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One spring day in Rover Park, Emily Silks asked her mom to identify a sound she'd heard.

"I pointed to the birds and I said, 'That's the noise they make. The birds are singing,' " Valerie Fassbender said.

Fassbender remembers that on that day, the chirping birds in Los Alamos put a little jump in her daughter's step. 

Silks was born 95 percent hearing impaired, and her ears didn't fully work until she was 7 years old and had gone under the knife twice, once for each ear.

When the bandages came off, Silks felt as though she was awakening.

"In the moment, I didn't think about it like this, but it was as if the sound was music itself," Silks said.

Now, she's a percussion performance major at the University of Montana, a musician in the community, and she's an organist, composer, singer, artist, and ukulele player.

Silks also is a woman who believes an appreciation for the wonder of sound is a gift she was fortunate to receive – having been born without it – and she's honored to share it through music.

"I try not to let it define me as a musician," she said of her former impairment. "By the same token, it has shaped me."

She has a grateful heart, an insatiable mind, and often, a skip in her step.

The bunny hop is one reason professor Bob LedBetter likes telling her new things: "She'll go, 'Oh my God,' and she'll jump up and down."

***

At first, Emily Silks' parents didn't know their third child couldn't hear well.

The umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck at birth, and doctors punctured her lung in their attempts to resuscitate her.

Fassbender and Pete Silks spent their infant daughter's early years taking her back and forth to the hospital. There, doctors took cursory looks in her ears, but quickly moved on to her lungs and weak respiratory system.

"The normal kinds of playing with babies and things that you do we didn't really do with Emily because she was in oxygen tents and intensive care," Fassbender said.

One day, Fassbender forgot to close the baby's bedroom door when Silks was sleeping, and the little girl slept through a barking dog, humming vacuum and playing siblings, Andrew and Nicole.

"Nothing disturbed her," she said. "That was kind of a clue that she didn't even react to any of that."

In little experiments at home, Fassbender noticed Silks responded to light cues, but not sound.

At first, a pediatrician told the family their daughter had a big plug of wax in her ears, but a specialist later confirmed something was amiss.

Silks appeared to have no ear canals. She had normal looking outer ears, intact inner ears, but problems in between, including bony plates.

The specialists diagnosed a rare condition: Congenital aural atresia.

Surgery could fix it, but the risks were great. A slip in the operation could result in facial paralysis – even total deafness.

***

In New Mexico, Fassbender started looking for surgeons who might be up to the task of correcting her daughter's hearing, but her research didn't give her confidence.

In one consultation, she asked a doctor how often he had performed the surgery, given the condition's rarity.

"I didn't really get a straight answer," she said.

When she told Silks' audiologist she felt uneasy about surgery, the audiologist recommended a consultation with Dr. Antonio De la Cruz with the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

"Of course, the insurance company didn't want to pay for it," Fassbender said.

The family footed the bill, and in Los Angeles, Fassbender came to believe Dr. De la Cruz was the right surgeon to treat her daughter. He had performed more than 500 similar operations, and he immediately found a glaring problem overlooked in New Mexico.

"He informed us the CT scans that the doctor had ordered for Emily were the wrong view," Fassbender said.

If he went into surgery using them as a guide, he'd be going in blind.

Back at home, Fassbender buckled in for a battle with the insurance company. After roughly a year, at least two denials for coverage, help from an attorney and a presentation by Fassbender to a panel of doctors, nurses and insurance representatives, the family won.

Silks' surgery was on.

"The risk was always there, but in the hands of a surgeon as capable as (de la Cruz) is and with his level of expertise, we felt like it was a balanced risk ... given the possible benefit," Fassbender said.

***

Silks was six and a half years old – and scared – on Dec. 10, 2001, when De la Cruz and his team performed surgery on her first ear. The second surgery took place the following April, and her hearing came gradually.

"I remember that I was kind of overwhelmed," Silks said. "Everything felt new. It's like I was waking up. I think I felt connected for the first time in a way that I hadn't experienced before."

Her parents saw her eyes light up at hearing her siblings laugh.

"I remember asking them so many questions, and them always being able to answer," Silks said of her parents.

