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The passionate listener

Evelyn Glennie is standing next to an upright xylophone and leaning against a brick stone wall. She is laughing.
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Solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s talent has flourished despite her extremely restricted hearing.

Evelyn Glennie usually plays music barefoot. When she performs on stage, she perceives the sounds using almost all her senses: she feels the vibrations. She sees the chords of the violin hum when she plays with an orchestra. She sees the skin of the drums throb and the metal of the cymbals shake when she hits them. But she doesn’t hear the sounds the instruments make. This exceptional musician is almost completely deaf. As a result of damage to her auditory nerve, her hearing slowly but surely began to recede from noises, voices and music. At the time, Evelyn Glennie was eight years old. By the age of 12, her sense of hearing had practically disappeared. But her dream of music remained unbroken.

Evelyn Glennie learned to lip-read. She took drum lessons and wanted to become a percussionist. When she applied to the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was first rejected. However, the latter institution eventually accepted her: her talent more than made up for her apparent handicap.

To this day, the Scot’s career is unparalleled. She has worked with the Icelandic musician Björk, performed at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, received two Grammys and was ennobled to dame by the Queen. She owns over 2,000 percussion instruments which are to be included in the Evelyn Glennie Archive Collection – a project she and her team are currently working on. Moreover, Glennie intends to open a centre dedicated to the topic of hearing with respect to art, education and medicine. She has appeared at events as a speaker, written two books, and continues to tour the world for concerts after more than 30 years in the music business. In this interview, she looks back on her musical beginnings, speaks about having faith in oneself and reveals the meaning of true listening.

Solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie leans on her xylophone.

As the world’s first full-time solo percussionist, you have basically invented a job based on your passion. How and when did you know that this is the only thing you want to do?

I decided at 15 that I would study music full time and become a professional musician. It was crystal clear to me that, once I decided, I was going to devote myself to being a solo percussionist. I enjoyed playing solos in school and community concerts, so I was determined to take this as far as possible. Little did I know that there were no other full-time solo percussionists in the world. So it was a lonely journey ahead, but one with razor focus and determination.

Where did you find the strength to create this new position?

It came from within. I was so busy creating and executing action plans – such as having a repertoire of original work – that I didn’t have time to think of anything else. I had to be my own teacher, logistics manager and business person, and learn from literally everyone and every circumstance I found myself in.

What is your advice on getting to know one’s vocation and talents, then nurturing them?

Experience as much as you can across many disciplines, even if it’s uncomfortable. You never know what seed may be planted, who you may meet or what conversation might allow for something to grow. Once you feel connected to something, take it as far as you can in a way that makes you feel positive and productive. Then, notice how those good feelings transfer to other parts of your life. Things need time to develop, so practicing patience is an important ingredient to embracing a calling.

You have won two Grammys and shared stages with the world’s best musicians and orchestras. Despite all that, do you sometimes have self-doubt?

Seldom. If I believe I am not the right person for a project, then I say so. It is important for me to push my boundaries and get out of my comfort zone, but that does not create a feeling of self-doubt. It actually pushes me to achieve more. I sometimes feel unmotivated – this can happen after working on a really active or intense project. In this case, I just go with the flow of my feelings and do not force anything. I always know the inspiration will return in its own good time.

Evelyn Glennie is playing a huge upright xylophone outside on a sunny day.

In general, you seem to be a person who only listens to her gut feelings. For example, you never stopped experimenting with instruments on stage, even when critics weren’t keen on your approach to classical music.

No matter what we do, there will be people who appreciate your efforts and others who do not. That’s life and I can’t control that. So I waste no energy trying to make one thing or another happen. I can only go with what feels right at the time and always try my best.

Do you believe that people nowadays still listen carefully to each other? To put it differently: What is real listening actually about?

Listening does not mean responding only to sound, or listening to something in particular, but instead simply being present and observing the situation you are in. I’m not referring to any kind of religion or Zen; I’m referring to our own decision of either engaging in the act of listening or not. I am deaf and I can still listen. Hearing is a medical condition whereas listening is an act that we decide to participate in. Also, listening to one’s self will put you in a better position to listen to another; rather like putting on your own oxygen mask first on an aeroplane before helping those next to you. What feels disturbing is the speed of life and how so many things grab our attention minute by minute. That has impacted people’s well-being, and not only their ability but capacity and energy to listen.

How do you personally find the energy to listen? Especially because you are listening with your whole body.

It takes me a long time to digest a sound and make sense of it. The patience required has helped me appreciate time and space and to accept that everything has its own natural journey. I view sound as I do food: I don’t eat 24/7 and I don’t feed my body with sound 24/7 either. I don’t listen to music for enjoyment when I’ve spent all day playing music – that’s overload and it kills the appetite to progress over the long term. I actually do a “sound spring cleaning” in my home, office and immediate environment to keep a balance of the vibration going through me.