5 Questions for... Paul Whittaker

12 April 2018

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra takes its Feel the Music project to Barcelona this spring, where MCO musicians are sharing the world of music with deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the magnificent surroundings of Palau de la Músia Catalana.

Paul Whittaker – inspirational speaker, musician, performer and workshop leader – has played a pivotal role in Feel the Music since its very beginnings. As a deaf musician, Paul has made it his mission to bring music to the lives of deaf children for over 30 years. Paul leads and accompanies MCO musicians taking part in the first part of each Feel the Music project: a school workshop introducing students to a small group of musicians and their instruments. Many of these students have their first – and often transformative – encounter with music in the workshop. This workshop gives them a preview of what they will experience in the second part of the project, when they join the rest of the orchestra onstage in rehearsal.

The MCO spoke with Paul shortly before his trip to Barcelona about the beginnings of Feel the Music, as well as the impact and future of this project.

Paul Whittaker with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, with whom the MCO developed Feel the Music

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra celebrates its 21st birthday this year. It’s been 6 years since we started working on Feel the Music together, so you’ve really become one of our rare "constants": a partner with whom we work closely, for a specific project, several times each year. How has the MCO evolved since your first collaboration with us? In which direction do you see it going in the upcoming years?

It doesn’t feel like 6 years actually, yet during that time we’ve done about 16 Feel the Music projects and each one has been very different – different musicians, different instruments, different languages and different deaf children. Music, however, is a universal language and wherever we’ve gone we’ve seen that emotional and physical impact that music can have on everyone involved.

Obviously, we’ve learned a lot as the project has developed, and grown in confidence. The fact that the MCO wanted the project to continue after the initial Beethoven Journey was so encouraging; it shows how much impact it has on the organisation as a whole, and their commitment to music and deafness. I hope it continues!
Feel the Music students sharing the stage with the MCO in Berlin (2016)

In MCO Learning activities, a huge emphasis is placed on the continuous process of learning together. How and what do participants – students and MCO musicians, but also you – learn from each other in each Feel the Music session?

We have all learned so much from each other during Feel the Music. The musicians themselves have gained so much confidence in working with deaf children, which takes pressure off me. When we started the project I really did feel that it was up to me to make things happen – from answering  questions about why music is vital for deaf people and how they hear it and feel it, to finding ways of supporting and encouraging the MCO players and engaging with the young deaf people we meet. Now the players have their own ideas and are keen to try them out and any fears or worries they may have had have vanished.

It’s important that we review the session at the end of the day and that people are honest about what they felt went well and what maybe didn’t work so well. That enables us all to build up knowledge and experience that we can bring to future projects.

I have learned so much from the MCO musicians over 6 years and we have all learned from – and been challenged by – the deaf children we’ve met and worked with. I’ve been thrilled and amazed by some of the young people we have met and they’ve certainly opened my eyes to what deaf people can achieve.