Colorado jazz singer hits the right notes, even though she can’t hear them
The Saturday night crowd at Dazzle is overflowing and noisy. The pretty young woman, who looks barely out of her teens, takes the stage at the local jazz hot spot and begins to sing. That’s when the magic happens.
From the first note, Mandy Harvey tames her audience into stunned appreciation as she glides pitch-perfect from breathy jazz standard to growling blues. She is never still, clapping and twirling, keeping time while the saxophonist, the bass player, the pianist lay down their solo improvisations. When it is her turn she jumps in seamlessly, never missing a beat or note.
At show’s end the audience is on its feet. Some know the secret. Harvey has not heard any of it — not the applause, not the talent of the musicians who shared the stage, not her own incredible voice.
At 27, this rising star in the jazz world is completely deaf.
She sings from memory, from a time when she could hear — a phenomenon in which her brain is able to summon music she once sang or notes she saw and then commands the muscles controlling her vocal chords to repeat the past. The notes are still there.
She just doesn’t hear them anymore.
She can’t really explain it, nor does she dwell on the mystery of it all. “I honestly try not to think about it. It is an odd feeling to sing without sound, so I try to not focus on it and instead just let my mind loose to focus on enjoying the song,” she says.
The soundtrack of Harvey’s life went silent for good eight years ago when she was a freshman music education student at Colorado State University.
From the time she was little, a series of bacterial ear infections ate away at her eardrum. Through childhood she never passed a school hearing test. Doctors warned her parents that Mandy’s hearing would probably always be impaired, and that she would eventually lose all hearing in middle age.
“It was like this monster coming I could not escape,” she says.
Still, it could not stop her love of music. She began singing at 4 and joined every choir she could find as she moved into adolescence. Money was always tight. As a child growing up first in Florida and then Colorado, her father was a minister, her mother a teacher. Harvey worked odd jobs, including scrubbing toilets at the church, to pay for vocal music lessons.
She learned to cope, mastering lip reading early — a benefit when it came to stockpiling forbidden information. “My siblings used to use me as a spy to find out what they were getting for Christmas,” she remembers.
When she was a senior in high school she dislocated her knee. It is now thought that the stress and medication from multiple surgeries may have hastened her hearing loss. In her first semester of college, she says, she tried to follow her psychology instructor’s words from five rows back in the lecture hall. “I couldn’t hear her at all. I moved up to the front row and still couldn’t hear her,” she says.
She called her mother in a panic. “Mom, I think it’s getting worse,” she wailed. A doctor confirmed her hearing was waning quickly, dropping 30 decibels in just a few months. That’s when she got her first hearing aid. But a week later she did not hear a bicyclist approaching and he crashed into her, crushing the device.
In her second semester, she was in a music theory class waiting for dictation to begin. She kept thinking the professor would start. Soon she realized he was already finished. Harvey ran from the classroom weeping and never went back. “That was the day the music was done,” she says, her voice still catching years later.
She locked herself in her dorm room for two weeks. Valerie Harvey was helpless against her daughter’s despair. She would call Mandy four or five times a day to check on her.
Harvey willed herself to finish the semester — without music classes — before dropping out of school. She asked her father, “Why would God give me a gift only to take it away?” He had no answer except to say there must be a different path ahead for her.
“I let myself mourn for a year,” she remembers, slowly emerging from depression and building a new plan to get an early-education degree. She reluctantly joined the deaf social culture and soon began to embrace it.
Then one day in 2008, her father, who had always shared her love of music, asked her to learn a song and sing it as he played guitar. “I thought he was nuts,” she says. Or maybe in denial. Didn’t he realize she couldn’t sing anymore?
She gave it a shot. She would see a note and try to sing it. A friend would find the note on the piano and help her adjust her pitch. To her surprise, she hit it more often than not. When she sang for her father, it was his turn to cry. “Was it really that bad?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “It was right on.”
He made a recording, which Harvey took to Cynthia Vaughn, her former vocal coach. Skeptical at first, Vaughn was floored when Harvey began to sing. “How did you do that?” Vaughn asked, marveling that Harvey’s pitch was better than most of her hearing students.
Harvey, who once shunned performing solo, decided to go all in. On a whim, she signed up for an open-mic night at a Fort Collins club. “I said, screw it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? If I sound awful I’ll never know,” she joked.
She sang “My Funny Valentine” to the six people in the audience, clutching the side of the piano in terror. “I opened my mouth and didn’t think.” Management asked her back.
Soon it was a regular gig and people started to take note. She was featured in jazz publications and local news media. She made her first CD just to prove she could and in the years that followed made two more — her third released just before Christmas. She has been invited to perform at the Kennedy Center three times.
She finds the tempo by feeling the vibrations in the floor. If she is slightly off key — which is rare — the pianist will subtly raise his hand up or down to get her back in tune. A touch to the top of the head means, “From the top.”
She never lets on to her audience that she is deaf, although she signs the lyrics as she sings. She is adamant she not be known as the deaf jazz singer. She is instead the jazz singer who happens to be deaf.
There is, of course, lingering grief. She misses listening to music, both hers and others. She married three years ago and has never heard her husband’s voice. “When I have kids I’ll never hear them say, ‘I love you.’”
“I understand that my story opens doors and gives people hope, but for me it’s still a wound that I am working to heal. I don’t want to be known for my disability,” she says, adding that she is an ambassador to the advocacy group No Barriers.
“If you go and market yourself as a freak show and you’re not good, they don’t come back. I want them to come back.”
Harvey knows it could all suddenly end.
“I don’t know where this is all going.... I could stop remembering, stop being able to sing. But for now I am just glad music is still part of my life.”
For her, the song is still unfinished.
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