Young jazz vocalist can’t hear ‘Can’t’
But Mandy, 21, hasn’t always been deaf. For the first 18 years of her young life, she could hear all the music she wanted. She used to be able to hear herself sing.
Now she just feels it. Her memory is incredible and provides her with more than 100 songs she can sing off the top of her head by recollecting how they sound and memorizing their lyrics, tempo and timing.
She has lost her ability to hear but has gained a selfless opportunity to share her voice. She’s gaining speed and success.
She’s thinking positive, on the bright side. But understandably, she wasn’t at first.
Mandy Harvey sings Thursdays at Jay’s Bistro, 135 W. Oak St., in Fort Collins. There is no cover charge. More information: 1-970-482-1876
After being selected as the top female vocalist her senior year at Longmont High School, she auditioned and was instantly accepted in both the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University music education programs. She chose CSU.
“I finally felt like I was getting to where I wanted to be, I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to intern,” Harvey said. “Then three months into it I felt everything slip through the cracks.”
For no apparent reason, within nine months she had completely lost her hearing (110 decibels in each ear) and was dropped from the program.
“It’s nerve damage; there are a lot of theories. But my audiologist just says its nerve damage and permanent,” Harvey said. “There’s nothing really wrong with the structure of my ears. I’ve had several surgeries since I was kid. I’ve had many, many of them. I’ve had hearing issues all my life, but I’ve always been hearing, well, minus chunks of time where my ear drums would stop vibrating or it would get blocked by something and not be able to function, but for the most part, the idea of not being able to hear never popped in my head.”
Harvey’s last performance in the program was at the Freshman Voice Studio Recital. When she finished singing, her classmates gave her deaf applause. She thought she would never sing again.“I can’t say that it’s like dying because I’ve never died, but it’s part of who you are has been taken away,” Harvey said. “It’s something you don’t have any idea on how to deal with, and the severity of my depression, it shocked me, because I’ve never been much of a depressed person. I always try to look at half-full cups, but it pulled me to a place I’ve never been before and a place I’ll try really hard to not go back to.”
She moved back home with her parents and became very distant.
Cynthia Vaughn, her voice coach since Harvey was 15, remembers how hard it was to not be able to reach her.
“Then I remember receiving an e-mail where she said she wanted to start taking singing lessons again,” Vaughn said. “How do you respond to that? I mean, I knew she was deaf. So, I replied, asking her to come see me at my new studio.”
Taking it back
After about one year of not being in any choir or being involved in any music, Harvey, who has participated in music since she was 4, decided the grieving period was over.
“I think I probably got into doing music again to keep my sanity. So I picked up singing again almost in spite of everything. I was like, ‘Fine, you can take this, but I’m taking it back,’ and it’s kind of worked out,” Harvey recalled. “Really, there’s no explanation other than like the grace of God because there’s really no reason why a person can do something I’m doing. I’m not saying I’m superman, but I don’t know any other person in my situation.”
Her situation is by no means typical. She has had to find a whole new way of approaching and participating in music. Instead of audibly hearing the song, she literally feels the vibrations from the instruments or watches the pianist’s hands.
She stands next to an amplifier on the ground or leans against the piano when she performs with a jazz ensemble Thursday nights at Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins.
“Well, first off, they never play something I haven’t already given them, and then I can tell when they change tempo because that’s the strongest part of it. That’s why I pay attention to the bass the most because it keeps me on track,” Harvey said.
Most significantly, she has a team of reputable musicians on her side able and willing to go with the flow.
“They pretty much follow me most of the songs whenever we have a part where the tempo changes. But they wouldn’t change tempo on me without me telling them to. I’m leading, and then they follow and they are just really good musicians. I lucked out big time.”
Lucking out or earning the spot? It’s evident that Harvey had an ear for music and has a passion for singing mixed with advanced musical knowledge.
“She’s an impeccable musician,” Vaughn said. “None of this would’ve happened if she hadn’t first of all been an amazing musician. She lost her hearing and she’s still a musician. So, it’s not like she lost her hearing and then said, ‘Oh, I’m going to sing, I’m going to learn to read music, I’m going to learn some jazz tunes.’ No, that was all already there.”
Her battle has also warranted making an album.
One night while she was singing Smile at Jay’s, Bob and Donna Visocky were in the crowd. The popular song was one their daughter used to sing a lot before she died in a car accident when she was 21. The song brought back memories and was an emotional experience. They were introduced to each other and became familiar with one another’s stories.
“We began talking about life in general and when you’ve been at the bottom you can kind of understand everybody else who has been there too. You don’t have to talk about it to understand what they mean,” Harvey said. “Then we just became like family.”
The Visockys were so impressed with Harvey’s singing ability that they ignited with enthusiasm for her to start recording an album.
She had never thought about it, but her experience had given her courage, so she went for it. After only two days of sessions, totaling less than 16 hours of recording, the album was polished.
“It was a lot easier to do it consecutively instead of going up and listening to it and coming back because I don’t get any benefit from listening to it anyway,” Harvey said. “That’s why I have a vocal coach and a producer. I just get to sit back and sing.”
Vaughn was there to be Harvey’s ears.
“Set up for the recording was very unique. Mandy was in a vocal booth, and I was sitting in the studio trying to be very quiet, and they twisted the piano around so she could see his hands the whole time,” Vaughn said. “She couldn’t see Erik Applegate, but with one headset on that bone behind your ear, she could get the vibration of the bass through the headphone, which was set at almost 90 percent bass.”
