James D1

Who is this? This is James Douglas, a Deafened composer.

Date: 2019

Item: Film

©  2019 Eschenbach Editions. All rights reserved. Used with permission.



James Douglas is a famous composer of music and has written over 2000 pieces for a wide range of musical instruments.


This is a written version of the film. This film has no subtitles or British Sign Language (BSL) translation.

Hello, my name is James Douglas and I have been asked by deafscotland to talk about the movement deafscotland, deafness and when that became involved in my music.


Sometimes when you hear information today it can be inaccurate. In my case I came across one university who was lauding me for writing 75 works in three years. In fact it was six years almost when I wrote these pieces. So what I am going to try to do is correct misapprehensions or show the way IT today sometimes makes mistakes, the same way when people speak they make mistakes.


Now, when I started to learn the piano, I had a very good piano teacher and one of his best pieces of advice was don't be afraid to make mistakes. You can learn from them, but please don't be afraid to make them and that's been a great deal of help to me all my life.


So, to begin with, I'll go back to the year 1939, where the incident which started my hearing problem started. In 1939, I was at primary school and it was Winter. It was also the year I started piano lessons, the year WW2 began and the year I joined the Cubs. I was in the playground at my school, I was being a baddie, because we were told there are slides in the playground, don't go on them, they are dangerous. Unfortunately, a friend of mine and I decided to go on the slides. I went first. Coming down the slide was great, but then I was aware that the wall was looming up. The next thing I knew was a few days later, I had hit the wall and damaged here and here [indicates to the side of his head] to avoid a face on strike with the wall. I was taken to hospital and there was no NHS then, no antibiotics and I was told that I had bashed out my hearing and that I needed a mastoid operation. Now that would cost, and I was being brought up by my grandmother (my parents had died), and money wasn't top of the list of possibilities, so the mastoid operation never happened. The surgeon thought it would be disfiguring in those days, they left a huge area of scar tissue. Anyway, that era passed on.



Anyway, I'm going to have to jump. So, I'm jumping to 1961. In that time, I had finished school, went to college and to summer schools in Paris, where I met a very helpful professor. I went to Munich, Salzburg with a LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music) and ARCM (Associate of the Royal College of Music), that meant memorising up to two hours of music and playing piano or accompanying a singer by memory.



I had been fortunate with my memory when I learned to read music properly I could read music in my head. I could hear the sound of the page in my head. When I was in Paris, I was employed to read the full score of an opera and played the whole score with two hands just on the piano. It was useful as it brought in extra money to allow me to stay there and pay my fees.



In that time, there loomed the possibility of National Service. I didn't say to the people I had a handicapped ear, I just turned up. To my sadness they were very thorough and said to me, no way you can be in the RAF. You are a bit short sighted and you have one ear, you might drop a bomb in the wrong place! I'm sorry, we can't have you. That was when my interest in other countries came to be, because I felt they had something to offer that I was interested in - French, German and Italian, various songs and British songs.


So, I reached the age of 30 or so, I was married and I had a young baby. Disaster of disaster, I had a very serious illness, and that's what happens in life, sometimes everything is fine and them sometimes there is a bombshell and life explodes. I was told again, remember, don't make mistakes, keep going. Now, I am probably what's called a survivor, I keep going.


After that, life went on and to recover from them and to give thanks for it, I started to give concerts in the church I was working in with full orchestra, chorus, soloists, brass, strings and that lasted until about 1967. By then I had two sons and suddenly my wife had died in tragic circumstances. At that stage I inherited a doctor who said to me, I'm not having an ear like that in my practice. I just started at a school where I taught for 12 years. A very, very nice school, I won't mention its name except it was a public school, and I was very happy there. One of the benefits there was free membership of BUPA, and I saw a specialist and I was operated on for what was called a mastoidectomy. He removed the eardrum that was causing trouble, because I had a persistent and chronic ear infection for 29 years. The hospital had tried desperately any form of antibiotics and when the specialist saw me, I had become resistant to them. He had tried 14 antibiotics and I had become resistant to them. So, he took out not only the bones, but all the contents he could, practically up to the brain itself.


That was the beginning of another part of my life that did not help my hearing. Up to then I survived on one ear, so I just carried on. I wrote music for the school, for younger boys, for older boys, for wind and brass groups. I taught, piano and recorded, still with all of the music in my head. I was able to order it in my head before I wrote it down, otherwise I would never have written so much.


Then I got married again and my two sons and I were joined by another member of the family, a daughter, so there were five of us and we call them: Team Douglas. Team Douglas has been going for all that time.


Now I jump again. In the early 80’s, I had another illness, a Pulmonary Embolism and I didn’t work for several years. Then someone said there was a job going at somewhere called Christ Church, Morningside, would I like to apply, they needed an organist. So, I tried and suddenly I had an interview and I was appointed. From 1986 I was an organist and until 2006 I was associated with that place. Again, I had a lot to learn, but the choir were very patient and we worked very hard. One concert we gave was called ‘A Viennese Gala’. The church holds about 400 people. There were lots of professional musicians and for that evening you could not find an empty seat and that was miraculous. The evening paid for a new piano for the choir rehearsal room, the one we had had was pretty awful, so now we had that.



All this time I kept writing and in 1991 something else happened to me, another problem. I had a stroke which destroyed the left hearing nerve and then I realised I did not hear at all. Again, there was a good side to it. I tried hearing aids and the doctors said to me Beethoven was deaf you know, there’s nothing to stop you writing music. There was a lady called Judith who taught lip-reading classes. I attended her course for two years and she would say that she had been ‘shopping’, ‘this is a cabbage’ and the whole lesson was based on the cabbage and sentences using this word. After two years you learned some words and you learned that there were things called homonyms, where the word sounds the same as another word, which was a problem. What I would emphasise is, with lip-reading, you don’t get every word, no-one ever can. You only get what the sentence is about and if you need any more you have to ask. That to me was called lip-reading.


Now I come to the last part of my life. I have written a great deal of music, 15 symphonies, 36 organ works, 75 pieces called the Christ Church Sequence in five years, 32 flute music, a lot of music. So much that an American University calls it prolific. Prolific is a word that is not too popular with composers in this country. Some famous composers wrote only 32 works in their lifetime, I have written over 1000. I can’t count any more.


Now, I come to the deafscotland era. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Don’t give up. Ask for specialist help, take all the help you can, but above all survive. Don’t give up. All the best and thank you all of you for watching and trying to take part. Thank you.


In addition to his story, James, with his wife, Helen have created a slideshow with James’ music called “A Visual and Musical Journey”. It shows photographs of North West Scotland, Edinburgh, Paris and Inverness taken by James’ wife Helen.

Photo caption: James Douglas

DISCLAIMER: At this moment (January 2020), there is no British Sign Language translation of the display available.

James D2

Photo caption: James (right) and ensemble performing ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ during The Edinburgh International Festival in 1974.

James D4

Photo Caption: James (left on piano) with ensemble ‘The Glorious Company’ during his last live concert in 2009.

James D3

Photo Caption: James (centre) and the Christ Church Morningside Choir.

James D5

Photo Caption: James and his wife Helen