Leadership / 07.09.18
Helping People With Hearing Loss Rock Out
You're seeing it more and more at concerts: Off to the side of the stage, but in their own prominent place and spotlight, professional interpreters are using American Sign Language (ASL) to help those who are deaf or have hearing loss enjoy their favorite bands and performers. Just recently, a video went viral in which Holly Maniatty, an interpreter who signed Eminem's rapid-fire performance of "Rap God" at the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware, darn near upstaged Slim Shady himself.
Colorado-based Jon Wilkerson believes the more interpreted concerts that get staged, the better. Wilkerson, an interpreter who speaks and signs at least a half-dozen languages, started a program for interpreting live theater at a downtown Denver arts center before being recruited by the Boulder concert scene. Passionate about his work, Wilkerson maintains that the best interpreters are also performers themselves, providing a true accessibility experience for guests who speak ASL.
"Back in the day when there was an instrumental passage," he said, "I would just point to the band and sign 'music.' Now if it is a shorter passage, I will dance around as best as I can to express the feeling of the underlying music. If it's quite a long passage, I will make myself scarce, stepping to one side so as not to draw any attention away from the band."
The real question many have is if he knows the list of songs and what the performers are going to say to their audiences prior to the concert. "Sometimes! You should definitely ask for a setlist long before the actual concert,” he said. “Most bands will oblige, but some not so much. When you arrive, you have to make sure to check the setlist you were given with the list on stage. Bands will often change things up mid-tour."
What Wilkerson does make a point of doing is knowing the words to all the songs in advance though he typically doesn't have the time to memorize the lyrics for the entire two-hour concert. "I will instead make a playlist of the setlist that I can stream and listen to the music while reading the lyrics,” he said. “The week of the concert, I’ll have the tunes playing in the background constantly. At the concert itself, if I’m not comfortable with the lyrics, I will have them clipped in large font to a music stand in front of me."
Wilkerson's favorite moments have been when he's found himself interpreting a song he just flat-out loves. "It's a song you’ve loved for years," he said, "and here you are, doing it with a live band in front of 10,000 people. For a few brief minutes, you feel like an actual rock star."
In terms of challenges, interpreting difficult lyrics is high on his list. "Some lyrics lend themselves beautifully to signing," he explained. "Other lyrics are either quite abstract and murky, or they are almost percussive sounds to accompany the underlying music. Think of the lyrics of a song like 'Long Tall Sally' or 'Roll Over Beethoven.' Signing 'Oh baby, c'mon, baby' isn’t exactly as interesting as just naked lyrics."
For anyone interested in doing what he does, Wilkerson urges them to have lots of energy. “Be big!” he said. “Do whatever you can to make your clients feel part of the experience. Find your clients in the audience and make sure they are having fun. If they want to 'sign along' with the music, get the sign out half a beat before the actual lyric so they can do this. It's a tricky technique, but very effective."
He recalls his first time signing at a live concert, which he interpreted as if he "was doing a biology lecture." Several hearing patrons came up afterwards and told him how much they enjoyed his expressive signing. But it was the one deaf fan who came up and admonished him, saying "You need to be more expressive!" That sentiment stuck with him. "Interpreting a concert is so different from anything else you will do as an interpreter," Wilkerson said. "It's dancing, it's emoting, it's being a vessel for the lyrics and the music. You can't be expressive enough. If you aren't completely exhausted by the end of the night, you probably didn’t do a great job."
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Tags: Accessibility , Music , Theater , Stadium , Arts