A Dream Reborn
Jazz singer Mandy Harvey is deeply aware of the many ironies in her life. The biggest irony is that she’s a jazz singer at all, because she had no intention, early in her musical life, of ever becoming one.
“I wanted to be a choir teacher,” she tells me at the Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah, during the 2015 No Barriers Summit. “A choir teacher, or maybe a back-up vocalist, incognito, where nobody knew my name. I’m super shy and I get stage fright! I never wanted to be the person onstage that people stared at.” She relates an incident during her freshman year of high school, during a choir vocal competition, where she was so nervous she actually sang with her back to the judge.
“There was only my Dad, four other people, and the competition judge in the auditorium, but even with that small audience I started shaking, and then I started crying, and then I turned around and sang the rest of the song while they stared at my butt, because I couldn’t look at them while I sang.”
Born with a connective tissue disorder that gradually eroded her hearing, she was enrolled as a music education major at Colorado State University when her residual hearing declined to the point that she was legally deaf and she was cut from the program. A few months later, she was completely deaf. Despondent and horribly depressed, she believed that music would no longer be a part of her life.
She stopped singing. She’d hit rock bottom. Her depression lasted about a year.
But Mandy’s father, a tremendous supporter of her gift, convinced her to learn the singing part of the song “Come Home” by One Republic. He talked her into singing it while he played guitar. When he started crying, Mandy immediately assumed it was because she sounded terrible. Turns out, that wasn’t it at all; they were tears of joy, because she still sounded like an angel, and her pitch was perfect.
Mandy’s love of music had never left her — she now just had to pursue it in a new way, to perform what Erik Weihenmayer calls “alchemy” and turn the lead in her life into gold. In 2008 she teamed up with her former voice teacher Cynthia Vaughn and soon summoned the courage to sing at an open mic night at Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins, CO. She still had doubts, and worried, as she puts it, that she would “suck.” But when they told her she was going on in two minutes, something powerful occurred.
“The thing that I had feared the most all of my life, all through my childhood, was losing my hearing. And that had already happened,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen here?’” With her hand on the piano so she could get the tempo through the vibrations, she stared at a spot on the wall above the audience, not looking anyone in the eye, and summoned the courage to sing the song. The audience’s applause and ovation told her that she could actually do this, and the folks at Jay’s Bistro invited her back the very next week. Soon, Thursday nights were “Mandy Night,” and she’d sing for 2 ½ hours.
Mandy Harvey, jazz singer, was born. And through her rediscovered voice, her musical dream was reborn.
Her reinvention has included recording a number of CDs (Smile, 2009, After You’ve Gone, 2010, All of Me, 2014), and some singles. She’s sung to sold-out performances at Denver’s Dazzle Jazz and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She’s gone from singing jazz standards to writing and recording her own original songs, including “Try,” which she wrote in appreciation of the No Barriers organization and performed at this year’s closing ceremony at the Summit to a standing ovation. Through it all, though she knows that her story is compelling, she doesn’t want to be thought of as “the deaf jazz singer,” but rather as the jazz singer who happens to be deaf.
“I love inspiring people; I just don’t want to be pitied,” she says.
A tremendous ambassador for No Barriers USA, Mandy accomplished another first this year—teaching one of the No Barriers Clinics, appropriately in “Expression and Songwriting.” She taught the three-hour clinic all three days, and of course, they were a major hit. These were the first such clinics she’s ever taught, but with the help of her Dad, an educator, she conceived and wrote the clinic curriculum and came to Park City and pulled them off with panache.
“I was really nervous at first, not going to lie!” she says. “But it was wonderful to be so involved. Two of the students have already emailed me asking me questions and wanting me to look over more of their work, so I see that as a huge success. After that first class, my confidence grew and it just felt right. I am already thinking of other clinics that I could teach for the next Summit, and I’ve been thinking about the idea of doing something with concerts/classes for the school system.”
Another ironic twist of Mandy’s fate and story is that she will never hear the lilting, divine music she creates. This remains very much an open wound for her, and one that she is constantly trying to understand, rationalize, and work through.
“Most people find this hard to believe, but I don’t perform for myself,” she says. “Because I can’t hear it. But when I discovered that I could sing again, I latched onto it as hard as I could, because it was a way of getting back some of my identity, because I had lost it. Now, when I’m performing, I enjoy being part of a team, I enjoy making an audience feel something, and seeing their faces. And while I will never be able to enjoy music the way I did before, I want to hold on to what I do still have, so much that I’ve made it my passion and I’m not letting music go. I’ve taken back a little piece, and that little piece is like the Ring of Mordor—it’s my “precious” and I’m not letting go of it!”
So the next time you hear Mandy Harvey’s moving, mellifluous voice, remember the courage and sacrifice it has taken for her even to be standing on the stage at all, and that she’s singing for you.
“I can’t hear the sound of music. But if I can produce something onstage that causes you to love music, to have an emotional experience, that allows other people to live in the dream that I used to have, then that is enough. If I can see my dream being fulfilled in the faces of the audience, then it’s enough.”