Music and hearing impairment: "Music is an universal language that doesn’t need words"

We asked Mischa Gohlke, musician


Music breaks down boundaries – that’s something the Association "Grenzen sind relativ e.V. - Kultur, Gesellschaft und Inklusion" (English: Boundaries are Subjective - Culture, Society and Inclusion) clearly shows. Initiator and project manager Mischa Gohlke is a professional musician, who has been hearing impaired and nearly deaf since birth. He wants our society to get excited about a holistic approach to inclusion with the help of music.

Photo: Mischa Gohlke; Copyright: Ulrike Schaffer

Mischa Gohlke; © Ulrike Schaffer spoke with Mischa Gohlke about the multi-award winning pilot project "Music Lessons for People with Hearing Impairments" (German: Musikunterricht für Hörgeschädigte) and his radical dream of inclusion.

Mr. Gohlke, how did you come up with the idea for your "Music Lessons for People with Hearing Impairments" project?

Mischa Gohlke: Approximately 14 million people in Germany are hearing impaired. Some might be surprised by the high number. Unfortunately, there is still a common misconception that people are not able to play or make music or only do so in a very limited way based on their hearing impairment. That’s something I fully realized for the first time in 2009 at a summer camp for adolescents with hearing impairments and deafness. Based on my personal experience and my identity as a musician with a hearing impairment nearing deafness, I launched the inclusive pilot project "Music Lessons for People with Hearing Impairments" together with the Rock & Pop Schule Kiel in 2010. In addition, I also advise music schools nationwide on inclusive music lessons and host workshops on a variety of different topics geared towards music teachers, educators, teachers, pupils, and students.

Many people have difficulties picturing music lessons for people with hearing impairments. What do your lessons look like?

Gohlke: On the face of it, the concept of music lessons for people with hearing impairments might sound spectacular and contradictory but this is ultimately about regular music lessons that should be available and accessible to everyone.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a hearing impaired person makes is to project the "normal" processes of playing music and life solely onto their hearing impairment and identify with it. All of us have our own issues and the question always seems to be how we can find a healthy and constructive way to deal with our perceived weaknesses, strengths, frustrations and successes. The perpetual challenge is to recognize the thought patterns that we put on ourselves and that are put upon us, to question and to transform them. We can achieve almost anything with passion, awareness, and consistency. Music is a wonderful mirror of our own personality and the aspects of our relationships with others. We can all learn together and learn from each other. 

People often ask me how they should approach students with hearing impairments. But the question should actually be: how can I get in touch with a person, who is – among other things - hearing impaired? There is no panacea and no one-size-fits-all methods. Generally speaking, it can be helpful to know that many people with hearing impairments read lips, that having a carpet in the room can absorb acoustic noise in a pleasant way and that only one person should speak at a time. Having said that, it’s crucial to continuously enter a relational level that is as non-judgmental and open-minded as possible and to mutually surrender to the diversity of opportunities. This creates an active life.

What’s fascinating is that I keep having moments where I am able to hear almost everything, while at other times, I can hardly make out anything at all. That automatically makes you wonder how perception and reality are actually generated and created. And how our brain works in general – or doesn’t.  

Our perceptions and emotional responses are multisensory; we experience language and music at many different levels and all at once: it affects the eyes, ears, emotions, the way our body feels, our mind, intuition, metaphysical processes and so much more. Everything relates, correlates and runs in parallel.

This is why the discourse with a perceived sensory impairment – such as a hearing impairment for example – results in "holistic multisensory music lessons" that include all senses, perceptions, and feelings and appeal to all people.

Photo: Mischa Gohlke plays the e-guitar on stage; Copyright: Stephan Olbrich

Musician with his heart and soul: Mischa Gohlke; © Stephan Olbrich

How important is music in your life?

Gohlke: Music keeps inspiring new passion, enthusiasm, and love in me. Music is energy, vibration, and access to the mystery of life. At the risk of sounding cliché, music is a universal language that doesn’t need words.

Together with my Mischa Gohlke Band, we interpret songs from music legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix and have now started to increasingly add our own songs that cover a broad range of different music genres. To put them into categories: rock, funk, blues, pop, jazz and experimental music. Musical inclusion is also something that needs to be put into action. Within the context of an inclusion campaign in Belarus, we recently played at the Minsk Philharmonic through the German Embassy, which was an extraordinary experience. Right now we are working on our new EP; a Best of 2013-2016 band film will soon be released and we plan to rock many different stages in Germany and abroad in 2017.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Gohlke: Current public debate primarily reduces "integration" to people with formally recognized disabilities. Even the so-called "disability scene" keeps interpreting and implementing inclusion in a segregated way. Yet inclusion should and must be far more than that. Inclusion is not a special convention but includes the implementation of existing universal human rights. What’s more, we are ALL "disabled". Regardless of whether this is of a physical, mental, social, cultural, emotional, emphatic, financial or/and structural nature. Many barriers are in our minds.

That is why inclusion pertains to all areas that affect our lives in a complex heterogeneous society: social, ecological, economic, educational, cultural, spiritual, global, personal and interpersonal issues can no longer be viewed separately but must – in relation to each other – be seen (and embraced) as a whole.

My dream of inclusion is a radical one. Radical comes from the word radix, meaning the root: well thought-out and implemented inclusion clashes with our performance and growth-oriented consumer society that’s shaped by neoliberalism. Right now, we are champions in - among other things- segregated perception, work and action and are characterized by an elitist, easily digestible charitable culture that glorifies entertainment and celebrity mannerisms. Prejudices, fears, a dubious sense of self-worth as well as our "social realities" still result in people leading an isolated life, thus creating many separating microcosms. In times of "Me First" cultures, ME and YOU should once again make way for a "We Are All Connected" awareness. Diversity needs to be embraced and experienced both on a small and large scale.

Combined with the potential of "a holistic approach to inclusion", this results in a "new relationship culture". Everything relates and correlates. Personal issues and processes, human encounters, our consumer behavior, which is predominantly based on global exploitation, the way we treat nature and so much more.

Ultimately, this is about our awareness, which is expressed in many different kinds of personal, interpersonal and sociopolitical systems and always wants to be transformed. Let’s move towards a paradigm shift!

More about his organization (only in German) at:
Photo: Leonie Höpfner; Copyright: private

© private

Leonie Höpfner
(translated by Elena O'Meara)