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Jane Cordell

Jane, who plays viola, joined the orchestra in 2018. She was recently awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University. She is also profoundly deaf! 

Putting the Viola jokes to one side for the time being, we thought we needed to find out a little bit more about her.

Dave: You have achieved so much, I have so many questions, it's difficult to know where to start. You were a professional in a chamber orchestra in Finland and a teacher for 10 years, working in Finland and Poland (running your own school)! How did that come about, what did you teach and do you speak Finnish and Polish? 

Jane: I taught English as a foreign language. When I was in the orchestra, rehearsals were usually each morning. So there was the rest of the day free in a small, fairly quiet town covered in snow! I got the chance to run an English conversation class at the local adult ed college and loved it! I got the teaching bug, basically and then went on to a job in Helsinki. The move to Poland related to an ill-starred romance! You live and learn but setting up a small English language school from scratch in Poland during the huge political changes in 1990 was certainly an education! 

I tried to learn some Finnish (this was before I became deaf). There are an awful lot of 'a's in Finnish  - some words have 4 in a row! And a huge number of grammatical cases. I remember the Finnish for Foreigners classes being thoroughly enjoyable, but not for the right reason- it was just such an entertaining mixed bag of people! I did better with Polish, partly because I started trying to run a business in a town where practically nobody spoke English, so it was sink or swim. I had daily intensive lessons with a very patient teacher - immersion style. I now feel very lucky indeed that I had those few months before my hearing started to deteriorate, as I was able to get a grasp of the sounds of Polish and that served me well later when I did language training at the Foreign Office. It was never, every easy, even when I could hear, but I love communicating, so I was motivated and ready to work hard. Like most things really!

Dave: You appear to be one of the busiest people I know, making frequent trips to London, giving presentations at Cabinet Office, in addition to making TV and Radio appearances. What do you get up to when you are not working or playing the viola? 

Jane: I like knitting! Seriously. It is great to do something soothing, practical and which produces something at the end of it. Cooking is similar for me. And I like to move- get out to gym classes or for a jog locally.

Dave: So what got you into music and at what age did you start playing? Can you remember your first concert? Do you enjoy playing any other types of music?  

Jane: I started piano aged 6 and viola aged 12. I  had the chance to learn at my secondary school- something which is sadly rarer now. I regret that a lot. Children may be missing out on a life-changing experience.

Dave: In your youth you were a prolific Viola player, playing in the Stockport Youth Orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra, and the World Orchestra. You also worked briefly as a professional in a chamber orchestra in Finland, can you tell me a little more about your time with them?

Jane: Yes. I had a short contract with the Mikkeli Chamber Orchestra which is in central Finland. It was a small string orchestra – 12 of us. They had a beautiful purpose-built concert hall next to a lake with perfect acoustics- the type of set up most British orchestras would die for! There were a couple of us who had been recruited to join temporarily while several of the permanent women players had taken leave. I am still friends with two of them.

Dave: I first met you playing a Viola with The Ramsbottom Choral Society Concert Orchestra, and it was several weeks before I discovered that you were profoundly deaf! Partly because you are a very good player and also because nobody expects a profoundly deaf person to be playing difficult classic music in a concert orchestra. At what point in your life did you realise that you were losing your hearing and how did that affect you? 

Jane: Yes, I remember my surprise (and slight relief!) when I realised YOU were in both groups! I started to get tinnitus (ringing in my ears) on my 24th birthday. The hearing loss after that was in the high registers (a classic loss pattern) so I did not notice its impact at first. After a year or so’s gradual loss it was much more dramatic and, as an English language teacher at that point, I started to struggle to understand speech.

Dave: When did you decide to get back into playing and what were the challenges you faced to that when you had your hearing?

Jane: I had 6 terrible years of not playing. I assumed I would not be able to. I had relied on having a good ear and perfect pitch, so when I tried to play, it was pretty disastrous and miserable. It is hard to convey what a loss this was.

The first important thing was that a cellist friend mentioned a deaf professional player, Liz Varlow, who then played in the London Symphony Orchestra. He put me in touch with her and she gave me some lessons. She ‘re-taught’ me about playing which relied much more on technique (trusting my hands and arms to ‘know’) and science (e.g. hitting certain notes on a string perfectly in tune makes them vibrate visibly). What I liked about her lessons were that because she was also profoundly deaf, she could be honest. I loved it when she said ‘Nope, that’s way out of tune!’. Don’t ask me how she knew, but she was always right!

After I moved from teaching into editing work, a colleague at work in Cambridge, Sue Taylor, became interested in my musical background. She encouraged me to consider joining the Cambridge Concert orchestra. This was a local group which played for enjoyment and gave concerts to community groups such as older people. We played lighter music. It was a great way to ease myself back into playing.

