3 Mar 2013

The Art of Being Blind Part 3 - Insight through Sound

‘If the eyes are the window to the soul, the voice is its true reflection.’

When I meet a person for the first time, I find that all my senses jump to attention. With a calm exterior and a slight sense of internal panic, I begin tracking clues in search of verbal body language, my blue eyes pretending to offer eye contact.

I often dive in and instigate a hand-shake, to both men and women, which may strike others as a little eager on my part – but my hidden agenda is to gather a tactile clue about their personality: is this a friendly and warm handshake or a guarded and dismissive flip of the wrist?

I do not judge people by their appearance, by their fashion statement, by their preference for make-up and hair style or the colour of their skin – but I must add that all my other senses, especially my hearing, are working overtime to interpret the tone of voice, because, what a person says, or more truthfully, how they say it, is my main clue to their body language (along with that initial hand-shake).

We may have only said ‘Hello’ in this exchange, but ears are patrolling the tonal quality of this one word. Believe me, how it is spoken reveals much more than you might think. I am looking for hints that tell me this person is giving off a genuine vibe or a guarded one. The voice appears friendly but then, is that nervous giggle hiding something: that acid-remark masking prejudice?

Many things may be hidden behind a polite smile but as I am not relying on the visual image here, my ears dive straight into judging the timbre, the quality and inflection of the voice.

Imagine a spider in her well spun web who becomes acutely aware with her sensitive receptors when an accidental intruder bounces onto the invisible threads guarding her territory. Well, I too receive information from the ‘vibes’ bouncing towards me, partly, it seems, through hearing, partly by trust and intuition.

Verbal signatures

The first and most powerful clue in recognising a person if you cannot see them is of course their accent. The thicker the style of inflection and pronunciation, the more obvious becomes their verbal-signature. This often stirs up excited Hobbit-like antennae within my hearing, keen to track more clues about their country of origin.

I delight in the melodic lilt of the Irish, the humourous phrases of a New Zealander, the seductive verbal caress of the French, the cautious monotone of a Russian, the passionate excitability of the Spanish!

Accents can also throw me off course, making me steer clear of  those annoying ones (especially if they belong to an ‘ex’ – either his or mine).

When an accent is not obvious, my hearing is eagerly listening for a style of voice, a distinctive tone, the delivery of speech as in a soft voice or a strident one. Some voices can sound so generic that harder listening is required for further gathering of concrete clues, and my lazy eyes must pay more attention: does this person have an unusual body feature like a beard, or do they have long hair or did I notice a glint of glass from a pair of specs? As much detail as possible flashes through the internal brain computer to store for easier recognition later.

But if a sense of heat creeps into my ears or an internal cautionary bell rings, I get the feeling all is not what it seems, making me guard my own body language while my fast and furious calculations try to sum up the person’s mixed messages.  

The clown in the middle

As sighted people use their eyes without thinking, I make similar use of my sense of hearing. When I enter a room my audio antennae seem to almost leap out of my head to pick up instant information within seconds – scanning back and forth through the closed environment.

 This can be overwhelming in a crowded venue as the barrage of sounds flood my senses and my ears strive to filter out all the things I don’t need to hear: the conversation on my left and conversation on my right, the coffee machine frothing with hot cappuccino, the CD player raging with old disco music, the bursts of loud laughter from people in the far corner, chairs scraping over the wooden floor, the clinking of glasses and cutlery, the orders being given to the waitress at the next table, the jingling mass of coins at the counter. That is when I have to harness my hearing and request, Please, ears, I feel like the clown in the middle here. Just listen to the person opposite me, OK?

Interpreting people’s body language while moving through a quick-paced, multi-sensory environment is not only challenging but exhausting! Imagine if your eyeballs had to travel along the ground with your feet to see where they were going or your eyes were being flashed every few seconds with bright lights as you are trying to drive a car or read a book. That is the equivalent of the effect of intrusive noise on my ears.

To filter the unwanted barrage of information as I tap my way down a busy city street (or even a quiet one) demands so much concentration, that no other thoughts are allowed to pester me if they do not relate to the very task at hand. So when a friend or loved one guides me, even though we have to move and concentrate as one, I can relax and enjoy the sound experience much more. 

Music to my ears

‘Hello – I’m Harry’ were his introductory words that serendipitous night ten years ago, when I met my partner for the first time. Three little words, nothing flash about them – ah, but it was the way he said them! His tone carried intrigue, warmth, a hint of good humour. His soft delivery of an English accent (especially in the boisterous music venue) made me pay closer attention to other words and their inflection because I too, was born in England and felt curious to know more about him, his music, his possible role in my life as a music producer.

It was his kind, yet slightly naughty giggle as we exchanged business cards that stirred something more than interesting conversation. Unexpected excitement and uncertainty at the same time awakened female intuition that spoke straight to my heart: I’m hearing you, Harry...

Big Ears

In our early musical collaboration days, while Harry and I listened to tracks in his cosy studio, the skilled producer configuring graphs and analysing coloured dots jumping around on his two computer screens, it became very apparent that my ability to listen acutely was an asset to the recording process.

Harry weaved his magic with the music tracks, sliding buttons up and down to make miniscule changes in the mix. Every now and then, he would turn to me and ask, ‘Does that sound better or worse, Big Ears?’
I felt both privileged and nervous to be included in the mixing process. What did little old me know about CD mixing and mastering? Harry had been doing this sort of thing for over thirty years, with over 250 CDs under his Producer’s belt. He was a brave man to ask such a novice assistant but the one thing I did know was what I could hear – and that was my certificate of competency!

This is the way it works in the recording studio. I shut my eyes and hear the smallest of details: an odd note, a vocal tone out of place, a subtle tap of a foot caught on the recording – the harder I listen, the deeper I can go into the sound. As Harry studies the kaleidoscope of colours, dots, wavy lines and a myriad of complex patterns on the screens, we both listen to the subtle changes on large studio speakers.

If a little click or some other unwanted sound catches our attention simultaneously, we know there is an error to correct. Sometimes we hear the same thing but at other times, possibly due to auditory exhaustion on Harry’s part, Big Ears is only too happy to pinpoint the glitches, not backing down until they are found on the screen.

There are times when the error is so vague to the sighted listener that I have to let it go. But at other quality control times, I feel a need to insist he find the tiny error. To Harry’s credit, even though this slows down the mixing process, when he finally locates the faint prickle to my hyper-sensitive ears, harmony is restored in the studio and the listening goes on…

Echo-location – will the real Batman please stand up!

Blind people have been following sound cues to help navigate safely in their environment for centuries. But a new technique, known as echo-location, is so amazing that it has to be heard to be believed.

Dan Kish is a Californian man with blindness, affectionately known as ‘batman’ who has pioneered the human version of echo-location. He has developed a skilled technique in which tongue-clicking is used like high-pitched bat noises to identify objects within his environment, without using any other portable aids.

The YouTube clip of Kish riding a bicycle using only echo-location has caught the attention of the world. A charity for the blind in Glasgow, called Visibility, is now teaching his human sonar technique to young blind children.

The non-profit organization founded by Dan Kish, World Access for the Blind, claims that teaching others to use Echo-location and tongue clicking can create a 360 degree ‘view’ of their surroundings.

To see what blind people can achieve with Echo-location, watch Dan Kish interviewed by Derren Brown:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGMpswJtCdI

(Next post: Exploring one of my most favourite means of seeing)
© 2013 Maribel Steel

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