Dressage and the art of music composition

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Despite becoming one of Singapore’s most decorated sportspeople, deaf Para-dressage rider Laurentia Tan’s access requirements have never been fully met until being introduced to the ‘woofer’ vest. Together with Audiovisiblity, she begins an incredible music journey. Report by Melissa Mostyn

Paralympian Laurentia Tan, pictured with her horse

Laurentia Tan

Ranked No 4 in the world, Laurentia Tan has represented her native Singapore in Para-dressage for ten years. She’s participated in three Paralympic Games: Bejing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 – and three World Equestrian Games (WEG), picking up four bronzes and two silvers along the way. As one of the country’s most decorated sports personalities, she is included in their Sports Hall of Fame.

So when she came an unexpected – and disheartening – seventh in individual freestyle at the September 2018 WEG in Tyron, North Carolina, USA, Tan knew her strategy had to change. That performance contrasted starkly with her silver-winning individual championship test at the same Games – not least, because it was performed in silence.

For too long, Laurentia Tan has had to address a dichotomy of access issues – deaf on one hand; disabled on the other – that rarely converge.

The Paralympian has athetoid cerebral palsy, a mixture of high and low-tone musculature caused by impaired motor co-ordination, and strengthened her back with hippotherapy aged five. Yet her parents moved to the UK from Singapore the year before to give her more opportunities as a deaf person.

Tan’s deaf access issues now precede her disability requirements in individual free-style, the only dressage test set to music; paradoxically, the one she has won the most medals for.

“I can’t hear the music at all,” she laments, “I can’t hear where I am in its timing, never mind if I have more time or less to do a specific movement.”

Recalling her visit to a crestfallen Tan after the WEG freestyle test in Tryon, Ruth Montgomery echoes her words. “She kept saying, ‘I’m deaf, can’t hear the music,’ and how unsettled her horse was.”

In the arena, a sign language interpreter signals when the music starts and ends, but competitive rules prevent them from doing any more. The lack of classification for deafness in the Paralympics further hinders scope for manoeuvre.

Meeting Montgomery at a 40th birthday party in April 2018 was therefore perfect serendipity. Having had to confound prejudices of her own, the successful deaf flautist is ideally placed to work with the equestrienne – and indeed, flew to Tryon to give her support.

“While disability comes in all forms,” she told me, “deafness is the least understood. Do you think so? One composer was surprised that I could speak in music terms, telling him what to do with composition, and even having a debate!”

She’s right. Deafness comes in many forms, with myriad factors shaping the kind of person we become: not just how we acquire deafness, what type and at what age, but also family, education, social circle, workplace, geography, tastes and interests.

Consequently we could have enough residual hearing to enjoy music – perhaps supported by hearing aids, or cochlear implants – or rely on vibrations. Some utilise both, while others plump for signed performance instead.

Audiovisibility capitalises on this by aiming to boost deaf people’s music appreciation via a variety of art forms, disciplines, and cultures. Thus far, the projects delivered have comprised live performance art, dance, textiles, photography, BSL poetry, creative writing, and even refugee true-life stories. Montgomery, again: “The world generally does not quite understand our deafness and our culture, but they know what music is. By putting the two together, it opens up a new perspective.”

A large xylophone is picted with a group of people sitting the other side of the instrument

Laurentia Tan with Evelyn Glennie and the team from Audiovisibility

Recalling their first meeting that April, “Laurentia wanted to improve her relationship with music,” Montgomery says in an email. “Sometimes she rides on her horse to classical music such as Tchaikovsky and Mozart, or digital soundtracks by specialist dressage composers. The whole thing is purely instrumental, with changes to stimulate interest and a variety of set movements.”

“Regardless, she finds it really hard to meet the timings of the soundtrack she is riding to. Currently, her coaches or her parents choose it for her.”

Given the intuitive bond developed over time with all her horses – getting to know their personalities, tempos, styles, likes and dislikes – having to relinquish creative control must be maddening. Yet Tan has tolerated it with grace. “At least I can focus on the horse and its movements.”

With an Arts Council England (ACE) grant, work on a three-month-long research and development project (R&D) began. The objective was to facilitate multifaceted learning through music lessons and practice, collaborative discourse, mock dressage tests, and experimentation with vibrotactile technology.

