Episode 25: Live at the Summit: Mandy Harvey on Finding her Rhythm

about the episode

At our most recent No Barriers Summit at Lake Tahoe this past June, our three hosts were joined on stage by Mandy Harvey for a special live production of our podcast. 

Mandy Harvey is an award-winning singer and songwriter who also happens to be deaf. Mandy was a Vocal Music Education major at Colorado State University, when she lost her residual hearing at age eighteen due to a connective tissue disorder that affected her nerves. 

She left the program and pursued several career options, including education, but returned to music in 2008, as her true passion could no longer be denied. She quickly became a successful performer and has released three albums and won numerous awards. 

Most notably, in 2017 she was on America’s Got Talent, where her performance of her original song “Try,” sung while playing the ukulele, moved Simon Cowell to press his Golden Buzzer and send Mandy straight to the Quarterfinals. She went on to make the Finals and placed 4th overall.

Watch her performance here!

Mandy is also an ambassador to both No Barriers USA and Invisible Disabilities with a mission to encourage, inspire and assist others to break through their personal barriers.

Though her hearing loss is profound, her timing and pitch are perfect and her passion is tremendous. With support from friends, family and her faith, Mandy continues to find joy in music. 

Our hosts talk with Mandy about the hard work and dedication that goes into being an award-winning singer and the efforts she puts in to not only keep up the quality of her own work and continue to tour and perform, but how she translates her style to teach others to “find their rhythm.”

Mandy recently released her latest single: “Release Me” and the music video is incredible. Watch (and share) it here.

Episode Transcript

Mandy: What I want you to focus on is not my deafness. What I want you to focus on is the hard work, the blood, sweat and the tears, the community that I try to build the performances and the songs that I write. The fact that I happen to have barriers, that's obvious, and I talk about it proudly because we all do. That's just a part of who I am. Fine, but it's not the only thing that I am.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. That unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Dave: Today we meet Mandy Harvey, an award-winning singer and songwriter who also happens to be deaf. You may know Mandy from her 2017 America's Got Talent performance that earned her the Golden Buzzer press by Simon Cowell, which sent her straight to the quarter finals. She went on to make the finals and placed fourth overall. Please enjoy this live podcast that we recorded on stage at our No Barriers Summit at Lake Tahoe this past June.

Dave: Welcome to the No Barriers podcast. We are really excited to be broadcasting live from the No Barriers Summit in Lake Tahoe. We have another amazing guest with us, Mandy Harvey. Jeff and Erik are sitting here at my side. We're looking out on the mountains. It's a sunny, beautiful day. If you are listening to this podcast for the very first time, you may be wondering, what the heck is the No Barriers podcast? What is this podcast all about? Erik, tell us.

Erik: Well for me, it's not about looking into the mountains, Dave. Just to correct you there.

Dave: Good point. Good point.

Erik: No, but it's been a beautiful summit. We've been having such a great time. Amazing speakers. My family and I just did an amazing race where it was this accessible, inclusive adventure race. One of the activities you had to read Braille, so I was at a huge advantage. So yeah, it's been really good so far.

Jeff: I think the fix was in on that.

Erik: Yeah. I had insight. I had an insight judge.

Dave: The No Barriers Summit is really about how all of us have barriers in our lives and so people come here from all walks of life. They may have a physical barrier. They may be dealing with something emotional. They may be just seeking purpose in their life. The podcast is about all of those things. We interview people on this podcast that are going through some incredible challenges in their life, and we learn what they faced and how they got through it. Or maybe they're still working through it. That's what this podcast is all about. So we want to get started right away. Here we are at the No Barriers Summit, which has all these activities going on that are challenging people to try something new. Jeff, I understand that you just had an amazing experience with our guest, Mandy Harvey in her workshop. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jeff: Yeah. So one of the things that we offer here at the summit are workshops where you can go in and really have an experiential opportunity with an expert, somebody who can provide a medium or a theater for you to learn and extend yourself. I sat in on on Mandy's today, and it was remarkable how she had everyone channeling the vibration of the music really going through her process of interpreting music, which for all of us that can hear perfectly fine, we just rely on that one sense. Mandy really required all of us to do something that perhaps we've never done. The workshop wrapped up, all of us were obviously moved by it and receptive and open. Everybody started to file out of the room, and a couple of really remarkable events happen almost on top of each other, both with some of our No Barriers Reach Scholarship recipients.

