For Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Joy of Live Music

For Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Joy of Live Music

Barbie Parker signing in 2011 at a performance by Bright Eyes at Lollapalooza in Chicago.


Published: March 2, 2013

On the last night of the 2012 Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, the sun set over a crowd of thousands who had stood for hours waiting to see Jack White, the headliner. A figure strode onto the stage, setting off a cascade of cheers.

But it was not Jack White, the singer-guitarist, it was Barbie Parker, the festival’s lead sign language interpreter.

Ms. Parker, a Texas native, and members of her Austin-based company, LotuSIGN, had interpreted more than 20 bands’ sets for deaf and hard of hearing festival attendees that weekend. As evidenced by the positive reception she received, her interpretations had won over a good part of the hearing audience as well.

At live music shows, Ms. Parker, 45, does not just sign lyrics — she communicates the entire musical experience. She mouths the words. She plays air guitar and air drums. She jams along with the bands.

“Music is such a large part of who I am,” she said. “I want to be able to open up that experience.”

Ms. Parker was bored in her accounting job and had two young children when she enrolled in her first formal American Sign Language class at San Antonio College about 20 years ago. She became fascinated with interpretation after reading a book about it at her local library and, in a chance encounter just hours after reading it, met the sister of a friend who happened to be an American Sign Language interpreter.

Ms. Parker is now an integral part of Austin’s deaf community. Her two adult sons are proficient in A.S.L., and her company has provided sign language interpretation at music festivals across the country for several years. Next week, she and other LotuSIGN interpreters will take the stage with artists at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin for the sixth year in a row.

The number of deaf and hard of hearing music fans taking advantage of interpretation at free shows held at Auditorium Shores as part of SXSW has risen noticeably in the past few years, Frank Schaefer, the officer manager for the festival, said in an e-mail. The increase can be attributed, at least in part, to a growing number of interpreters who specialize in that kind of work.

A good interpreter is adept at signing, but Ms. Parker also wants her team to impart the emotions and feelings music conveys. Lauren Kinast, 44, who lost her hearing gradually, attended a Rolling Stones concert signed by LotuSIGN interpreters. Ms. Kinast had listened to the Stones growing up, but when she saw Ms. Parker and a colleague interpret their music, she came away with a greater appreciation of the band.

“Everything made it different, better,” Ms. Kinast typed in an interview. “Having the songs interpreted in my language, understanding the emotions behind it, the meaning behind it, and being a part of the concert experience just took my love for them several notches up.”

Ms. Parker first gained recognition in the mid-2000s for interpreting music at the funeral of the parent of a well-known member of the deaf community in Austin. At one point during the service, she needed to sign an emotional musical performance.

“The singer got inspired, so the interpreting had to get inspired,” Ms. Parker said. The signing seemed to further stir the singer, which further moved Ms. Parker. “There was a kind of reverb,” she said. “The deaf audience was just — I just saw these jaws drop open like, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s like.’ ”

After that, she began receiving requests to interpret at weddings, children’s recitals and, of course, live shows. In 2007, she started her own company, Alive Performance Interpreting, which in 2009 became LotuSIGN.

“They’re five-star interpreters,” said Stacy Landry, the program manager for the local government’s deaf and hard of hearing services in Travis County. (Ms. Parker has obvious clout in the field — her traditional interpreting services were used in January when she intepreted President Obama’s Inaugural Address in Washington.)

LotuSIGN interpreters specialize in analyzing lyrics for the artist’s intent in a song. But sign language interpretation, no matter where it takes place, is about more than translating words into gestures and signs. The interpreter must communicate an overall experience by expressing the speaker’s tone, the meaning behind phrases and idioms, and even if someone’s cellphone interrupts an otherwise-silent lecture hall.

One year, Ms. Parker interpreted at a Sheryl Crow concert held to celebrate of one of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles. He was asked to take over on the drums for one of Ms. Crow’s songs.

“Well,” Ms. Parker said, “he wasn’t any good.”

Ms. Parker let the discomfort show on her face as she imitated Mr. Armstrong’s uneven drumming. She nodded subtly to assure perplexed members of the deaf audience that she was indeed doing this on purpose.

As the audience reacted, Ms. Parker saw a deaf man elbow the hearing man next to him and cringe. The hearing man nodded and made a similar pained face.

“They had this shared experience,” Ms. Parker said. The deaf man was truly part of the crowd.

LotuSIGN is working to mentor others in the hope of expanding access to live events. “You can’t do it without a lot of experience,” Ms. Parker said. “It is the hardest work I have ever done.”

Kathryn Jepsen is the deputy editor of Symmetry magazine.


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