Supporting deaf people and those with hearing loss

In 2023, Paul Whittaker spoke to our members at two events about how groups could support instrumentalists and singers with hearing loss to take part in music-making. This resource covers the good practice suggested by Paul and members that attended those events, for any music-making group working to include deaf people and people with hearing loss in their regular activity.  

Paul Whittaker is a musician, performer and workshop leader who is profoundly deaf, from birth. A pianist and organist, he has a Music degree from Wadham College, Oxford and a PG performance diploma from the Royal Northern College of Music and on graduating, founded a charity to encourage Deaf people to make music. For 30 years he has been signing musicals, operas and concerts in British Sign Language including the first signed BBC Prom. He leads signing choirs and works to raise standards and awareness of this art form, including with National Youth Choir of Scotland.  


  1. Creating a supportive environment 
  2. Communication (including British Sign Language) 
  3. Assistive technology: Hearing aids, loops, general amplification 
  4. Welcoming new people 
  5. Top five takeaways

1. Creating a supportive environment 

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) tells us one in five adults in the UK are deaf, have hearing loss or tinnitus, so it is very likely a music group already includes a number of people with this challenge. As we age, acquired hearing loss is more and more common - 70% of over 70s are affected. Yet there is still a huge stigma attached to talking about this in our music groups, which makes it hard to keep people involved as they experience hearing loss, or for deaf people to get involved. People believe that without full hearing, music-making is not possible – but the experiences of Paul and other deaf musicians disprove that and inspire us to work to remove barriers to inclusion.   

Consider ways of starting a conversation with current participants about hearing and what changes you can make to provide support. Asking people about their access needs as they are joining your group or activity is always important – read more about how to do this and your responsibility to provide 'reasonable adjustments' in our Creating an accessible and inclusive group resource. But speaking to your current participants specifically about hearing gives them the confidence to be honest about their needs. Paul says: 'we need to create this environment where people are much more open and willing to talk about the fact they have a hearing problem'.

To start the conversation, one Making Music member group created a survey for their musicians about hearing and vision in rehearsals that everyone completed, asking what changes would help. Paul points out that finding solutions needs discussion as everyone is unique and sometimes needs can clash: 'Maybe set up a session one day before the rehearsal where people can come and talk about the issues they have. If you've got five or six people with hearing loss their needs will always be slightly different but if you can get them together you can hopefully reach a consensus.'

Paul is reassuring to those with acquired hearing loss, that the skill of music-making does not rely just on hearing. 'If you've been singing for a long time and you are reading music then you can rely a lot on your experience and knowledge. There is an awareness, a feeling of what everybody else around you is doing that's important in any choir or any ensemble anyway. But it is far easier to cope with a hearing loss if you can read music than someone who has always learned by ear.' Remember that people with acquired hearing loss are adjusting to a new experience so they need reassurance and support to work out what helps.   

2. Communication (including British Sign Language)

It’s likely that the biggest challenge for musicians is not hearing the music, but receiving all the other communications that go on in a music-making environment. Making sure that your conductor, workshop leader, committee members and anyone else who speaks to the whole group knows about best practice to include deaf people and those with hearing loss can really help. The RNID has a useful video to share: How to communicate with someone who is deaf or has hearing loss.

Through our discussion with members and Paul, we’ve created some asks for leaders and speakers in music-making environments. These are to aid hearing, lip-reading and will also help British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters: 

  • Take time to check people are in the best seat or place in the room, by discussing it with them. This is to help them to hear you, but also to see you (important for lip-readers). If seating is set e.g. by instrumentation in an orchestra and musicians can’t move, a leader may need to re-position themselves when speaking or talk about another solution, like using amplification.  
  • Make sure you are well lit when speaking so your face can be seen. Backlighting is a problem, if there is a window behind you for example. In a concert hall, stage lighting and low auditorium light can be challenging. 
  • Insist on quiet before giving important information. But remember that some people may need information repeated to them by a desk partner, section leader or neighbour, so make allowances for that.
  • Keep your language simple and explain any terms not used in everyday speech that could be misunderstood. Keep instructions concise and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.  
  • Encourage and invite questions and clarifications and always repeat when asked. Expect this, and build it into your timing of a rehearsal; you may get through less, but you will get more out of your musicians.
  • Find out about assistive devices people are using and embrace technology. If amplification is made available, please use it and if someone uses a hearing loop, check it is switched on.  

If you are the group that engages the music leader, talk to them about their vital role in supporting your members this way. You may be asking them to change their behaviour and the way they run rehearsals and lead learning, so talk about why you want this to happen. There will be musical benefits as well as inclusion benefits. 

British Sign Language: BSL is the first language of around 90,000 Deaf people in the UK. It is an official language, with its own grammar and sentence structure and is not a signed equivalent of English. A deaf person whose first language is BSL will need a BSL interpreter to fully take part in your group and activity and how music groups can do this well will be covered in another resource (to be published summer 2024).