Jeff: One woman was named Megan, I believe, who sort of did an impromptu duet with Mandy, which brought all of us to tears because it was just this gorgeous blending of sounds and feeling and sort of Mandy walking through this delivery with this young woman. It was phenomenal. That happened.

Erik: But she was blind too, right? Megan?

Jeff: She was blind. Sorry. Yeah, I forgot that part.

Erik: Yeah, that's cool.

Jeff: It was that angelic voice to almost match Mandy. The two of them together. Okay. So yes, everybody wiped away their tears. That was amazing. Then there was only about four or five of us left in the room, and a young woman, another Reach recipient named Melissa, I believe, who was probably somewhere in the audience here, an amazing young woman I met yesterday who was so powerfully moved by Mandy, this sort of inner soul came out of her. Her mama was with her. Her mama had this reaction, like she maybe never seen it before. She just allowed herself to just burst forth with love and appreciation and love for Mandy and what Mandy did for her. I tried to hold back crying for like a good 20 or 30 seconds and then I just couldn't do it anymore. I let it flow. I felt like that was the most absolute distillation of what No Barriers means was that moment for me and watching Mandy touch someone on that level, that very deep primal, human level. It was very moving for me. Mandy, it's an absolute honor to be here with you today.

Mandy: Oh. Thank you.

Dave: Are you going to do a duet together next?

Jeff: Yeah, no.

Mandy: Oh, yeah.

Dave: Mandy, how do you do that? What do you attribute this special power of yours to reaching people at that deep level?

Mandy: Well, I think in that instance, she's an incredible person, and I've gotten to get to know her a little bit throughout the summit. We've kind of passed each other several times and cheered each other on. It's not necessarily anything that I feel like I'm just doing. I think that it's when you have that open communication and you have that community where it feels like both of us are being respected, but we're also both kind of laying out everything that we have right there on the table, and it's being appreciated and loved on. It's just an emotional experience. So in this case, she got to experience music in a different way, and that allowed her to express herself in a little bit of a different way. It was just her dumping out emotion and then being able to be there to wrap my arms around her as you cry together and you get excited together. They weren't sad tears. They were all happy tears.

Mandy: That's the point of No Barriers is that we're building community. It's not just having a beautiful experience or learning certain things. It's about creating that rope team, that community where you're going through life together. In that moment we got to be very connected, and we were each other's rope team, and we were ready to take on the world. So everybody could feel that. I think that's what was overwhelming is that she was like, "I mean what you said yesterday, I'm with my people." So it was just her being able to be herself, unashamedly herself, and that's the most beautiful thing that I can be a part of.

Jeff: That's amazing, Mandy. Really amazing.

Erik: So Mandy, as a deaf person and you're teaching people how to sing and use their voices and write their songs, it's like the Jamaican bobsledders back in the '80s. Right?

Mandy: Yeah, yeah.

Erik: Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever just step out of yourself and go, "Wow, this is really a crazy ride that I'm on."?

Mandy: I really try not to think about it too much. Once you start about what you're doing, it makes you nervous and that you just don't do it as well I think. My goal is to not make people professional anythings. My goal is to have them step into my world for a change and in a doing so, it reminds them that our worlds are not that different because at the end of the day, you're always feeling music first. Everybody does. That's something that we all get to experiences as sound is actually hitting your body. Other people who have the ability to hear, I feel as if it's a sense that they don't pay attention to because they don't have to.

Mandy: That's true about life in general. The whole point of this entire summit is to experience new things, but also to open your eyes and open your awareness to how other people are living their lives and to move away judgment and to move away our preconceived notions of what is possible and what is not. When you get to step into a different understanding of something, you get to have that added benefit of it's not just about experiencing music differently, it's appreciating that people can have a positive beneficial life, living it differently.

Erik: But the vehicle is music. Right? So I heard that one of the things you do is you get people to experience music through their body. That's really interesting. How do you do that?

Mandy: Well, first I kind of walked them through allowing them to take control of their body. So understanding that when they're making noise, those muscles are being contracted and used, and it's up to them to make that noise to begin with. But when they're making that noise, it's not just, "Oh, sound just came out of my mouth." You're forcing that sound to come out of your mouth and to know how that feels and to know that you can mimic that feeling over and over again, even if you can't hear it, you could create that sound.