In Los Alamos, maple and elm trees grow in the city, and Silks remembers walking home with someone, probably her big sister, Nicole, the fall after her surgeries.

"What is that noise?" Silks remembers asking.

"Emily, look down."

On that perfect autumn day, sunny and not too cold, she first heard the sound of fallen leaves crunching on the sidewalk.

***

Even before she could hear, Silks had found her way to music.

Fassbender herself is a musician, and when she practiced at home, her little girl would tote her puzzles and dolls to play under the black Yamaha grand piano.

Her mom encouraged Silks to play music, and in elementary school, she chose percussion because it felt the most familiar.

"Rhythm I could feel as opposed to distinct melody," she said.

Her first concert took place in the Pinon Elementary School gym, and Fassbender arrived early to get a seat where she had a clear view of her daughter, a small child standing in the back in her black pants and white top.

The band played "Hot Cross Buns," with Silks keeping the beat on the drums.

"I only had eyes for that one drummer. The room could have caught on fire," Fassbender said.

Even then, Silks played as though the music was coming from her whole self, her mom remembers.

As she grew up, music tugged at Silks now and then, and the turning point came in high school. The summer of her junior year, she attended the Berklee College of Music Percussion Festival.

"That was the first time I'd heard musical excellence like that," Silks said.

After the trip to Boston, Silks decided to enroll at UM where LedBetter focuses on world percussion and takes annual trips to Africa or Bali with students. This year, she's going to Bali (see sidebar).

"It's getting more real every day," Silks said.

***

As a performer, Silks plays music from the inside out, wanting to understand the background of a piece and its composer to play it with intention.

She's played a piece called, "A Little Prayer," written by Evelyn Glennie.

"She's the backwards of me," Silks said.

Glennie was born with hearing and then lost it, and she wrote the piece when she first started losing the sense. Silks, with the Davidson Honors College, has done research on the composer and written papers about her.

"She's very much an inspiration to me," Silks said.

As far as musicians go, and as a person in general, Silks also inspires. She gives compliments and high fives to colleagues in the halls of the music building between classes.

"She's frankly one of my favorite people," said Brian Tremper, a fellow music student.

At the school, he's seen a shift in philosophy, where people look out for each other and focus on making the most beautiful music they can.

"I definitely think one of those factors is Emily's personality and just her soul," Tremper said.

Sometimes, he said, people pursue music because they're good at it, and they want others to stroke their egos and tell them they're wonderful. Silks is dedicated to the craft because she wants to bring something wonderful to others.

"She wants to know, and then make other people feel great through music," he said.

Her joy fuels LedBetter's love for teaching as well and his interest in sharing new ideas that might get her jumping.

"That's inspiring to me as a teacher to have a student that's that excited about music," said LedBetter, director of percussion studies.

She laughs a lot, even when things go wrong, said friend and fellow music student Hannah Hutchins.

"She works really, really hard, and knows what she has to do, so she's a really strong link in all of the ensembles that she's in," Hutchins said.

***

Bongos, a djembe, a ukelele and a cajon, a box with sound hole and snare, sit in Silks' home in the Slants neighborhood. She keeps a rock drum kit in the basement, and art on the walls.

A quote by Plato adorns one wall: "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything."

Silks has the kindest eyes, and in her life, she seeks to live gratefully and understand sound as a gift. Her mom and godfather, Joe Cox, a choir director and music arranger, also showed her to live thankfully and presently.

"I always want to honor that and never really take for granted the opportunities that are presented to me, especially with such supportive parents," Silks said.

She's a double major who is also studying psychology because she wants to understand how music affects the brain and elicits certain emotions and behaviors.

Her philosophy as a performer is to give her all to the music, to not only learn the difficult passages but understand its heart.

"You want to strive for technical excellence, but it's more important to me to have integrity and love what I do," she said.

After a pause, she adds this: "That's really cheese ball."

The results are true, though, as those who have watched her perform can attest. Tremper recalls a percussion ensemble where Silks played one of the lead marimba parts. 

"It was like the music wasn't just flowing out of her, it was like it was coming out of her and inundating the stage and then (pouring) like a waterfall off of the stage," Tremper said. "It was so expressive and so powerful and undeniable."

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.