The Times photo by Betsy Reason
Noblesville’s Kyle Thomas, who was born deaf, plays the piano for Westfield Playhouse’s current production, “33 Variations."
The Times photo by Betsy Reason Noblesville’s Kyle Thomas, who was born deaf, plays the piano for Westfield Playhouse’s current production, “33 Variations."
Does Kyle Thomas know how beautifully he plays the piano?
He’s been told.
The Noblesville resident can hear the piano. But he can’t tell if it’s in tune.
He can hear the volume, but he can’t distinguish the pitches.
Thomas, who was born deaf, has played the piano since he was 12.
“I taught myself,” said Thomas, 41, who can distinguish between high and low, loud and soft, fast and slow.
Just like learning any new skill, playing the piano takes practice to do well. “It’s easy for me now, after all of these years,” said Thomas, who has developed a technique and understanding of what goes into the music, structure and theory.
He plays so beautifully that he’s often sought after for local community theaters.
“It is amazing that he can play when he basically cannot hear the music,” said Jan Jamison, director of Westfield Playhouse’s production, “33 Variations,” on stage weekends through Feb. 18. The play, interestingly, goes back and forth examining the creative process between Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” and the journey of a musicologist who has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, to discover why Beethoven, who while growing deaf, was compelled to write 33 variations on a simple theme.
“I looked at Beethoven’s music and decided it would be a worthy challenge,” said Thomas, whose livelihood is warehouse work at the Amazon fulfillment center in Whitestown. “I would consider several of the variations to be among the most difficult pieces I’ve played.”
During Westfield’s play rehearsals, I watched and listened as Thomas sat at the baby-grand piano in his borrowed black tuxedo with tails, loud crazy-patterned socks and long, thick beard that he’s he’s been growing for a year.
He played the variations throughout the play as they were mentioned.
But how does he do it? “With my hearing aids on, I do hear the piano, just in a different way,” he said. While hearing aids don’t correct hearing loss in the way that eyeglasses correct vision,” he said, “For me, they amplify sounds but don’t necessarily help in clarifying them.”
He said, “So I have to rely on visual cues in addition to what I’m able to hear.”
During his play rehearsals, he develops a sense of timing and learns exactly what to listen and look for, he said.
“If I make a mistake, I know it mostly in a visual or physical sense. My fingers may slip, or my timing is off, or I know that what I’m playing doesn’t match what i’m reading on the sheet music. So I correct things to the best of my ability.”
Thomas said neither of his parents are deaf nor is he aware of any family history of deafness. When he was a baby, his parents noticed that he wasn’t responding to auditory stimuli, and doctors confirmed that he was indeed deaf. His mom actually taught at Indiana School for the Deaf but said her son didn’t show any interest in learning to sign as a child. So he was put into Washington Township Schools in Marion County. At school, he used hearing aids and other assistive-listening devices.
Looking back, he’s always been performing in some way. As a kid, he acted out fairy tales, put on magic shows and participated in the usual school programs.
As for learning the piano, both sets of grandparents had pianos in their homes, so he “did the usual banging on the keys.” And he said, “My childhood friends usually spoke of music lessons as being boring.” But it wasn’t until he saw the movie, “Great Balls of Fire!” in 1989 that he thought, “Wow, I wish I could play like that.” He started teaching himself, used old lessons books from his grandparents, then took lessons from his church organist.
A turning point in his life occurred his freshman year at North Central High School, where he was cast, in 1991, in the play, “Children of a Lesser God,” about a deaf student and her teacher, and he began to learn American Sign Language beyond the basics. Then, he played in his first musical, “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.” From that point on, he was involved in so many shows that he lost count.
He was on stage in most shows, acting and, if it was a musical, dancing and lip-syncing. And then he started getting asked to play the piano in shows.
In his sophomore year, he shared classes with another deaf student who used interpreters. Thomas graduated in 1994, then went on to study theater at Wabash College, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
In recent years, he has been the pianist for “Scrooge: the Musical” at Carmel Repertory Theatre, “Forbidden Broadway” at Carmel Community Players, and “The Last Romance,” “Nuncrackers” and “Civil War: the Musical” at Westfield Playhouse.
The first time that he played piano for “Scrooge: the Musical,” was in 1999 at The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville. Jan Jameson directed that show, as well. Thomas played keyboard in a completely different room and couldn’t see the stage. “I had someone conducting for me who told me when to start playing,” he said. He’ll perform at The Belfry again this year, as the pianist for “Nunsense II: The Second Coming,” April 6-22, with show director, Noblesville’s Carla Crandall.
Outside of community theater, you might catch Thomas getting his caffeine buzz mornings at Noble Coffee & Tea in downtown Noblesville, where I happened onto him this week, or running at Forest Park or Potter’s Bridge when the weather is nice. I’m sure he’d love to stop and talk.
-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.