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From THE RECORD, Quebec, Canada
November 14-November 20, 2003


Pianist connects with her audience
By Leah Fitzgerald

Valorie Zamora is no good in a crowd. That is, unless she’s playing piano for them.

Zamora is, for all intensive purposes, deaf. She can hear enough to have one-on-one conversations, and can even use the telephone, if the line is clear. Doctors told her, though, she couldn’t play the piano.

“It’s a crime to tell someone they can’t do something,” she says. “Very few scientists aren’t aware the world is full of miracles.”

Zamora is very aware of the world of science -- she had planned to study medicine, and still reads science magazines voraciously. Her first love is still the piano.

“I don’t remember not being able to play ‘book one.’ ” she explains. “Since I was little, this is always what I wanted to do.”

Zamora’s hearing loss was likely caused by a high fever when she was a baby. However, she didn’t know she was deaf until she started school and a teacher caught on that the bright student in her class wasn’t just not paying attention.

English was her parents’ second language and they both spoke slowly and clearly. They never made the connection between her slower, sometimes mispronounced speech and her hearing. Their patience taught Zamora to speak clearly and easily.

“There are people in the field who support children being mainstreamed,” Zamora said, of teaching deaf children to cope. “Sometimes you’re better off just thrown in the deep end.”

Zamora always went to a regular school in a regular classroom. She often hated school.

“I was bored to death, “ she says. “Some teachers were great. They spoke clearly and I sat in front. If they mumbled, well, I learned to be with my imagination. I created music pieces, watched the clock.”

Despite disliking school, she continued on into university as a pre- med student. She decided to take an elective music course, which she had to audition for.

“After the audition, the professor took me aside and said, “I’d like to talk to you.’ ”

That professor encouraged Zamora to pursue music as a career. Of course, he had no idea she was deaf.

“I hid my disability at all costs,” Zamora says. “People just thought I was a space cadet. They’d call my name and I just didn’t hear them.”

Zamora ended up in graduate school, and then taught piano full time at the University of North Carolina. A colleague pushed her to pursue a PhD.

“I did the brave thing. I quit,” she says. “It seems like a shame, but I’m doing what I want now.”

It wasn’t until three years ago that Zamora started touring as a deaf pianist.

“I never wanted to be a novelty act, you know?” she says. “I loved to teach, but you can only reach a handful of people. With performing, it’s huge numbers.”

Zamora says performing as a deaf pianist helps change people’s perception of what it means to be “differently-abled.”

“I gave a concert, and there was a blind woman in the audience. After, she said, ‘You know, I always thought I could see. After hearing you play, I know I can.’ ”

Zamora’s hearing relies on her sensitivity to the other things going on around her, including the sound vibrations she can feel.

What I hear isn’t everything you can hear,” she explains. “I have to be really acute, and use my judgment to figure out what I’ve missed. For me, sound is motion, gravity, colour, expression, sense of smell and touch combined.”

Zamora can play with accompaniment by memorizing the other pieces. She plays along to the sounds in her memory since the actual accompaniment is too loud for her to hear. She has the same problem at dinner parties.

“I’m great talking just to one person,” she says. “Put me in a crowd and I’m lost. I can’t follow anything.”

The conference Zamora is giving at Centennial will be less about her hearing, and more about a famous composer who was also deaf.

“I think it makes me a little qualified to talk about how Beethoven composed, not that I hear like him,’ she laughs. “I’ll be talking about how he could compose what he was hearing in his head.”

Zamora will also play some piano pieces as examples and talk a little about her own struggles.

“It’s an honour to be part of a meeting to explain how I do it, or to perform for an audience so they can see it.”