Mandy: Then from there we played with opening ourselves up and getting a little bit more comfortable with being weird and being a little bit loosey goosey in the room, and then sitting down on the floor and taking off our shoes and feeling vibrations of songs through the floor. Then seeing how the change happens when you're first experiencing music that way and you're not paying attention to the vibration still because you just can't let that go. Then eventually as you're sitting there and as the song continues, you start trying to find one beat and then you start paying attention to it. Then it becomes so blatantly obvious that that sound is there. You're like, "Wow, how have I never paid attention to this before?" It's like, "I have no idea. Wake up."

Erik: There's this idea in science of neuroplasticity, right? It's the idea that like sight isn't in your eyes, it's in your brain. I think sound is also not in your ears. It's in your brain. Right?

Mandy: Yeah.

Erik: You're listening to the feeling of those vibrations. Does it soon begin to just sound like music the way you used to hear it in your brain?

Mandy: No, in my mind, because it's textural. Actually, it's almost as if the sounds have an attached color and shape. Instead of them having a noise, they have a look. Specific noises, when I used to be able to hear them as being booming to me, now they're warm and they're thick and they're darker, richer colors. So then as you're playing a song, you get to have all these different layers and all these different colors on top of each other and it kind of creates a painting of what that song sounds like instead of it having to be just sound. I don't need to worry about having a trumpet sound like a trumpet in my mind. I let that go a long time ago, but I'm perfectly happy with having a trumpet always be a sharp orange sound.

Dave: Now, Mandy, many of our listeners will know you because of a video from America's Got Talent that went viral, where you were singing the song Try, and Simon Cowell hit the Golden Buzzer. I personally remember this night very vividly with me and my kids watching you and then refreshing our computer every hour to see hundreds of thousands of views and eventually you told me that this was seen by a half a billion people around the world. My question to you about this is tell us what that felt like in the moment and then contrast that with how it kind of feels now to know what you sparked.

Mandy: Yeah. Well, in a moment it was very overwhelming. I had no idea really what that meant. I'd not seen the show before. I didn't know exactly know what a Golden Buzzer would lead to. Even if you get a Golden Buzzer, it doesn't mean that it's going to become mega viral the way that it went. But in that moment it was this beautiful wash of I just got embraced and my music was appreciated. The thing that I loved most about it being Simon and what he had to say is he said nothing about my story. He was talking about the song that I wrote and my tone and the connection with the audience. He was talking to me as a musician because even if I had showed up and not been the best musician, he would not have done that. He would not have purposely put himself in that position. It was kind of like another nod to say that, no, I've worked my butt off. Really. I work my butt off every day, and now other people are appreciating the work.

Mandy: So in a moment that was nice because it was just like a relief, a relief that I didn't get booed off the stage, but it was just a relief. As it became on to a life of its own, it really has made me aware that it's not necessarily my voice, it's not necessarily the song, it's that people are starved for hope and people are starved for encouragement and every single person is smacking into a wall. Whether it's an invisible barrier, whether it's something going on in their personal life, like struggling with finances or a job or relationships or something very obvious where they're confined because of cancer or MS or something physical. Every single person is hitting something. And that's something that binds us all as people.

Mandy: So I think that video started as a conversation and flew the way that it flew just because people really want to have themselves be cheered on. People want to know that it's okay to be broken, that you can still get back up and try again. For that to take on a life of its own and move forward has been such a beautiful thing but also a deep motivator to not have that be my biggest thing. It can't be my Everest. There has to be so many things that we do afterwards. It's the same with Erik when he climbed that mountain and he got pulled aside and he said, "This cannot be the biggest thing that you ever do with your life." That's the same with AGT. That's not going to be the best and coolest and biggest thing that I ever do with my life. That was a really cool moment. Let's go further.

Jeff: Yeah, Mandy. All right, Mandy, I've got a question for you. I heard from a mutual friend of ours that there was a time when you wanted to be known as a singer. You did not want to be known as a deaf singer.

Mandy: Yeah.

Jeff: I want to know, was there a moment that required you to pivot, or was it a slower transformation into you absolutely embracing who you are?

Mandy: I don't really think that I've pivoted. I think I still stand by that. I want to be seen as a musician. I happen to be deaf. I have no shame in being deaf. I have shame in having Ehlers Danlos syndrome and being limited physically. I have no problem with that at all. I've embraced myself to the core, but I refuse to be a pity story for other people. I don't want to be known as, "Oh, she's pretty good for a deaf girl." What does that even mean? Because in that statement, you've already limited all deaf people to being under par.

Jeff: Substandard. Yeah.

