What does a guitar solo look like if you can’t hear? How a sign language interpreter translates concerts
(CNN) — If you showed up late or missed the introduction, you might think she’s the main attraction.
On the main stage are four middle-aged men, adorned with tattoos, tank tops and long, flowing white hair. They screech and growl, plunging their bodies back and forth.
A little off to the side is Lindsay Rothschild-Cross.
She looks like she’s simply rocking out at this heavy metal concert. But she’s actually performing a valuable service: interpreting each syllable, scream and solo with precision for deaf concertgoers, using American Sign Language.
Rothschild-Cross travels the country each summer to interpret at festivals and concerts, while fighting against audism, a form of ableism that discriminates against deaf people.
What goes into each concert is a mountain of research, preparation and time. What comes out is a more accessible concertgoing experience that allows everyone to partake in the joy of live summer music.
The need for interpreters
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires any place of public accommodation to provide interpreters if even one person requests one. However, many places, especially temporary festival grounds, have trouble complying.
Venues will sometimes place interpreters in mosh pits or in an inaccessible area. Rothschild-Cross emphasized the need for advocates for proper accommodation.
Occasionally, she said, the artists will not abide by the rules or will be disrespectful. Some musicians refuse to give her set lists in advance, or ask for the interpreters’ spotlights to be turned off.
Concertgoers also can be rude and intolerant, she said. Rothschild-Cross noted a commonly held misconception that deaf people cannot and should not attend a live music performance.
Tara Sawyer, a deaf Californian, explained why she enjoys the concert sensation.
“You can feel the music in your body, plus get the signs and story about what the songs were about,” Sawyer said. “Without an ASL interpreter, I would never bother to go.”
Greg Lehr grew up listening to music but developed hearing loss later in life. Now, he said, he can hear the music but can’t understand the words. Like Sawyer, he said he appreciates the community and contagious energy of going to a concert.
“Concerts are about a lot more than just the audio,” Lehr said. “They’re electric, with a passionate intensity, and the lights draw you in! Since deaf people are a small minority, particularly at a concert, there is also a good chance of making friends with other deaf concertgoers.”
What goes into each performance
When Rothschild-Cross interprets at a concert, she doesn’t just show up the day of and translate lyrics in real time. She’ll spend weeks researching the artists and their repertoire, learning the back story and context for each song.
When artists won’t share their set list, she makes educated guesses about what they’re most likely to play and then taps into the themes and emotional motifs of each song.
Signing for rock musicians, she said she finds she’s often interpreting lyrics about addiction, mental health and drug use. She said she needs to understand what the artist is feeling to do her job properly.
“I truly feel like artists, they know when an interpreter is in it for the right reasons,” Rothschild-Cross said. “That’s how I’m able to incorporate all of his feelings and his past struggles into that.”
An interpreter is not just signing the words coming out of a singer’s mouth; there are instruments, pitches and noises to convey as well.
Rothschild-Cross can sign for instrumental breaks or even beat-boxing. She’ll sometimes add qualifiers — descriptive adjectives or adverbs — while miming an air guitar or flute solo to express the full breadth of the music.
For longer notes or held-out sounds, Rothschild-Cross will hold out the sign as well. She indicates a higher pitch with a scrunched-up tight face and a lower pitch with puffed-out cheeks.
There are even masculine and feminine signs that change based on the singer’s gender.
Rothschild-Cross is plugged into the stage with a sound pack so she is tapped directly into the artist’s sound. There is often a processing lag, when the interpreter can be two sentences behind the musician, while mentally translating the words and sounds in real time.
She works with a team of two to three interpreters who are stationed around the venue. They switch off every few songs and stand in the back and side to sign notes and guidance to the main interpreter.
With five years of experience and a vast resume of other ASL-related activity, Rothschild-Cross has come to a simple conclusion: “Music interpreting is its own breed.”
She learned ASL in high school
Rothschild-Cross started learning ASL when she was 15 years old. The reason was not quite as noble as the work she is currently involved in.
She explained: “It’s funny because everyone’s like, ‘Do you have a deaf brother or sister or family member?’ and I’m like, ‘No I just met a deaf person, I thought he was hot, so I learned sign language to talk to him.'”
After discovering a more profound passion, Rothschild-Cross studied ASL in school and started teaching ASL as a language course at Lumberton High School in Texas.
In past generations, ASL was mainly used by hearing relatives of a deaf family member. Rothschild-Cross is part of a growing contingency of people studying it in school.
According to a 2016 report from the Modern Language Association, ASL is the third most studied languages in US colleges. In 1990, there were 1,602 reported enrollments of ASL study.
“A lot of schools want ASL very badly, because in education they see a need in equal opportunity and language access … but the problem is there’s not enough people that know sign language well enough to teach it or interpret it,” Rothschild-Cross said.
With this goal in mind, five years ago Rothschild-Cross joined Amber G productions, a Houston-based music interpretation group that offers workshops and bookings. The organization was started by Amber Galloway Gallego, “the most recognizable sign language interpreter in the country,” according to Vibe Magazine.
Using her platform to fight for accessibility
Rothschild-Cross uses her job to advocate and correct misconceptions.
“Some people are like, ‘Why would a deaf person even go to a concert? They’re deaf.’ Well why are you going to a concert? To enjoy it!” Rothschild-Cross said. “Deaf people have the right to enjoy that, too.”
Despite a lack of awareness among some, many artists welcome her interpretation. Rothschild-Cross has had multiple occasions when artists have come up behind her on the interpreter stage, pulled her up to the main stage or hugged her during the concert.
Rothschild-Cross said she will keep performing each summer to make music more accessible and to represent those who embrace her dynamic signing and magnetic performance. And to those who don’t, she has a clear and far-reaching message: “Be open-minded and accepting of other cultures.”
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