The Tryon WEG completed, Tan started building her music literacy. An introduction to various styles – from rock to ballet to jazz – enabled her to learn how changes in time signature influence musical flow. Tim Reyland, drummer with the indie band Secret Company, collaborated with Montgomery to teach drumming and piano-playing with written notation.

From a deaf-led perspective, this is a highly effective music teaching method: it utilises beat-heavy sounds like drumming to instil basic awareness of pace and rhythm. Tan was able to pick up quickly and experiment with creating layers in Samba music on the same day, including intro and outro ideas.

Next, Tom Hunt met his deaf client for the first time. The distinguished composer has created original freestyle music for many other celebrated equestrians, including Charlotte Dujardin, who he helped win gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. That he has had to devise Tan’s freestyle music – including the Tryon WEG score – in her absence speaks volumes about her disenfranchisement.

Hunt compensated by noting the tempo of Tan’s horse movements on a rehearsal video not set to music, before changing the floor plan in accordance with the sport’s rules and regulations. Employing piano, strings, brass, and vocals going ‘ahhh’, it was unsurprisingly inaccessible: having never met the Paralympian, Hunt couldn’t possibly envisage how she might interpret it as a deaf person.

There had to be another way. Enter the vibrotactile or ‘woofer’ vest, a piece of haptic technology worn on the torso that connects you wirelessly to the music via pulsing vibrations that can be augmented, or otherwise. We can guess what happened when Tan put it on and plugged into her rehearsal video.

The woofer vest cannot in any way monopolise the deaf person’s music access, how-ever. Vibrations alone cannot convey other, subtler, musical elements. “It was very important to give Laurentia a real music learning experience, as opposed to just putting the vest on and going for a ride,” Montgomery explains.

The R&D highlights the need for greater collaboration between rider and composer, equivalent to that already practised by fellow competitors. “I wanted to build team spirit: for Tom Hunt to get to know Evelyn, and for us and Evelyn to identify Laurentia’s tastes and personality – which I believe will bring out the best of her in future games.”

“Evelyn,” of course, is the deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, whose role easily supersedes the woofer vest. After all, the Dame and Tan share common ground, in terms of exploiting their sense of feeling with certain tools to exert greater flexibility and control.

Two performers pictured in a music studio

Evelyn Glennie and Laurentia Tan

For Glennie, it’s a wide range of beaters she can choose from. For Tan, among other things it’s her reins, which have eight finger loops; four on each side. (Some riders choose two, four or six, while others forego them altogether.)

Certain subtle movements act like a telephone wire, signalling the horse to shift. Similarly, Glennie takes her cue from the beaters’ reverberations in her fingers, swapping where necessary. In their first lesson together, that stimulated discussions around mood, emotions, tone ‘colours’, tweaks to the score.

Identifying the piano as the “beef” of the computerised score, Hunt re-wrote it for Marimba, the deep-toned xylophone Glennie works with. In the subsequent recording Tan lay below the giant instrument, watching for maximum sensory impact – a new love for music emerging.

“I so wish I could have an orchestra visible to me in the riding arena,” Tan muses, “so I can understand what I’m feeling in the vest.” Winning gold, with her teacher playing, is a dream she wants to pursue.

“It really needs exploring,” Montgomery asserts. “Everyone else Laurentia is competing with has the advantage of being hearing and able to follow the music effortlessly. By learning inside out, it will enable her to choreograph her own floor plan [more independently].”

Over a weekend in Cologne, both Marimba recording and woofer vest went on trial. I was among the witnesses in the arena being floored by Tan’s newfound ease. In a two-part mock test – one with the vest, one without – Germany’s National Dressage Judge, Michael Zimmerman, scored Tan 6% higher in the first part, unaware that she was wearing it. That this was the same routine that had upset her in Tryon was incredible.

This was the breakthrough the R&D needed: the setting of a new access precedent for deaf and disabled sports competitors. The impetus to take up its investment prospects with international and Singaporean sports authorities was clear.

As a deaf person and someone who loves riding, I can relate to Laurentia Tan. But the very notion of performing in a public arena, with audience and judges scrutinising my every move, petrifies me; surely, my own isolation would be writ large. If like me you admire her tenacity, and want to see her see gold, the least you can do is to invest.