Claire's First Song

She’s what?” the professor asked in surprise as if he were the one who couldn’t hear. “She’s deaf,” I said again, and then quickly added, "and I'm her interpreter."

   The professor's stare remained on us despite the explanation. I couldn’t fault his reaction, after all I had made this announcement while standing in his Beginning Piano class.

   Claire, my client, fidgeted from behind her front-row piano keyboard, no doubt eager to know what he was saying. The professor cast a wary glance her way as if he doubted her inability to overhear his concern then looked at me again. “But...” he stammered, “this is a piano class.” His pale blue eyes squinted in confusion. “If she can’t hear, how can she learn to play?”

   How, indeed. Truth was, I’d been wondering the same thing myself but didn’t reply. Instead, I turned to face Claire and signed, “YOU DEAF. CAN’T HEAR PIANO. HOW YOU LEARN?” I used not only my hands, but my face, the movement of my mouth, even how I held my body, slightly hunched over like the professor.

   Registering comprehension now, Claire smiled at her teacher and signed: “ME REGISTER FOR CLASS. PIANO.”

   “I’ve registered for this class,” I said.




   “That’s my interpreter.”


   “She’ll translate everything for me.”

   The professor’s head pivoted from to side to side, unsure of which one of us to look at: the signing girl or me speaking a language he could hear and understand.

   Claire dropped her hands, calmly waiting for him to take up his turn in the conversation. If she understood the innate complexity of having a deaf student in a music class she gave no clue, continuing to regard her new instructor with steady expectation. He returned that favor. Then he quickly turned and retreated to the front of the class, apparently deciding to pursue this puzzle another time.

   I breathed a sigh of relief and gave Claire a quick, reassuring smile before walking over to retrieve a chair from the corner of the classroom. As was customary for Sign language interpreters, I positioned myself up front, facing my client and to the left of the instructor. The better for me to hear; the better for the client to see. The professor stood quietly behind his podium. I could still feel the heat of his attention but he made no notice of my being in “his space” and didn’t challenge me. I sat without further incident

   This was the beginning of a new semester at the community college but it was not the first time I had interpreted for Claire. She was in year eight of what should have been a two-year degree program, but Claire’s academic path had other considerations not imposed upon the “typical” community college student. First, of course, was her disability, which slowed down the “normal” communication process. Her pace was further dictated by her husband, the designated leader of her traditional Greek family, who advised her to take “just one class” per semester so as not to interfere with her duties at home. 

   The professor was adjusted the position of his podium, occasionally looking up to survey his small kingdom of a classroom. His young subjects were seated behind four neat rows of electronic pianos and music stands. Fluorescent ceiling lights focused on the students and their instruments, casting a sheen to both. The musty scent of textbooks and tennis shoes still lingered in the room.

   The professor tapped the podium’s wooden edge with his baton, staring down his young audience until they were still.

   “This is Beginning Piano,” he said with authority and then launched into what seemed to be a well-used speech. As I interpreted for Claire, the professor sent a few nervous glances our way but for the most part ignored our commotion.

   Behind her keyboard, Claire sat perfectly still. She looked young for a woman with two children, her youthful appearance accentuated by round wire-rimmed glasses. It was easy to see she was excited about the class; hazel eyes drank in every sign, every expression, eager to take in the professor’s words. When he instructed the students to “Play a C chord,” Claire placed her hands gently on the keys, ready to begin.

   “Begin,” said the professor with a downward wave of his baton.

   “BEGIN,” I signed.

   A variety of sounds suddenly filled the room, some of which I recognized as a C chord; others not. Claire’s was in the latter category, but being unable to hear her mistake she made no attempt to correct it and continued to hold the discordant chord with confidence. The professor heard the off chime and looked around for its source, tilting his head to guide him to the sour note. He approached Claire and bent down to correctly place her hands, then strode back to his place in front of the class—but not before directing a telling gaze my way. ‘This isn’t going to work,’ his eyes implied.

   He raised his baton to cue a second attempt. Challenged now, I quickly gained Claire’s attention and signed “AGAIN,” my right hand moving up and over in a half-circle arc to land in the waiting palm of my left. I breathed a sigh of relief when she got it this time and won the chance to continue.

   We went to class twice a week; Claire always eager; the professor always wary. The musical ingredient was the obvious wrench in the works. Every class I tried a different interpreting technique to better—and more quickly—convey the message. No doubt the normal lag time associated with interpreting from one language to another was made more pronounced by the addition of music. As the class progressed from notes to chords, phrases to songs, Claire’s contribution was always a beat behind. The class would begin…and then Claire. The song would end…and then Claire. The giggles from her hearing classmates, not to mention a few copycats adding their own trailing notes, only fueled the professor’s growing disapproval.

