November 2013 witnessed Li Bo and Zhang Yong from Baise City, Guangxi, building from scratch a choir of 9 to 16-year-old children from Lingyun County of Guangxi and Xiamen City of Fujian, and all of them are deaf.
From their hometowns to Beijing, from not speaking to a well-organized chorus, from silence to voice, five years have passed. Respect and equality are what it took for them to bridge the abyss of communication; art and passion, knocking open the door to understanding. When children with deafness start to sing, the world vibrates with a thundering break of silence.
In the evening of August 4, 2018, almost all 1024 seats at the Beijing Concert Hall were taken. A special chorus was about to begin.
The Movement of “One”
The very first note of the movement comes out through a vertical bamboo flute called xiao in Chinese. Its owner, Cai Yayi, is an inheritor of nanyin, one of the most ancient Chinese music genres usually played with string and wind instruments. With that Zhang Yong puts his hand on chén, a new instrument he and his colleague especially designed and patented, ready to go at any moment.
Right at the center of the stage stand a dozen or so children in white T-shirts, with their hands in the back, looking somewhat serious and tense. Off the stage, some of the audience hold their cheeks in both their hands while others look as if they had no idea what to expect.
All of a sudden, the conductor Li Bo, in front of the young choir gestures in sign language. Then, with the baton in one hand, his body jolting up and down, he waves both his hands in the air. Upon this signal a clear voice rises from the stage.
“Emm, ahhh, ohhh…” One after another, the children let out their first utterance. In a winding melody, these unadorned sounds oscillate as if to jolt the people who got used to all kinds of noise in their everyday lives.
Fast drum beats follow, but more enthralling is the chorus. When Li Bo raises his hands, so do the children’s voices. Now the movement is transitioned to a lighter tune and these maestros begin to sway with the music. Here comes the most interesting part of their performance.
He Qingdong, a boy with neatly cropped hair, takes a step forward and starts his rap song with appropriate gestures and confidence. Then, another teammate joins in and their highly rhythmic singing leads a new choral tune behind them.
With smiles in their eyes, the audience begin to roll their heads with the beats, looking as if they had felt that kind of joy, energy, and delightfulness inherent in life itself.
Following “The Break of Silence” and “Playfulness” comes the third and last passage, “Hope,” 9 minutes and 17 seconds into the performance. The melody sounds just like a happy creek that, after a thousand twists and turns, flows into the vast sea. The children’s voices, as pure as rays of warm sunshine, move the audience to tears.
The 12-minute performance soon ended to a long round of applause. After that, all the audience showed their appreciation by giving in unity a big thumb-up to this group of children whom God once muted.
That’s right, they cannot hear the applause, nor can they speak. But it’s these deaf children that made up the Silent Choir, and they have spent five years reaching there. They have succeeded in delivering a choral concert with one after another simple and repetitive “Ah,” “Oh,” and “Pa” between the silent and hearing worlds.
Before an “Ah” was uttered
On its journey from the deep mountains of Guangxi to the Chinese musical shrine, the Silent Choir couldn’t do without the two visionaries.
The choir master is an artist, whom the Pierre Cardin Art Center Paris hailed as the “Best Foreign Artist.” The composer is a Monastic hermit who builds houses atop the mountains and who has won his fame in the Chinese rock’n’roll circle. Five years earlier, these two men found their way from Beijing to a special school in Lingyun County of Guangxi, gathered a group of children who could not speak, and organized them into a not-so-official choir.
Upon their arrival, artist Li Bo and musician Zhang Yong only wanted to sample the voices of these deaf children for their own band. But what they did not expect was that the children were not only uninterested; they refused to cooperate at all. The men tried everything they could think of and two weeks later, they still could not make them utter a sound.
Slowly, they figured out why. Since early childhood, these children had been deeply troubled and constricted by the concept of being “disabled,” so much so that they became self-abased and even somewhat autistic. They didn’t want to make contact with people or trust anyone.
Just when Li Bo and Zhang Yong decided to give up and return to Beijing, the appearance of a little girl turned it around. Five-year-old Yang Weiwei ran up to them and emitted a loud “ah.” “That sound was long and steady. We were dumbfounded. We looked at each other and decided not to leave.” This confident and crisp clear voice turned out to be the beginning of the Silent Choir.
In one whole year, the men did nothing but teach the children to look more positively about themselves. Gradually, the fear of opening the mouth gave way from animated talk and confusion to comprehension, as the instructors were gaining their trust. Only by then did they begin to teach vocalization. At first, these children, who had never tried to utter a word in their lives, did not know where to place their tongues, which seemed too weak for such a task. Even weaker was their perception to the subtleness of sounds.
“When they remembered their tongues they forgot to breathe, and when they remembered to breathe they forgot their vocal cords.” To solve this problem, the men learned sign language, made up new hand gestures, drew similes using body parts, and even instructed with quite a few props. For instance, they would put a little ball into the mouth of a child, ask him or her to hold it and feel how the tongue curled back to form a round cavity. Or an ice cream stick to press down the tongue and guide it to the right position. When the children learned to vocalize at last, they had to identify the parts, that is to make sure that each child sang at the appropriate pitch and use the tuner for correction.
To reach the assigned pitch all at once with precision, the children must look at the tuner and practice for countless times. This is a tedious process, so long that it almost seemed too daunting to carry on. They repeated the same practice day after day, until they acquired muscle memory: A single “ah” sound took them several years! The good thing is that in the fourth year, the choir finally managed to produce a full-fledged musical piece, albeit one minute long. Now the children were able to sing the notes with accuracy and what was once a little sad face also started to beam with sunny joy.
Where There is Vibration, There is Sound
Over the past five years, Li Bo and Zhang Yong have largely stopped doing what they used to do in their careers, spent all their savings, and have turned to everyone they know for help. From their perspective, the Silent Choir exists not to solicit tears and the children work hard not to just offer entertainment—to maintain such innocence, they have rejected all the financial support that would have been intended otherwise.
These five years with the children “can easily give people a wrong idea that we wanted sympathy and help. Actually no, we have attained a lot of things by ourselves. To be with the children in such a beautiful place, we are very happy.”
“Many people said this is a public service project. No, it’s not. It’s an art project. The children are artists themselves because their voices are art. We also draw a lot of strength, inspiration and courage from them, and that includes a rediscovery of why we wanted to do art in the first place.” Li Bo and Zhang Yong always believe that original voices and natural expressions, ones that are full of tension and explosiveness, are precisely the art that they have been seeking for many years—art without boundaries.
To this end, Li Bo also created a series of photographs entitled “March of the Volunteers.” Those pictures show the children dressed like a group of angels, pure and uncontaminated.
Unable to hear, the children nevertheless cast their own voices with force. They try to flap their wings as hard as they can, rediscovering and growing their egos in the voicing process. They also manage to have a dialogue with the greater community in a unique way. Understanding, equality and love arise thereafter.
Their success at the Beijing Concert Hall has planted a seed in children’s hearts. After the performance, 16-year-old Yang Xiaofei in an interview wrote down her words of gratitude to Li Bo and Zhang Yong. She also said that she would strive to “go her own way” and continue to “sing happily” in the future.
Art and love, like rain in the spring, nourish little silent souls to take root and bloom in a world full of sounds.
by Man Wu
transcription Jing Hu
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine