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Published: 2017/09/10
by Pete Mason

Lyrics for the Eyes: A Look at ASL Live Music Interpreters

ASL interpreter signing Phish’s “Reba” at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, September 2, 2017

Whenever I go to see Phish at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park each Labor Day weekend, my friends and I always end up Page Side near the rail, across from the speakers. From our vantage point, we can see the band and have fantastic sound, but as a bonus we have also been able to watch an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter in action, taking the lyrics of Phish and translating them into ASL for deaf fans congregated near the rail. Not only does this show the inclusive nature of the Phish community and venues in general, but it also demonstrates a different processing style and rendition of the words to the songs that the rest of the venue hears in the moment.

ASL Basics

For deaf Phish fans like Steve Forsthoefel, who first saw Phish in Hershey, PA in 1996, songs were determined by the reaction of the crowd as a song began. “I feel like I’m the only one in the room who is not familiar with Phish songs. In fact, ‘Wilson’ is one of a very few songs I can easily recognize, thanks to Trey’s opening chord which prompts the “Wilson” chant from the crowd.” Updates from Phish: From the Road helps those who are deaf as well. Steve, and others deaf fans can enjoy the show with simple visual updates and without having to rely as heavily on friends or neighbors for song updates.

Steve didn’t have to rely on ASL, but rather studied and memorized more than 50 Phish songs for lip-reading purposes which came in handy thanks to accessible seating near the stage. But like many who are deaf, ASL is a key skill that was learned over time, and in doing so Steve was able to request an ASL interpreter for most the Phish shows he attended since March 2009. “I find ASL highly accessible because it allows me to enjoy music and follow Phish lyrics at the same time. It’s more relaxing going to shows these days without putting so much effort into homework on countless songs.”

Deaf people fall into different categories, including those who have complete deafness since birth, partial deafness, those who had hearing their entire lives but lost their hearing, those who benefit from hearing aids but do not read lips, among others. These groups can be marginalized and need to rely on ASL in various capacities, because being deaf is a unique and invisible disability – they are fully able people but they can’t hear.

ASL is seldom word-to-word translation but rather based on meaning, of the word. Thus, there is no one way to interpret a song, when you factor in an interpreter’s background, education, experiences, knowledge of the music and even their accent. Each interpretation is unique and one concept can be translated in countless ways. Each interpreter has their own process and style, just as a cab driver may take you one way, and another take you a different way. You still end up at the same destination, hopefully at the same time, which is the goal to ASL interpretation.

Interpreters and their styles

Donnie Gibbons grew up with deaf parents and he grew up at residential schools, graduated school and hung out with deaf people, integrating deaf culture into Donnie’s upbringing. When his mom went back to college in her 40s, she discovered there was a huge demand for interpreters, and few men at that. Donnie gave it a shot and began interpreter training at Northeastern University and knew the culture and history that when combined with this skill set could contribute to students he interpreted for. Now he trains and supervises interpreters at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Massachusetts.

Early on in his career, Donnie got cold calls for graduation and events, but in the late 90s he got a call from Furthur, and being a fan of the Grateful Dead he took the gig. This let him to signing for fans of Madonna, Van Halen, American Idol, Furthur once again, then Phish. In a given year, Donnie will sign at 50-60 shows throughout New England in Worcester, Boston, Great Woods, and Manchester, NH. Existing relationships with Tom Bailey from The Capitol Theatre and Peter Shapiro, as well as Phil Lesh’s support for the deaf community, which led to working with GD50 in Santa Clara and Chicago and shows around the country, in addition to a growing network of Deaf fans from across the country who requested him to sign.

There are preferences that deaf fans have, and interpreters including Donnie have developed a relationship with fans through the quality of their ASL as opposed to those who go through the motions or just survive. “Interpreters have to know the music and be poised, fluent, professional, be able to improvise and think in your toes, making momentary decisions that meet the needs of the fan.”

Interpreters are typically hired by a promoter from an agency or simply freelance, and based on preference and skill level will work a variety of events where signing is needed. Sharyn Newcombe Klipstein grew up a Deadhead and her passion for music and ASL combined for when she interpreted for the Dead, and later for Phish and other jambands. “It makes a difference if the interpreter not only knows and gets the music but truly loves it. It’s obvious in the interpretation.”

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