   Her first exam didn’t go well. In a room with just Claire and me, the professor and a piano, her mid-term attempt was classically imperfect. The professor looked slightly smug behind his normal reserve. I was disappointed—more so than I’d been hired to be. As an interpreter I’ve been conditioned to be the anonymous third party, present to communicate, not to intervene or even want to. But as I heard the discordant chords crying from the keyboard I realized I was as committed as Claire. I’d been chosen for the assignment because I could also play piano; my supervisor felt my insider’s knowledge would help to bridge the gap for this unusual situation, but with this blatant failure at first attempt I knew I needed to do more.

   I obtained permission from my supervisor to also tutor Claire and made an unscheduled appearance at her next practice session. We met at one of the small rooms next to the main classroom, each one containing an upright piano and only enough space to encourage attention. She was pleased but puzzled to see me. I explained I was now assigned to coach as well as interpret her lessons, but first I needed to know something. 

   “CLAIRE,” I signed, using my fingers to spell her name, “WHY YOU WANT LEARN PLAY-PIANO?”

   She blushed a little. “MY FAMILY LOVE MUSIC,” she explained. She signed “everyone” with emphasis, giving me a clue as to how important it was for her to feel included among her otherwise hearing family.

   She went on to describe the various instruments she’d seen her family play. Her husband played the guitar, her sister the flute and her young daughter the violin. Then her eyes shone even more brightly as she paraded her fingers up and down an imaginary keyboard, swaying her body side to side for added effect.

   “Who plays the piano?” I signed, raising my brows to form the question.

   “No one, but I’ve seen others play and I think it’s very pretty.” Her hands moved quickly, confidently.

   “Do you have a piano?” I asked.

   “Oh yes. It’s from my sister. I want the kids to learn.”

   I still wasn’t convinced.  “But Claire, how will you do it?  I mean, you can’t hear the notes…”

   Claire became very serious, her chin rising in a stubborn pose. “I just want to play one song, a Christmas song, that’s all. I know I can do it and then I’ll play it for my family at Christmas. It will be pretty,” her hands insisted.

   We stood for a moment regarding each other.

   “Okay,” I agreed. “We can learn a song. I know how to play the piano and could help you practice if you like.” Claire eagerly nodded, the universal signs for YES.

   I first explained the inner workings of the keyboard; something the professor didn’t need to do with his hearing students. We lifted the lid on the upright and peered into the dim interior filled with tightly wound strings and soft pads that moved at the strike of a key.

   “The pad hits the string,” I signed. “It’s like a bell; it makes a sound.”

   She looked confused so I brought her attention back to the sheet music propped on the mantel. “See that C note?”

   She nodded, blushing again as she remembered the professor’s correction of her hands. I pressed the key. She leaned over the top to watch the pad move and tap the string. She looked at me expectantly. I nodded and pointed towards my ear. 

   She looked again to study the long parade of strings and then back at me. “Why are there so many?”

   “They all have different sounds.” I searched my mental library of signs to think of a visual match. “The higher notes,” I ventured, gesturing to the keys on the right side of the keyboard, “the ‘happier’ the sound.” I hoped my “happy” expression was convincing. “The lower notes have a deeper sound. When you play the music,” I signed, pointing to her sheet music and the jumping array of notes on the page, “the sounds are different and we hear…” I finished the sentence by moving my hands up and down and away from each other, dancing in the air for her. She slowly nodded, still not quite understanding, but willing to accept the explanation for the moment.

   That little discussion took almost all of our lesson time and much of my imagination, interpreting or otherwise, but I was confident in our beginning.  

   “Time’s up,” I signed, pointing to my watch. “We’ll do this again on Thursday.”

   Many Tuesdays and Thursdays followed. Outside the leaves changed their tune from green to gold to copper brown; inside I tried to paint the picture of music for Claire.

   For timing, I sat on the bench beside her and gently tapped my foot to hers, serving as a human metronome as I signaled the inherent rhythm of the music. The strange italicized words on the page were a mystery to her so we increased her vocabulary. “Presto” meant “PLAY-PIANO FAST,” “Andante” meant “PLAY-PIANO SLOW.” “Pianissimo” meant “PLAY-PIANO GENTLE.”

   I taught her to memorize the songs, just as her eyes had memorized signs when she was young. A deaf child knows when her name is being “called,” sees the shape of it even before she learns the fingerspelled letters. So for Claire I guided her hands to memorize the shape of the music. It had to “feel” right, because sound was going to be of no benefit for us. Repetition was our religion. I lost count of how many times I signed “AGAIN,” my right hand memorizing its own path as it moved up and over in a small arc to meet my left hand’s waiting palm. When she hit a wrong note I tapped her shoulder, alerting her to the error that could not be heard. She would then begin again at the measure before and continue through until either I interrupted her or she completed the verse. As the semester wore on she completed the verse more often.