Mandy: You've already limited the entire community to not being good enough as a hearing person. You've already put them in a small box, and I refuse to have that happen because there's nothing wrong with what barrier you have in your life. That doesn't define you. You are you. Whether you have barriers, that is a part of your journey. That's not the definition of who you are to your core. I refuse to have people put me in that small box. I'm not going to be good enough for a deaf girl. That means nothing to me. So that has never changed. The fire for that I think has only gotten more severe, and people get it. Once they were like, "Oh, you're that deaf girl." I'm like, "You're going to start to feel a little bit of a burn." Like, "Yeah, I am that deaf girl. What of it?" You know? It's like, "Oh, you're pretty good for a deaf girl." And I'm like, "Oh man. The lack of education right there is blinding. It's just so obvious that you see no value in a person as being a person."

Mandy: What I want you to focus on is not my deafness. What I want you to focus on is my work ethic, the hard work, the blood, sweat and the tears showing up past when my body is broken and doesn't want to be there. I want you to focus on the accomplishments of my life. I want you to focus on the community that I try to build. I want you to focus on the performances and the songs that I write. The fact that I happen to have barriers, that's obvious, and I talk about it proudly because we all do, and that's just a part of who I am. Fine, but it's not the only thing that I am.

Jeff: Awesome.

Erik: Now, Mandy, when you are performing, and we'll get into this, but even like writing your own music. I mean it's hard not to sort of step back and have this sort of ... you're almost like a mystical, like a guru or something.

Mandy: Yoda.

Mandy: It's Yoda.

Erik: She's like the singing Yoda. You don't look like Yoda, I don't think.

Mandy: Well, you never know, you know. Some days.

Erik: But really part of the No Barriers journey is this idea of pioneering, which we've been talking a lot about at the summit, and you're a total pioneer because you've innovated, right? This is painstaking work, right? This isn't like a mysterious mystical process. This is just getting down and dirty and getting ... You know, technology, I know you use an iPhone to learn music and vibration through your feet and you have visual cues with your band. Talk us through the pioneering process that you use.

Mandy: Well, I think that this is interesting because people think like once you figure it out, you're done. Like once you've climbed Everest that you have the ability to always climb Everest. That's just not true. It's like if every day is a new workout and every day is new muscles that have to be trained. So when I start using visual tuners and then feeling on my throat every one of those notes and doing all of those scales and doing all of that work, every day, that placement of where that muscle feels is a little bit in a different place. If I have a cold, it's going to be shifted. If it's dry, it's going to be shifted. So every day I have to re learn where I am that day and retrain myself to feel correctly. That that's never going to stop.

Mandy: It's never going to stop for me to do all of this speech therapy that I do because people are like, "Wow, it's just because you lost your hearing later in life that you speak so clearly." That's a huge thing that has changed how I talk. But I do so much speech therapy on a daily basis and I continuously sing on a daily basis to keep that up and nobody even sees or recognizes any of that work, and that's fine. I do that work for me. But every day is a new challenge and having EDS, my limbs fall asleep. So being able to feel through the floor, the vibrations, that's not always a luxury that I have. I have to pivot and find creative solutions for what that day is bringing and then go from there.

Erik: You have these certain notes, I thought you told me once, that you remember.

Mandy: Yeah.

Erik: That you start from there in your brain and you kind of branch out, right?

Mandy: Yeah. I do the same patterns every day. You just pick a single note, whether that's a G or a C.

Jeff: Can we hear it? Can we hear it?

Mandy: Then you pick one, and then you go and do the scale and find where that is every day. Then you do it over and over and over and over again. Like today, I don't have to sing, so I haven't had to do that aspect of it today.

Jeff: I got this sense that you use your throat almost as like a fret board when you were learning. Is that fair?

Mandy: Yeah, it's its own instrument, and that's something that everybody can learn to have, how they feel and how loud you talk, the strain that it puts on your throat so that you can get a gauge of, if I speak at this level, this is how it feels. Then if people are leaning in and not hearing you enough, you speak louder and then you feel the harshness gets stronger, or you speak softer, and you can feel that it doesn't hurt as much to talk, and you kind of learn how to gauge the room. But it's a lot of math and it's a lot of work and it's a lot of frustration that I deal with in my own rights. Like after speaking for two hours, I have an intense headache because it's a lot of work, and I keep doing it because it's worth it to me.