3. Assistive technology: Hearing aids, loops, general amplification 

The assistive technology that supports people’s hearing are almost always individual devices - so what can a group do to support people to get the most out of these?  

Hearing aids: A number of members who attended our events used hearing aids, and told us about what they had done to get the best out of them in music environments. An audiologist can help with the settings but users need to explain what their requirements are.  

Example: A choral conductor had the problem that his hearing aid compensated for high volume from the choir by reducing the volume so low he couldn’t hear in the detail he needed. His audiologist was able to add a second setting to the aids, switching them to a programme which removed the automatic reduction in volume but also set the maximum volume so it was not dangerously high. This meant the conductor was able to hear those very important dynamics. 

Finding an audiologist who understands the needs of musicians, and working with them on the right solutions can be frustrating. Paul explained: 'Music environments are very different. If you are singing with a small chamber choir as opposed to being in a large symphony orchestra then the needs and setting of your hearing aids change an awful lot. Music programmes are really helpful and if you can get a really advanced one that will automatically modify frequency, even better. But it isn't one size fits all and patient testing and tweaking is the only solution.'

Giving people the space and time to try out what works best for them in your environment is important. In the first few weeks of using hearing aids, or of using them in a music environment, keeping a log of what they can and cannot hear, and what they wish or do not wish to hear should be encouraged. This is really useful information to help an audiologist adjust the settings to match individual needs.    

Hearing loops: A hearing loop works by transmitting sound directly to a person’s hearing aids or cochlear implant. It reduces distracting background noises and most buildings used for performances and events have them installed. If the space you use has one, check that it is switched on and let your group know it is available, as they will need to switch their devices if they want to receive the signal. If it doesn’t and a loop would benefit participants, the RNID have guidance on portable induction loops, which cost less than £200.

General amplification: Acquired hearing loss is often a gradual process, so it is likely that there will be people in your group that have challenges with hearing that don’t use assistive technology. Music environments also have a lot of sound distraction, so using any amplification when speaking to a group will make a big difference for a lot of people. If there is a microphone and amplification available at your rehearsal or event, ask everyone to use it for addressing large groups. A lot of people will be self-conscious to do this, and may not have great microphone technique, but avoiding using it for this reason risks exclusion. If your venue doesn’t have this, but your group agrees that it would be useful, a portable PA system or wearable voice amplifier can be bought or hired.  

4. Welcoming new people 

Once your group is confident to support deaf people and those with hearing loss, you can start to reach out to new participants. But because of the stigma attached to hearing loss in music, you’ll need to work hard to let everyone know that your group is truly welcoming and supportive.   

  • Be explicit – On any communication inviting new participants to an activity, include an explicit invitation e.g. 'We welcome deaf musicians and those with hearing loss and encourage you to come along. We can work with you on adjustments that will support you to take part fully.'  
  • Give access information – Detail what support is available e.g. hearing loops, amplification.  
  • Ask about adjustments – On any sign up form, always include a free text box for people to tell you about their access needs, with a question like 'Please tell us if we can make any adjustments so that you can access the activity and take part fully.' 
  • Give a variety of ways to get in touch – If your normal first point of contact is only telephone, add another way people can book, buy tickets or discuss access needs.  
  • Connect with other groups – There may be organisations locally that support deaf people and those with hearing loss. Going to meet them, inviting them to an event or even organising an activity in their space will make a much stronger connection than a faceless invitation. 

Remember to keep the conversation about what support people need really open. It is not useful to ask people to define their hearing condition, as Paul explained: 'A graph showing someone's hearing loss isn't important. It's looking behind the hearing problem and seeing the person and thinking - how can we best modify things to help you? What do people need?'

Music groups have an important role to play in breaking down the fear around deafness and hearing loss. Closing remark from Paul: 'Music is not about your hearing. Music above all is an emotional force and it's something that comes from the heart; that emotion is something we all have. And as long as we can keep sharing, making, encouraging and inspiring people, that is the best thing that we can do.'

5. Top five takeaways

  • Create an environment of support. Use surveys, questions about access requirements, and conversations to direct you to specific actions the group can take and show you are serious about inclusion. 
  • Ask music leaders and anyone speaking to your group to work on their communication, so everyone in the room hears or receives all the information. 
  • Support people using assistive technology to get the most out of it. Understand the patience and time it can take to get this right for music making and encourage experimentation.  
  • Embrace technology. Make sure hearing loops are switched on, use any voice amplification available and consider buying or hiring a portable PA system or voice amplifier.  
  • Invite deaf people and those with hearing loss to be part of your group with encouraging and explicit messages. Meeting people in person always sends a stronger message.  

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.