   She chose a Christmas carol, ironically Silent Night to be her one and only performance for both family and professor. We practiced it often until I heard the famous tune continually—though she, of course, was spared the mental reruns. 

   One noteworthy error, easily corrected, happened one afternoon when Claire proceeded to practice her lesson only in the range above middle C. I asked her why, preferring to hear the reason before attempting a correction. She grinned, “I want to play only happy notes.” I nodded, remembering my ‘happy notes’ version of music theory. I eventually convinced her that all the notes were equally important and from then on I avoided emotional equivalents to sound descriptions, letting the visual examples carry the message.

   In class Claire’s improvement was evident but still behind her peers’ musical achievements. Hers was still the remaining note—but now it was the right one and the other students had thankfully lost interest for performing in the round.

   The professor rarely came around to us now. In the beginning he had occasionally approached Claire, using frustrated and hurried motions to correct her errors, even standing next to her keyboard waving his baton to impress a notion of timing. But after a few weeks of apparent failure to fix the problem he stopped acknowledging her altogether; practicing the child’s remedy of making something bad “disappear” by simply ignoring it. Claire’s excitement never varied throughout the declining stages of his instruction. She remained consistent with her attendance and effort, if not her musical accuracy.

   One time he did express a moment’s interest. “Could she ever hear?” he asked me. I interpreted the question for Claire who shook her head “NO” and went on to explain that her mother had contracted rheumatic fever during pregnancy. Hearing tests done when Claire was a still a toddler discovered that deafness was the reason for her inattentive behavior. But the professor had stopped listening after she’d signed, “NO,” dejectedly heading back to the safety of his podium. When Claire saw his interest had been only fleeting she returned her hands to the keys and awaited his next instruction, determined to simply keep going with or without him. 

   The final exam landed on a chill winter’s day under an otherwise sunny sky. Winter coats were dusted off from their summer captivity and donned in eagerness of the arriving Christmas holiday. Claire and I already knew the required testing arena and the strict rules that were meant to impose fairness and objectivity. She would be on her own. I was allowed to be there only as her interpreter, leaving my tutoring hat at home.

   Claire arrived on time, her hair slightly mussed from the winter wind. She removed her coat to reveal a modest green velvet dress with white collar and sleeves. She greeted the professor with her usual quiet smile and then paused expectantly, waiting to be told to take her seat and begin.

   The professor gestured toward the piano with a slight bow, intent on extending the dignity of the situation despite his misgivings. Looking towards me he asked, “What song shall she play?” 

   I knew the answer, of course, but resisted answering for Claire, and signed the question to her.

   She nodded and signed, “SILENT NIGHT,” her hands making a graceful path in the air. The professor’s hands rose and for a moment I thought he was going to try the signs on, just to see how they played, but then he changed his mind and sent his hands deep into his pockets instead.

   “Fine,” he said and nodded, waiting for her to begin. I returned to my place a pace back from Claire while she took her seat at the piano. The sudden quiet in the room, so normal for Claire, added to my nervousness, but she seemed calm as her fingers found the keys they’d practiced to remember. 

   She began, and the familiar tune of Silent Night filled the small room.

   I wish she could have heard it. It was perfect. Each note a confirmation of her desire to do something so many had told her she couldn’t doThough no words accompanied the notes, my memory filled in the missing lyrics just as her hands filled in the silence. “Silent night, Holy night. All is calm, all is bright…

   Finally the last ringing tone faded away, the effect guided by a slow release of her hands from the keys, foot from the pedal.

   She turned towards me, a questioning expression on her face. I smiled and nodded, but only slightly, not wanting to delay her gaze from the professor. He was staring at her in amazement.

   “Why…that’s incredible!” He looked at me and repeated, “That’s incredible!”

   And then back to Claire. “My dear, that was excellent. I wouldn’t have believed it…” His voice faded away as smoothly as her final note.  Then he brightened and turned towards me. “I wonder…could she play it for me again?”

   He studied my hands as they signed “AGAIN” and then turned back to Claire.  Awkwardly his right hand moved up and over in a small half-circle arc to land in the middle of his left palm. “AGAIN.” The professor’s first sign.

   She beamed, and turned back to the piano to repeat her song.

   As Silent Night once again filled the room I quietly surveyed the scene: Claire, the piano, and the professor.  All is calm…all is bright….

   Claire was right, I decided.  It really was very pretty. 

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