A World Where People of All Stripes Enjoy Live Musical Performances.
(Part 1)

JoAnn Rose Benfield / Music interpreter in ASL

The Great Potential of Musical Interpretation in ASL.

There is a growing social awareness of music interpretation in American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf and hard of hearing. JoAnn Rose Benfield has been interpreting music for the deaf since 2014. How does she approach ASL and music as an interpreter? She offered insights into her story.

ASL transforms music into visual entertainment.

I was born and raised in Missouri, USA. Both of my parents are deaf. I have been deaf since birth, with some residual hearing in my right ear. American Sign Language (ASL) is my first language. ASL is a visual language, combining handshapes, location, movements, the positioning of the palms, and facial expressions to convey meanings. The language visualizes speech and music, two forms of expression that normally take shape as sound.

Music interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing portray the expressive power of ASL at live music events. Deaf members of the audience perceive the music visually and vibrationally, but often find it difficult to discriminate the vibrations of individual instruments or to decipher the lyrics simply by watching the performers. An ASL interpreter translates lyrics and instruments into a visual language.

ASL interpretations enhance the deaf and hard of hearing experience with music much in the same way as the rest of the audience. They also offer visual entertainment to accompany the acoustic.

JoAnn (right) with her dad Donald and her older sister Jessie Ann (left), saying “I love you”, a well-known phrase in sign language.

ASL enhances the richness of music.

More and more of the hearing members in audiences are coming to enjoy the ASL music interpretation during performances. The added visual expression seems to enhance their enjoyment of the music by raising their excitement to a new level. As an interpreter, I must always be mindful to stay out of the main performer’s limelight. My role is to connect the deaf audience with the performer. I strive to convey the music as truthfully as possible to give the deaf and hard of hearing audience access to the sounds so they can equally enjoy being part of the experience.

Music for me, whose first language is ASL, differs from what it is for someone who natively communicates in English or another language expressed through writing and sound. When you see English in writing, you convert the letters into sounds and make sense of them. When you hear spoken words, you understand what they refer to through their sounds. Using ASL, you do both at the same time, but visually. Take the word ‘rose,’ for example. The written word ‘rose’ is like a seed, in a sense. When you see the letters, you reproduce the sound of the word in your mind and then imagine a rose. The spoken word ‘rose’ is like a rosebud. When you hear it with your ears, you can almost see what the flower is like. The ‘rose’ in ASL does both, expressing a bloom that you can see and feel. This is how I envision ASL. If my first language was English, my experience of music would be more flat.

JoAnn signing the National Anthem at an event in 2007 at her hometown, Fulton, Missouri. She was crowned Miss Deaf Missouri.

One day I hope to share the stage with a big artist.

When not interpreting music in ASL, I work as an outreach director for Gallaudet University Regional Center-South, providing support to local deaf communities. Giving back to my community gives me joy and a sense of purpose. When given the opportunity, I perform music directly in sign language and dance. (*1) When performing on stage as a musician, I follow my inspiration and express the music in my own way.

Costumes and choreography are important elements of the performance. I use my hands and my body to get the music across, while not actually singing with my voice. I have always believed that I can achieve anything. By keeping my eyes open to opportunities, I know they will eventually come. My dream is to perform in a movie or on stage with stars like Will Smith, Justin Timberlake, or Madonna.

*1: She performs music by conveying lyrics and sounds using ASL and her bodily expressions.

Performing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at the St. Louis Deaf Inc. Gala in 2019.

Read the Part 2

JoAnn Rose Benfield / Music interpreter in ASL
JoAnn Benfield lives in Austin, Texas. Born deaf, her first language is American Sign Language. She graduated as Valedictorian from Missouri School for the Deaf. As an undergraduate she majored in Production & Performance Arts, English, and Secondary Education at Gallaudet University, USA. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in Deaf Education at the same university. Today she serves as an Outreach Director at the university’s Regional Center, and as a deaf interpreter for Amber G Productions, Stardust ASL, and Soulumination.

Interview Date:

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