Dave: How much hearing do you have? I had an bad experience playing at one concert where I could not hear out of my left ear, which reminded me of how much I rely on auditory feed back for intonation. I have to say, I certainly did a fair amount of miming at that concert. How does a profoundly deaf person hit the right notes? 

Jane: Without my hearing aids I hear pretty much nothing. That’s quite dangerous when e.g. I could not hear traffic. With them I can access a bit of sound, but it’s very different to what a hearing person would get- mixed up, jumbled and confusing. The hearing aids ‘squash’ pitch to make it more accessible to me. So e.g. birdsong might come through but sound like a frog!

The answer to your question about hitting the right note is that like most people, I don’t always do it. But to increase the odds, you have to practise. I try (try!) to attend rehearsals as regularly as I can and attempt to memorise the part so that I can use my eyes to keep contact with the beat and be in time.

Dave: What do you get from playing music if you cannot hear what you or the rest of the orchestra are playing?

Jane: It’s wonderful. I cannot tell you what a pleasure and relief it was to start playing in orchestras again. And my Mum, who sadly died when I was in my 30s, got to one of the first ‘proper’ symphonic concerts I played in at Harrow Symphony orchestra. She suffered terribly that I could not play music any more and listening to music that I used to play, upset her. It means the world to me that she came to that first concert and had that experience (even though she didn’t know how terrifying I found it – and how much I was winging it!).

I have good auditory memory, so if we are playing something I have played before, my brain ‘plays’ what should be there to me in my head. If it’s a brand new piece, it’s harder but I try to kind of get some kind of auditory ‘imprint’ in my mind as we practice.

Dave: I hear a lot of musicians suffer from hearing loss later in life, and eventually stop playing. Is there some advice you could give them?

Jane: Hearing loss, a bit like sight loss, is often part of aging. It can be distressing because it affects your ability to have natural social contact. For musicians there is an added layer of stress. Social contact and music are two of the most beneficial things for well-being. I think music should be prescribed on the NHS personally! So to lose both is tough. The main advice I would offer is to remember the amount of experience you have, the years of playing – the muscle memory you have developed, and draw on it. Don’t panic, basically, and try to think about the best way personally for you to still enjoy playing in a group. Also, be open – if you need a bit of support, ask for it.

Dave: I believe you have also recently started to play the piano again. Is this for your own enjoyment or will you be playing in public? How long have you been playing and have you done any grades?

Jane: Yes, after working in Poland for 4 years I got my piano back (a reconditioned upright my granddad gave me as a young person) from my Dad who had been looking after it – and playing and learning himself. I realised it deserved to be played regularly, but that if I was going to do that I needed the discipline of lessons. Going for a piano lesson for the first time in over 30 years was a bit scary! With the support of Judy Paskell, a wonderful teacher, I have been thoroughly enjoying playing again. A bit like with Liz Varlow, Judy is honest – the right mixture of challenging and supportive and it has been so interesting to learn new repertoire that I have not previously heard.

Dave: How did you feel when you found out about the Fellowship award and what does it mean to you? Did you have a great day?

Jane: This came as a massive surprise! The letter accidentally went to my neighbour and colleague and when he texted me about it I thought it was a joke!

It was a fantastic day – quite surreal in some ways, but in a good way. What it means to me is that I now have a ‘formal’ connection with a great University which has an exceptionally diverse student population. We are already in discussion about how to make the most of this and I am looking forward to engaging with e.g. some young women potential entrepreneurs. We may also be having an internship at our social enterprise, Result CIC for a LJMU student.


Jane's Honorary Fellowship award was given in recognition of her outstanding contribution to disability rights, social justice and promotion. Jane is a Founder/Director of ‘Result CIC’ (a Community Interest Company), which won the 2015 National Diversity Award, recognising the companies impact specialising and providing training and coaching for Disabled and Deaf people.

Jane is listed on the Power 100 list of the UK's most influential Disabled people. Before her work at CIC Result, Jane work for the British Foreign Office and received four awards for her work as the first senior deaf diplomat in Poland, supporting its disability rights legislative reform. 

Jane graduated with a degree in English from Cambridge University, becoming deaf in her mid-twenties. She then took a MEd at the Open University. Her career encompasses professional music, teaching and lecturing, editorial work, diplomacy, charity governance, including Chairing DaDaFest (Deaf and Disability arts) for 5 years, coaching, equality campaigning and social entrepreneurship. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2016.

All aspects of her career demonstrates just how much Jane is a people person. Her sensitivity and ability to get alongside others, no matter their background, changes their lives.