UNION, NJ — Singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey’s talent and love of music have taken her on international tours, to the finals of the television show “America’s Got Talent” and, most recently, onto the stage at Kean University — even though she cannot hear the music she performs.
The jazz and pop vocalist, who lost her hearing at the age of 18, performed at Kean’s Enlow Recital Hall on Feb. 22 with support from several American Sign Language students from Kean.
In advance of her concert, Harvey led a workshop for students in Kean’s School of Communication Disorders and Deafness.
“It’s lovely for me to be here with you guys today and have an honest conversation about being different and experiencing music in different ways,” she said.
Harvey lost her hearing to a connective tissue disorder while a college freshman majoring in music in Colorado. She feared she would have to give up music and was repeatedly that her deafness prohibited her from being a musician.
Harvey decided that, despite her new circumstances, she would learn how to sing again.
“They said I can’t be a good musician and be deaf,” she said. “I thought, ‘Ok, challenge accepted.’”
Encouraged by her father, she used an electronic guitar tuner that displays musical notes to reteach herself how to play guitar and sing.
Harvey told Kean students that she performs without shoes so that she can feel the different vibrations and aural textures coming from her band’s instruments. She spends hours learning and perfecting each song, and relies on visual cues from her band to stay on track during a performance.
“The journey on my path to feel music has been difficult,” she said. “Every day, I work on my speech and my tongue placement.”
Harvey demonstrated her technique to the students by bringing them onstage, where they placed their hands on a grand piano to feel the different sensations generated by soft and loud music.
“You can almost see a story in music. Different parts feel so incredibly different,” she said, as the students laid their hands on the piano, feeling the vibrations. “As an interpreter who is preparing for a show, you can prepare a plan for how best to tell that story.”
It was Harvey’s friend Eric Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, who encouraged her to audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
“I don’t have a deep desire to have people stare at me, and I don’t have a limelight obsession,” Harvey told the students. “I just wanted to encourage people and show a different side of what disability looks like. We’re all battling something, trying to get past some kind of barrier.”
She faced another barrier when the producers of “America’s Got Talent” initially refused her request to bring a sign language interpreter on stage with her. Harvey stood her ground.
“I never want people to be ashamed to say they need help,” she said.
Judge Simon Cowell, known for his sometimes scathing critiques, was so moved by Harvey’s performance that he pushed the “golden buzzer,” sending Harvey straight to the finals.
But it wasn’t the fairytale ending some might imagine.
“People said I leveraged my disability for monetary gain,” Harvey said. “They said I got a pity vote, or that I was too talented and couldn’t possibly be deaf. I knew going in it was going to be tough, but I started a conversation.”
Harvey said her “AGT” audition video has been viewed more than 500 million times. She has recorded four albums and has written a book, “Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound.”
She has continued to push for ASL interpreters and closed captioning at concerts, so that people of all auditory stripes can enjoy the performances.
At her Kean concert, assisted listening devices were available, and an interpreter was provided.
“Even if you can’t hear, there are opportunities to experience music in different ways,” Harvey said. “I’m starting a discussion about sign language in music and how important it is. The closed captions are helpful for people who don’t know sign language or who are just learning English. My goal is to continue to advocate that music is for everyone.”
“Listening to her story and hearing everything she said was really eye opening and inspirational,” said Kean student Jessica Betines after Harvey’s workshop. “I think it’s really important that us, as young student clinicians, get as much exposure as we possibly can and knowledge from different perspectives, whether it be other professors or speech language pathologists but also people like Mandy. People who have been on the other side and who have different individual experiences. Learning from these people will really build a strong foundation for us and help us be even better once we enter the field.”
Two Kean students performed a song with Harvey, in ASL, at the Feb. 22 concert: Sierra James of Fords, a junior psychology major and ASL minor; and Atiya Gladden of North Brunswick, a junior majoring in criminal justice with a minor in ASL.