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Publication date: 11/06/2002

Drawn to the rhythm

Of The Examiner Staff

    Concert pianist Valerie Zamora likes to imagine sounds. And at times, she feels the music more than she hears it.

    Zamora is an emerging artist in the classical music world. She also is deaf.

    She performs in San Francisco Thursday at "Ever Widening Circle: An Evening of Entertainment Celebrating Art and Disability," along with Chris Fonseca, a comedian with cerebral palsy; Lynn Manning, a blind poet, playwright and actor; and Light Motion, a dance company of both disabled and nondisabled artists.

    Zamora hopes the concert will show audiences that art produced by disabled people is as legitimate as any.

    She points out that throughout history many of the greatest artists suffered from illnesses of one kind or another: Robert Schumann was schizophrenic, Ludwig von Beethoven was deaf, John Milton was blind, Vincent van Gough was manic-depressive.

    "They had these big disabilities, but it doesn't make their art any less," Zamora says. "Art is not disabled because it's produced by a person who is disabled."

    In Zamora's case, being deaf doesn't mean living in silence. Even a person who is profoundly deaf hears some sound through bone conduction, she explains.

    Zamora, who is partially deaf, can't understand language in one ear, and there are certain sounds her other ear can't decipher. However, if she is near a person and talking one-on-one, she functions fine.

    "I can get away with people not knowing. They just think I'm a space cadet," she giggles.

    Tuning up

    To compensate for her disability, Zamora experiments endlessly.

    When practicing alone, she plays passages on all parts of the keyboard, listening for notes and phrases she can't hear in a different octave. She describes the process as "getting to know the music intimately, to understand the sound and everything it's capable of expressing."

    When she practices with a group, she watches the other musicians as they play sections that sound muted or incomplete to her. Through their body movements she discovers the rhythms and emotion of the music.

    When Zamora performs, she imagines what she can't hear. "Sound can be interpreted into emotion, light, color everything," she says. "You feel it."

    Zamora believes her sensitivity to sounds she can hear helped her to develop perfect pitch. As a small child, her father would play the piano, and afterward, she would repeat the notes.

    She never sang songs like other children (she still can't make out the words in lyrics); she was, nevertheless, drawn to music. By age 4, she begged her parents for piano lessons -- and got them.

    A few years later, she was diagnosed as being deaf but kept it a secret. In school, she learned to lip-read, and whenever any of her piano teachers became suspicious, she downplayed the condition.

    "If I had to admit anything, I made it sound like a minor problem," she says. "I would say that the problem was just on one side, always the side they were sitting on."

    As she advanced, hiding her condition became nearly impossible.

    She studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Hannover, Germany as a teenager, and later on enrolled at the Julliard School in New York City and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

    She recalls that at piano exams, teachers would motion students to stop playing by tapping their pencil. "Of course I would never hear that. I would just keep playing. There was always someone coming down waving, or yelling out."

    When the exams were held in auditoriums she couldn't see what the judges were asking her to play. One time she jumped off the stage, walked to the panel of judges, and asked them the repeat their request. They thought she was high.

    Worse yet, when one of her music teachers learned she was deaf, he threw her out of his studio.

    Facing the music

    After receiving numerous scholarships and grants, Zamora did a short stint teaching at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and toured throughout the United States, Germany and Switzerland. By then, she had started questioning why she was hiding her condition.

    She gave her first concert where the audience knew she was deaf five years ago at Arizona State University.

    "That was the hardest concert I ever gave," she says. "I felt I was being judged, like a circus act, what I could do, or what I couldn't do."

    For the most part, the concertgoers just wanted to hear good music, she says.

    Zamora, who is in her 30s, now tells everyone she is deaf. And when she performs, she doesn't worry about what people think of her. In fact, she tunes the whole world out.

    "It's being in a limbo situation, where you're not aware of time passing," she says. "There really isn't any thought, it's just the music."


    Ever Widening Circle: An Evening of Entertainment Celebrating Art & Disability is at 7 p.m. Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$100. Call (510) 251-4370 or visit

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