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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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