A World Where People of All Stripes Enjoy Live Musical Performances.
(Part 2)

JoAnn Rose Benfield / Music interpreter in ASL

I am Always Fighting for the Right of the Deaf to Listen to Music.

As a music interpreter and ASL performer, JoAnn Rose Benfield is devoted to bringing music to people who have limited ways to experience it. She shared her enduring passion for music with us, her faith in its power, and her vision as an ASL music interpreter.

Music connects people.

I was born to deaf parents who filled our family life with music. As lovers of music, my parents kept our home lively by listening to the songs of the day as I grew up. When I was approximately 7 years old, I had the opportunity to perform in a musical event. The heartfelt applause from the audience at the end of that performance enchanted me. Their response demonstrated how music connected people together. My own connection with the audience was powerful and life changing.

My relationships with peers in those days were unfulfilling. The school I attended was mainstream, with just a few other deaf students around. Most of the time I felt lonely, unconsciously craving for connection. My experience with musical performance changed that. Music became a special part of my life by making me feel like part of a scene created together with others. I idolized my mother, who herself had been performing music with sign language for years. I still admire her, and more profoundly than I admire some of my favorite singers like Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and Madonna.

A picture with my mother and sister (in red sunglasses). My favorite photo with my mother from when I was 1~2 years old.

Lyrics resonate with the emotions and clear the mind.

Music is wonderful as a medium not only to express your feelings, but also to share your story with others. Music is expressed in the voices of singers or instruments, while lyrics tell personal stories that people can relate to. Music, even without lyrics, is also a form of healing.

My most poignant memories of lyrics were formed after a difficult breakup. The relationship drained me of motivation and happiness. I was shattered emotionally, but music gave me the chance to refocus myself. One day, while filming a song in ASL, a deep sorrow and sadness in the song resonated with what I was feeling. The emotional power of the music made me more receptive to the lyrics of the song, which expressed a message of healing. The lyrics helped me see that I was in a better place than I had been before. By listening to this song, I could face the past, clear my mind, and move on. Since then I have known that lyrics effuse an empathy that brings people together.

From when I performed at a karaoke night at Cats Meow in New Orleans.

My passion for music is the fuel for my engine.

Imagine that you go to a concert by your favorite artist but cannot hear a thing. Deprived of the sound, you feel cut off from the live performance, left out of the scene. This is the feeling deaf and hard of hearing humans experience every day. I look forward to a time when everyone, both the deaf and the hearing, share the same excitement and experience. I work toward this day with my fellows in the ASL community. We too have the right to enjoy music. We need to continue raising awareness of how things are for our community and fight for access everywhere.

While I’m happy to say that the demand for ASL music interpreters at live events is growing, there are still too few opportunities overall. Interpreting music in ASL isn’t something anyone can easily do. You have to have proficiency in ASL, an interest in the deaf community, and most of all, a deep passion for music. I, for one, will continue promoting and sharing the love of music in ASL. I will keep fighting for language access until the world comes to recognize that deaf and hard of hearing humans have the right to enjoy music and live their daily lives as freely as others do.

JoAnn interprets a folk song about a whale at the Austin City Limits music festival in 2017.

Read the Part 1

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:

Recommended Stories