Mandy Harvey’s silent victory

When Mandy Harvey lost her hearing she thought her dream of a music career was over. But deafness proved to be the start of a journey which has seen her grow in strength and blossom as a singer.

Imagine standing on stage with a band and singing, if you couldn’t hear. How would you know if you were hitting the right notes or if you were in time with the music? Would you have the courage to trust yourself and your abilities? Deaf singer Mandy Harvey does. For her singing is truly intuitive. She focuses on what she feels instead of what she thinks.

But it wasn’t always like this. When Mandy performed for the first time after losing her hearing she literally gripped the piano and dug her bare feet into the floor to sense the music. Over time, as her confidence and self-awareness grew, she let go of the piano, stood up straight and let go.

And the result is remarkable. It’s not a novelty or a gimmick. Her pitch is perfect, she’s in time with her musicians. She never misses a beat or a note. It’s quite possible for audiences to be oblivious to the fact that the performer on stage cannot hear herself. It takes huge courage to do this – courage Mandy only found after she had “mourned the loss” of who she was and came back stronger and wiser.

But how does she do it? It all starts with the note C. Mandy uses a visual tuner to check she has found C and the rest follows. She explains: “C is my note, when I was younger I could always find it in my mind. If I can find C, I can modulate to my starting notes and get to where I need to go.”

Mandy explains how She sings 

While Mandy’s approach is instinctive it is only possible because of the wealth of knowledge she built up before losing her hearing. Mandy grew up singing – at home, in choirs and on stage in musicals. She loved jazz, doo wop and performers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Blossom Dearie. In high school in Colorado she was named top female vocalist at her graduation. She was so hungry for knowledge she cleaned toilets to fund private tuition.

“Muscle memory is a huge reason why I can sing. I had done so much theory and sung so much before I lost my hearing that I know the feeling when I am singing. I know the feeling if I am singing loudly or softly, if I am too breathy.” 

But her early talent was coupled with shyness and severe performance anxiety. For this reason she never dreamed of performing, her heart was set on becoming a choir director. She was studying Vocal Music Education at Colorado State University when she lost her hearing as a result of a connective tissue disorder.

At the age of 18 Mandy dropped out of college and life. It was a struggle to even get out of bed but Mandy’s family and friends rallied around her. She studied American Sign Language (ASL) and re-evaluated her priorities.
“Eventually I made a slow, painful climb out of a really dark place and decided I was taking it back. I can’t tell you the emotion that was behind the day when I decided to I was going to go outside and see the day and choose not to be upset about my hearing.”

“Eventually I made a slow, painful climb out of a really dark place and decided I was taking it back. I can’t tell you the emotion that was behind the day when I decided to I was going to go outside and see the day and choose not to be upset about my hearing.”

“Eventually I made a slow, painful climb out of a really dark place and decided I was taking it back. I can’t tell you the emotion that was behind the day when I decided to I was going to go outside and see the day and choose not to be upset about my hearing.”

She was contemplating a career as a marine biologist or a history teacher when her former college music professor Cynthia Vaughn encouraged her to sing at a bistro in Fort Collins.

“I thought it was crazy but I didn’t want to disappoint her. I thought ‘What is the worst that could happen? I have lost my hearing, what could be worse than that?’. I sang My Funny Valentine and I was astonished – they asked me to come back. They kept asking me back week after week. I had never had any intention of becoming a performer. I didn’t like having people watch me, and I was always wondering if I was any good.”

But she was good, and her confidence blossomed. “We convince ourselves what is and isn’t possible and get hung up on what we can and can’t do. You can psyche yourself out and say ‘I never sing it the way I want to.’ I don’t psyche myself out so much anymore so I have actually found my vocal range has lengthened.”

Songwriting, something she was previously too self-conscious to seriously pursue, has also proved a source of freedom. “I found writing was a beautiful way to express myself. I put a little bit of myself and my story in a song and it ended up being one of the biggest things therapy-wise to move out of my depression.”

These days she is constantly writing. “Sometimes you write a song and it is just dumb,” she laughs. “I have written dozens and dozens of songs. I just have fun with it. For me writing is a team effort. I create an idea and record it on my phone and send it to someone who can chart it out.

They’re not changing the song. Good, bad or ugly they leave it how it is but I need to know what I sang so that I can finish it or grow from it. Even when something is horrible I keep it anyway because it was expressing something at that moment and later I might use it or a piece of it in something else.”

Since those early days performing in a tiny bistro, Mandy’s career has steadily gained momentum. In 2011, she won VSA’s Top Young Soloist Award and realised a personal dream by performing at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC (and has now performed there four times). She has released three albums – her latest is All of Me a mix of jazz standards and her own compositions. A fourth album This Time is due for release later this year and features all her own songs.

Music is her life, and she works tirelessly at it, fearing that what she can do today, might not be possible tomorrow. She performs vocal and breath exercises every day, using a visual tuner to make sure she is singing accurately.
“I never feel sure-footed on what tomorrow is going to bring. I am just eager to learn and to grow.”

Mandy on not being able to imitate singers 

She does dream though of performing in Europe and at the Sydney Opera House – where she sang as a high school student. And while she is constantly pushing herself forward, she has in many ways already achieved what she wanted most – to dedicate her life to music. It’s just that her path turned out to be different to the one she initially pictured.

Mandy on her proudest achievements

“I think my proudest achievement was the first concert that I did where I had my shoes off and I did the whole concert without holding on to the piano. I had a pianist, a bassist, a drummer and a saxophone player around me all mucking up the vibrations on the floor. It was strenuous during rehearsals but it proved really easy, really fast because I found I could really feel the rhythm through the floor.”

“I never anticipated performing and never, ever wanted to perform. But I wanted to be involved with music. I found that instead of doing education I had to shift focus and change my dream. But it is okay to change your dream and modify as you go along and take one step at a time.”

Her advice to other singers is to stop being so critical of themselves. “I found so much freedom after losing my hearing because I could no longer judge myself and tell myself I could have done it better. It is important to truly get out of your head and enjoy the fact you are doing music. Pay attention to the words you are singing and make sure they mean something and that is from the heart.”

While her hearing loss was traumatic, she takes a lot of positives from the experience.
“It’s changed my personality. When you have to rebuild yourself you don’t have to put in all the pieces you didn’t like before – the sad, overly-quiet person who wanted to fade into the background and become part of the wallpaper kind of disappeared. I’m okay with myself. If it took all of that to happen for me to become a happy person that it was all worth it.”

Butterfly Kisses & Get Well Wishes – Mandy Harvey 

Mandy Harvey – Try (Live) 

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iSing founder Line, is passionate about creating a place where singers can gain knowledge, skills, advice and support. Something she wishes she had when she first started. In her private practice she helps pro and semipro singers, artists and voice teachers with their voice, performance, mindset and teacher training. Her speciality areas include Performing Arts Medicine, anatomy, health, technique and mindset. She pulls on a wide range of qualifications, experiences and interests to assist her clients to build and develop the knowledge and skills they require for their craft. She is a member of the BVA, PAVA, PAMA, is an MU she.grows.X mentor and Education Section committee member and Advisor to Vocology In Practice, and a BAST singing teacher trainer.