Some people achieve so much, despite the odds, that they inspire those around them. Vaughn Brown, a deaf-blind percussionist and music educator, is one of those inspiring people.
Clapping out the beat, Brown turned toward his student, Leilani Towner, who sat at Brown’s drum kit, pounding out a rhythm.
“Excellent!” Brown said. “Let’s speed it up a bit.”
He clapped a faster beat. Leilani played the piece again. Smiling, Brown nodded.
Brown, 27, graduated from Berklee College of Music, a prestigious private school in Boston, in May. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music with a focus on education and performance. Now he’s back in Vancouver teaching private lessons and looking for a day job to pay the bills.
“He didn’t consider that he had barriers,” said Jennifer Langley, who was Brown’s music teacher at Washington State School for the Blind. “He just shined. Everything he did, he did to not just his best ability, but to the best ability possible. He had that kind of moral fortitude you’d want everyone to have. He inspired everyone.”
When Brown was six months old, a life-threatening illness left him deaf. At age 4, he started losing his vision due to a genetic condition. Despite those challenges, his family insisted on treating him exactly the same as his brother.
“It is important for families of children with disabilities to look pass the ‘can’ts’ and encourage the ‘cans,'” Brown said. “Families should let their children do what they want to do. Be what they want to be. I’m independent because I’ve been exposed to going into public, going to concerts, riding the bus. Life.”
Brown’s family moved from New Orleans to Portland so he could attend Tucker-Maxon School, a private school known for teaching deaf and hearing-impaired students to speak.
But by 1998, Brown’s sight had worsened. He was reading Braille, using a cane and walking into obstacles. He needed to learn to navigate. His family moved to Vancouver and enrolled him in Washington State School for the Blind.
“We decided the blind school would be a good place for me to learn to be independent,” Brown said. “They were my second family.”
Born to drum
Although Brown started playing the hand drums at age 4 and a drum set at age 10, he says his music education really began at Washington State School for the Blind. During his eight years there, Langley was his music teacher and his private drum instructor. Previously, she had taught at Washington School for the Deaf.
“Jennifer had her master’s in classical percussion, she knew music Braille, had taught deaf students and she was very supportive of becoming a musician rather than just being a drummer able to play an instrument,” Brown said.
“Being a musician implies that you know the music,” he explained. “It means you understand music theory, harmony, rhythm, melodies and structures within a song. And you’re able to play with other musicians.”
Langley taught him to read Braille music. When Brown competed at the state solo and ensemble competition, he had to memorize a long piece of music that a sighted person could read.
Brown had worn hearing aids until age 3, when he had a cochlear implant put in his right ear. At age 13, that implant failed and he was both deaf and blind for a time. With Langley’s help, he continued playing music.
After his second cochlear implant, he could hear in both ears for the first time in his life. Today, cochlear implants have restored his hearing to about 90 to 95 percent, he said.
“Even with the cochlears, being a musician can be a challenge,” Brown said.
A Pat Metheny Group poster adorns his wall. His favorite drummer, Antonio Sanchez, plays jazz drums with Metheny. Brown says he also was influenced by Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist who plays barefoot in order to feel the music. When he was in high school, he had an opportunity to play for her.
“I know she will always be ahead of me, but she is a light to follow, musically speaking,” Brown said.
While attending Jazz Camp for the Blind in New Orleans, Brown performed for jazz pianist Henry Butler.
“Henry was an excellent performance teacher because his standards were so high that you were inclined to either meet them or shed a few tears,” Brown said. “I decided to meet the challenge.”
He auditioned for Berklee College of Music, but didn’t expect to be admitted to the exclusive, private college. When he received his acceptance letter, he told himself: “I’ll ride this wave and see where it takes me.”
He was apprehensive about moving to Boston, a city he’d never visited, but “once I got there, I fell in love with the city,” he said.
At Berklee, he was aware of a few other blind musicians, but he didn’t meet any other deaf musicians or deaf-blind musicians. The college’s music performance and practice spaces had concrete floors, but Brown prefers hollow floors so he can feel the bass or piano when he’s playing drums.
Again, Brown rose to every challenge.
Langley said that during her 16 years of teaching, she has had multiple students study music performance or music education in college and become successful. But Brown was her only student who attended Berklee College of Music.
“Berklee is very fine,” Langley said. “Vaughn had a great talent playing the drums. The thing that impressed me the most about him was that he was really dedicated to learn ear training. When you have someone with cochlear implants, that’s challenging.”
Brown uses computer technology including a screen reader and the Sibelius Speaking program to read and to notate music.
“Disability is something every person on earth has,” Brown said.
He listed physical disabilities and then added anxiety, depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Opening the door to lead his guide dog, Sprocket, outside, he said, “Ask yourself: Is this physical challenge really holding you back? Or is it your attitude that’s holding you back? It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do.”