Dave: So speaking of keeping on because it's worth it to you, I know you are constantly on the road. You were recently singing for the Danish Royal family in Europe. You've been on several European tours, but I also know that you always take time when you can to go visit schools while you're traveling. Tell us a little bit about your passion for working with youth and why you think it's so important.

Mandy: I visit a lot of schools. I go to community centers, but I visit a lot of schools, elementary through high school. I normally give a presentation mixed in with singing. The point of it is to encourage people to dream but not just limit themselves to one singular dream. Because in my life I limited myself to only having one, which was music education and then when that didn't pan out the way that I thought it should, I lost my entire identity in it.

Mandy: What I want to encourage students to know is that barriers are real, that we judge each other so quickly and that you don't know what that person's dealing with. So to be more compassionate to each other, to dream big, but to have the understanding that your first time out of the gate failure is real, and you're going to fail at some point in your life and that's okay. You have the ability to get back up, brush your knees off and try again. All of those dreams that you want to accomplish, there are thousands of different ways to make that real. That it's not just I have to go to school, I have to become a music teacher, I have to do this.

Mandy: The core of my dream was to build community and encourage people to express themselves with music. Just because I'm doing performance, doesn't mean that that's changed. I'm still building community and I'm still encouraging people to express themselves with music. So you have to be able to dig deeper into what the core of your dream is, what the actual roots are, and find multiple avenues of where that's going to be successful.

Dave: Well, Mandy, that is an amazing message for us to close on. I know you have a workshop you're about to go lead in just a few minutes.

Mandy: Yeah, I've got another two hours to talk and gain another migraine.

Dave: It is an honor to just have a little bit of your time here. We are so grateful for you to be a member of our community for so many years, and we wish you the very best of luck in all that you're trying to do.

Mandy: Oh. Well, thank you. Well, I love it here, and I'm truly honored. I'm honored to be a part of it, and I'm honored to have so many incredible people who have transformed my life so that I can be giving back. You guys up here on the board, Kyle Maynard back wherever he is, Heather Thompson and all of her team. There's been so many people who have wrapped their arms around me and pushed me forward. It's my pleasure. For sure.

Dave: Well for those of you who are regular podcasts listeners, you know this is the moment in our podcast where we reflect a little bit on what we just heard. So Erik and Jeff, another great conversation. What stood out for you in the conversation?

Jeff: Well, you go first please. I've got a lot to say.

Erik: All right. I'll just go back to this pioneering piece of this No Barriers story. I really find it fascinating because Mandy spends a ton of time, tons of time, really like trying to use all the technology so that she can not only practice songs that she knows but write music, beautiful new songs. She's told me that it's thousands of hours of work. I think it's really important for people to know that this stuff doesn't just happen. Every time I've listened to Mandy, she's been flawless, like beautiful, polished, like you walk away going, "Wow, this is amazing." But that's because she puts in an incredible amount of time to do things and learn things in a different way, and it's probably in a slower way than if she could be doing it with her hearing.

Mandy: A lot slower.

Erik: You're not supposed to be here.

Mandy: I'm sorry.

Jeff: Be as silent as us.

Erik: That was the joke. You can still be here.

Jeff: Stay. Don't go anywhere.

Dave: Yeah. Don't go anywhere. Jeff, what did you hear?

Jeff: Well, Erik's point was probably the thing that struck me the most for fear of repetition. I feel like the workshop today was, in my mind, one of the most powerfully emotional experiences that I've had in any No Barriers event because Mandy provides a medium that allows people to listen and feel and express in a manner that maybe they never had. I feel like she said the word, "Yoda up." Man, that girl is straight up Yoda. She channels something that I think we could all try to strive for because she reaches people, and isn't that the goal of everything we do is to try and reach people? She does it through music and through vibration and through teaching and through being open and receiving and giving love. I was absolutely moved to tears just listening and watching her today.

Dave: Yeah, and I think for me, she reaches people and she unleashes them too. I think the idea of how could we get as many people as possible that we can reach and unleash through stories like Mandy. That's what No Barriers is all about. That's what this podcast is about in some respects as well. So if you liked this podcast, we encourage you to share it with a friend. If you are listening for the first time, you can find the No Barriers podcast on Spotify, iTunes and anywhere where you listen to and find your podcasts. You can always look for show notes at nobarrierspodcast.com. Thank you so much for listening.

Erik: No barriers.

Jeff: Thank you, Mandy.

Speaker 1: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers, Didrik Johnck and Pauline Shaffer. Sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Kottman, graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Karly Sandsmark, Megan Lee, and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.

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