I have ever heard. They are truly a conversation between two harmonically connected souls.
- It’s possible to make art anywhere, with anything. Evelyn visits her family farm in Scotland and even picks up implements from her brother’s pile of farm tools to spontaneously jam with. No complaints about a lack of equipment or a quiet place to practice from her—there’s just a continuing search to explore the limits of music and sound-making, wherever she goes.
- Having an “inspirational story” can take you beyond heroism to coaching. Yes, Evelyn has an incredible story in being a phenomenally successful deaf musician. But she has recently expanded her work to include taking on students. In one of the most touching scenes in the movie, she works with a hearing impaired young student (high school age, I’d guess) and explains how to make music with a bass drum. You can see the girl just light up. Evelyn has clearly learned how to use her amazing story to empower others.
- It’s possible to make great art, even when your circumstances change. This lesson I learned from watching Riedelsheimer in the “special features” that accompany the documentary on the DVD. He mentions that he had invited Frith and Glennie to improvise in a dilapidated abandoned warehouse in Germany, and that he had imagined the two of them improvising to themes that he gave them to work with. Frith is shown saying that such a set up is clearly not acceptable to them. Riedelsheimer is disappointed at this turn of events, but he goes with it. And goes on to make a long-form documentary that is no less beautiful for the fact that it didn’t happen in the way he thought it would.
Here’s Glennie and Fred Frith in a segment from the documentary where they are playing “A Little Prayer.” Glorious!