Let’s start with some myth busting: Why would you go to a live concert if you can’t hear the music?
It may come as a shock to know that deaf people are everywhere. Wherever humanity seeks to go, so do deaf people. But until you see someone pick up their hands and use them to sign, how would you know? Deaf people are truly an invisible minority language culture, have widely varying degrees of hearing loss, and can still enjoy music.
The woeful, silent deaf existence is a myth and is not true representation. Despite common misconceptions from the majority population, I am a British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreter who specialises in live music performance, and I love my job.
This niche provision is often referred to as performance or music interpreting. Its success depends on a myriad of factors, and I write this in the hope that I can change the attitude of BSL provision being just another box to be ticked on the inclusivity checklist.
Our work is to embody the artist performing on stage, matching every emotion, and delivering their full intent within the music they have created. The message I want to make clear is we are performing here and with and for the deaf community, and when I am performing within the space and energy of my deaf audience there is nothing better.
English lyrics on the lips and BSL on the hands
I look at my work throughout the years I have specialised in this domain, and I think, “this work belongs to all of us, ownership belongs to the deaf community.” Thank you. Thank you for tutoring me, guiding me, teaching me. From my deaf community I have taken linguistic sips of my preferred language choices and without you I am nothing. I was raised within the community, “it takes a village to raise a sign language interpreter” (Brian Morrison, 2013).
Performing interpretations of music is my most favourite and best work, I'm a big believer that music interpreting should be English lyrics on the lips and BSL on the hands, simultaneously delivered in two languages.
Not following the English word for word, sign for sign, but paying homage to the artist by matching their lyrics and delivering the same meaning with my own creative BSL repertoire. As interpreters we are present throughout all aspects of deaf people’s lives, from cradle to grave, so to be there during concerts and festivals when fans and crowded audiences are having the time of their lives is the ultimate privilege.
I've covered festivals, arenas, small local venues, theatres, stadiums, and I wouldn't be there without the presence of the deaf community. We need promoters and venues to understand the work that we do and why we should be considered as performers in our own right, if we can guarantee a performance rider every time we are booked to perform this will also open the doors for our deaf colleagues to join us too.
Considerations to allow full participation
This representative type of provision seems an almost impossible pipe dream when manoeuvring oneself through the current culture of event organising for live music. To help promoters who may want to include access to music in BSL, I have created a performance rider, a list of considerations to make which will allow interpreters and deaf people to participate fully in a live music event:
- Make the set list available to us within a month (minimum) of the performance date, not ten minutes before the act is due to come on stage. If the artist wants us to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), we will. It may seem like an obvious item to request but in my experience it can be one of the hardest things to obtain, especially at festivals. What promoters and artists need to realise is the more we know, the better we will be at reflecting the work.
- Consider in advance the positioning of the interpreter, whether they are on stage, on a podium, projected onto a screen, on a disability platform, or in front of the seated customers. This decision will affect all sorts of things including lighting, lexical choices, and last-minute additions to the set. And once you’ve placed the interpreter you need to think about where you intend to place the audience, too far away and they won’t be able to access the performance, too close and they may feel like I’m on top of them, and if it’s at the wrong angle they may not be able to access the live act and the interpreter at the same time.
- How will the interpreter be lit? This should be considered separately from the set or venue lighting, are we able to have an independent spotlight from the venue rig? Or mobile lighting? Whichever option is decided, we need to be well lit and as visually accessible as possible. Please not an office desk lamp balanced on the seat nearest to me.
- Can we have an IEM (please!)? An in-ear monitor is a must for all performances. There is nothing worse than trying to perform an interpretation for a song you can barely hear.
BSL interpreters need recognition as performers
These considerations are not an exhaustive list, and there are additional things I could mention such as a private space to safely leave our coats and equipment, which gives us somewhere to prepare and wind down before and after a performance, but I would suggest the most important request is the setlist.
If we know what's coming, we can create a wonderful, creative, amazing performances. Not only do we research the lyrics we look at the artist’s background, their history, their discography, their values.
If you can give us all the preparation available in good time this will allow our deaf colleagues to join us. If we can achieve recognition that we are performers and not a disability access checklist item to be ticked off, then our deaf counterparts will be able to join us in the spotlight, and we can foster true deaf representation in BSL performance.