The circumstances required that the majority of songs be played straight through.
“Several of the songs we could have kept the first take. Like there was one song, I’ll be seeing you,” Vaughn explained. “There was one take, and when we got to the end and Mandy asked, ‘Should we do another take?’ and everyone, including the engineer, said: ‘No, you’re not touching that. You can’t improve on that.’ She recorded them straight through like a live performance.”
One classic was slightly altered to fit more appropriately. In What a Wonderful World, Mandy made the decision to change the line “I hear babies cry,” to “I see babies cry.”
It just made sense to everyone involved.
Thursdays at Jay’s
Harvey and pianist Sloniker have a secret code. Although it may seem fairly obvious to interpret, it is extremely important when they play together.
Their eye contact is nearly constant. A downward V with the index and middle fingers means down two steps, an arm sweeping up and over means a bridge, and then pointing to the top of the head means top.
For the most part, the evening’s set is planned. All the musicians know to follow Harvey and have read her notes and charts. She and Sloniker, because it is his group of invited musicians, meet every other week to make sure they have the same understanding of desired tempo or when there is an instrumental break.
“But everyone once in a while they’ll go off, or I won’t be paying attention, and I’ll miss my entrance, and then they’ll just keep going and bring me in some other place. Organized chaos for sure,” Harvey said.
The bar is extremely noisy and loud. But that doesn’t matter to Harvey, and her not being able to hear any of it may be helping her.
“One question that I get asked a lot is, ‘Does she sing in tune?’ and the answer I always give is, ‘She sings better in tune than any hearing singer that I know’ because she is getting pure pitch that is not filtered by what you’re hearing,” Vaughn said. “Because she is not intimidated and not judging what she’s hearing. She used to be afraid of high notes. Now she sings high and she’ll sing low. The high notes don’t scare her. In general, she’s a much bolder and confident person because of what she’s been through. But I will honestly say I think she sings better than before.”
Viewing the ability to hear herself sing as a lost advantage is up for debate, but for the most part Mandy considers that lost element refreshing.
“I think I’ve lost most of the ability to be truly afraid of singing. It’s a gratifying experience,” Harvey said. “Even if you’re at a party singing Happy Birthday, you think, ‘Well, I didn’t do that very well or I missed that note,’ and you start analyzing and chopping yourself at the knees, but I can’t do that, so I just go home and sleep.”
She simply is content with seeing people smile and enjoy her voice.
“The beauty of the whole process is now I don’t care about how it finishes. I can see people are happy when they smile or when their head twitches when I make that one sour note,” Harvey said. “When all you see are people with smiles, then you don’t have that worry that you could have, should have or would’ve done something different.”
Harvey’s life is very different from how she used to know it. She originally wanted to be a choir director.
“I guess technically I could probably still pursue, but in its own right, I don’t think I would be doing the best job,” she said. “Because if you can’t hear them, then you can’t really critique them, and you can’t make them better, so it would be letting other people down. It wouldn’t be fair to them.”
Of course, the effect of her hearing loss reaches beyond her music.
She has a hearing dog, Annie, who helps let her know when someone is at the door or when her alarm is ringing. She uses a phone that enables IP-Relay, a voice-assisted calling service.
She has almost completed her Associate in Arts degree and works full time at an arthritis medical clinic.
Her fiance, Greg, is deaf, and they communicate in American Sign Language, in addition to reading each other’s lips.
“When I took my ASL classes at first, when I was in a funk, I was pushed into taking the classes. I was reluctant at first, but then after a month, I got over it and was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome!’ It’s a beautiful language, and it has helped me out immensely,” Harvey said.
Greg has never heard Mandy sing but understands how much music is a part of her life.
“It’s kind of funny because when she’s singing, I can’t hear her, but I can definitely see she’s happy, and that’s really what makes it worth it,” Greg said. He can feel the vibrations, too, but because he has never been able to hear, “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
She’ll sign songs to Greg while singing at Jay’s, but a lot of people don’t realize she’s deaf.
“A lot of people assume that if you are deaf, you automatically lose the ability to speak or sound like a ‘normal’ person, or sound like you did before. I think for the most part my speaking voice has remained the same. I work on it everyday, and I have to be consciously aware of how I sound,” Harvey said. “Once you’ve hit that age where you have solidified your language, I mean, you speak every day, it doesn’t just vanish in a blink of an eye, although that would be really weird and upsetting if it did.”
She pays closer attention to facial expressions, gait and body language. She reads lips extremely well.
“For most of the day you are in silence, but you have all of these memories of all these people’s voices and situations and CDs that you’ve listened to, and it’s so overwhelming and depressing at times. But now that I realize I took it for granted, I try very hard to embrace the other things I can still do and enjoy because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said.
She misses being able to hear her father’s voice. But it still rings in her head.
“I will always remember my dad’s voice. I know his cough.”
There will always be days when she misses listening to music.
“I don’t go to the movies anymore. I don’t go to symphonies. I don’t go to concerts. I have a lot of friends who are in pretty big bands and I don’t go and watch them. It’s too emotional and too hard,” Harvey said.
But for now she is finding peace by performing and putting out her own albums. She and Sloniker are already planning on a second album and a Christmas album.
“It’s just a matter of funds. I’ve already got the songs picked out, the layout picked out, the charts are already done, and so it’s just a matter of doing it,” Harvey said.
If anyone can, she can.