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  • Despite hearing problem, Harper hears the sound of music

  • Pittsburg State University student Richard Harper isn’t your average music major.

    A Fort Scott native, Harper grew up with between 50 and 60 percent of the hearing capability of an average person. He was an alert and active child, but his mother, Gertrude, noticed that he didn’t respond when she spoke to him.

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  • Pittsburg State University student Richard Harper isn’t your average music major.
    A Fort Scott native, Harper grew up with between 50 and 60 percent of the hearing capability of an average person. He was an alert and active child, but his mother, Gertrude, noticed that he didn’t respond when she spoke to him.
    “We just thought he was being a typical kid and not listening to us,” Gertrude said. “But when we’d motion to him he’d pay attention. He just wasn’t hearing us completely.”
    When Harper was 3 years old, his parents took him for a check up. At one point, as he was answering questions, the doctor covered his mouth with his clipboard and Harper didn’t respond.
    “The doctor said ‘He’s reading my lips,” Gertrude said.
    So Harper got hearing aids when he was four. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it opened a whole world Harper hadn’t known.
    “He’d say, ‘What’s that sound?’ and we’d say ‘It’s a bird,’ and he was amazed because he hadn’t heard that sound before,” Gertrude said. “He was just going around hearing different things, saying ‘What’s that? What’s that?’”
    Harper’s parents never treated his impairment as a disability, though, Harper said. And so it became just another thing to deal with.
    “They raised me to believe that just because I’m different, with hearing aids, I’m really not different at all,” said Harper, who will turn 25 this month. “I don’t know where I’d be if not for that.”
    Gertrude said that’s just part of the life philosophy she and her husband, Joseph, share.
    “We’ve never let that stop him in anything he wants to do,” she said. “Kids will say ‘Why do I have to wear glasses?’ He said ‘Why do I have to wear a hearing aid?’ and we said ‘God makes some people in certain ways. It’s just one of the crosses you have to bear.’”
    It’s reasonable to wonder how someone with a hearing impairment goes on to study music and pursue a degree in music education. But in Harper’s case, it’s not surprising at all. As children, Harper and his older sister, Mary Jo, who teaches at Winfield Scott Elementary School in Fort Scott and participates in many Pittsburg Community Theater performances, were constantly exposed to music. Their grandmothers played piano for them, they were in band and choir, and Gertrude was constantly in song.
    “Mom always had a song for everything,” Mary Jo said. “She had a song for waking up, for good night, for when we were being a little turd, for when we were happy and for going to school. And we’d sing to each other.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Gertrude credits Harper’s dance instructor, Susan Sterns, of Susan Sterns School of Dance in Fort Scott, for teaching her son to feel sound vibrations when he was 3 years old.
    “She would turn the music up loud, and the other kids had their dance shoes on and she would let him go shoeless so he could feel the vibrations,” Gertrude said. “We’ve always credited her that she took the time to do that and let him feel it in his feet.”
    That’s not to say his childhood was always idyllic. There was sibling tension, of course, and as the older sister, Mary Jo said she had her share of fun with her brother.
    “I’d put something over my mouth and he’d get really mad and try to adjust his hearing aids,” Mary Jo said with a laugh. “When he gets angry his ears turn bright red. Some people blush, but his ears turn brilliantly red. He thought his hearing aids were malfunctioning.”
    But as siblings, they cared about each other, too.
    “When we would walk from my dad’s shop downtown to the pool, we weren’t allowed to take our glasses and he couldn’t take his hearing aid because they might get lost,” Mary Jo said.
    “It was the deaf leading the blind or the blind leading the deaf,” Mary Jo laughed.
    Mary Jo jokingly claims credit for her brother’s success. When she went to Pitt State, he wanted to go, she said. And when he decided to become a vocal music major, she also was a vocal music major. Ditto for when he decided to switch to the French horn and become a music educator, which is his current major.
    “He was always trying to take over my turf,” she laughed. “He said ‘It’s not my fault you pick all the good things first.’”
    Harper said he’s received his fair share of ‘What?’ looks when people find out he’s a music major. But his family and close friends gave him plenty of support, which he said is all that mattered.
    “I definitely had that problem when people found out that’s what I wanted to do, but my friends and family and choir director realized it was something I could do,” he said. “And I decided it was something I could do and that I was going to do it.”
    As a student at PSU, Harper hasn’t lost a beat. He decided he wanted to focus on marching band, but he also sings in the Chancel Choir at First United Methodist Church and in madrigals and chorale at PSU, among others.
    “Richard has been a wonderful student in the PSU Music Department, and, from my perspective, a cornerstone of the choral programs both at PSU and at First United Methodist Church,” said music professor Susan Marchant, who also is the choir director at the church. “He has contributed to the success of our projects in so many ways: Musically, of course, as a fine singer, but also as a section leader, choreographer, fundraising coordinator, and as head of the intrepid crews that move equipment (such as choral risers and solid oak pews!) for our performances every year. No request is too large or too small; Richard helps with literally everything we do.”
    Page 3 of 3 - On the field as a trumpet player in Pitt State’s Pride of the Plains marching band, he’s a section leader.
    “He hasn’t made it a point to be a leader,” said Doug Whitten, director of athletic bands. “He just leads by example. He’s not a leader because he’s above everyone’s music prowess. He just has a great attitude, and he’s a fun guy. It’s hard not to follow him.”
    Harper has had a musical learning curve, though. He hears lower pitches better than high ones, and he’s learned to tell whether he’s in tune by feeling sound waves. But the work is worth it, he said.
    “Music is a place for me to really be myself,” he said. “You let go of everything that might happened. You can emote the bad day you had or the great day you had, or the way someone made you feel. I don’t know how I’d ever need a therapist for anything when I’ve got my horn.”
    And he said he can be his toughest critic.
    “But you have to have bad days to realize the good ones,” he said.
    Harper said he can seen himself as a marching band director, like Whitten, but that his true passion is teaching music to kids. He said his work with “exceptional” elementary school kids sealed the deal.
    “As someone with a hearing disability, I want to help,” he said. “I think anyone with a disability can learn to play an instrument, and that experience is something I can bring into by teaching.”
    On Saturday, after the Pride’s first half-time performance of the season during the Gorillas’ game against the University of Central Oklahoma, Harper said he couldn’t be happier.
    “I love it,” he said. “It was amazing. We had three weeks of work and we finally got to put it together. It just feels good.”
    Being on the field is awesome, but sitting in the stands during the game and helping to disrupt the opposing team is fun, too.
    “We try to toe the line of what we’re allowed to do,” Harper said with a grin. “And we maybe stick it over a bit, too.”

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