Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, it's The Takeaway. And I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Allow me to make some introductions. This is Ryan Wilde. He's a producer here on The Takeaway.
Ryan Wilde: It looks like a jet pack.
Melissa Harris-Perry: And this is Catarina Barton, also a takeaway producer.
Katerina Barton: It definitely tickles.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Katerina and Ryan are here to bring you a story about experiencing music while deaf. Both Katerina and Ryan are hearing, but when our executive producer asked our team to consider how sound central concerts and events are made accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Well, Katerina and Ryan were eager to jump right in and find some answers. And they’re starting with the Grateful Dead.
Katerina Barton: Okay, Ryan, when you think of the Grateful Dead, what comes to mind?
Ryan Wilde: I'm imagining a huge concert filled with Tie-dye T-shirts, bellbottom jeans, a lot of folks barefoot. And then, of course, the croon of Jerry Garcia's guitar.
Katerina Barton: For decades, The Grateful Dead packed stadiums and arenas around the world, followed by their die hard tie dyed fans, the Deadheads.
Ryan Wilde: And for all those Deadheads, the band and their cultural legacy represent a vision of a more idyllic world.
Jeff Rosen: My favorite song changes by the season. What's important to me is that I feel the thread, the harmony, and I really get it recently. Birdsong or morning dew? Either one of those.
Katerina Barton: Jeff Rosen is a Deadhead, but he's also a deaf head, which is what people who are deaf and also Grateful Dead fans call themselves. He spoke to us through an American Sign Language or ASL interpreter.
Jeff Rosen: I really just got into it at a show on one random day in 1985 in Seattle. I went with a few other deaf friends. We all went as a group and it was really just a magical experience. And I was like, What is it? What's so special that's happening here? What's going on? You know, it was a little unusual, and I thought that it was unique. And someone explained to me that this is just their typical shows.
Katerina Barton: And after that first show, Jeff attended over 200 more dead shows.
Ryan Wilde: Whoa! 200.
Katerina Barton: 200. And Jeff was also the chairman of the National Council on Disability under the Obama administration.
Ryan Wilde: For Jeff and other Deafheads, being able to feel the vibrations and the energy at the shows was important. And so is location.
Jeff Rosen: When people get close to the stage and they have that vibration experience and they can feel it. They can move with the music in a way that's generally different from people who are up in the nosebleeds. Those people up there do experience music, generally auditory for the most part. There is some visual effects, but it's so far away it may not be the same. So unfortunately, vendors tend to put deaf people in the back. So for example, they may have like wheelchair access that way and that is important, but it's not a good fit for deaf people to put them in that same seats.
Ryan Wilde: Jerry Garcia even had his own unique sign name amongst Deafheads.
Jeff Rosen: Jerry lost one finger. There was like an accident. It didn't affect his guitar playing, but they were deaf individuals who like, come up with name signs. And so because of that missing finger, that's his sign name. So it's like a way to refer to him as a sign name.
Ryan Wilde: If you put your hand up like a high five and put your middle finger bending downwards, voila, You have Jerry Garcia sign name.
Katerina Barton: Okay, Stick with us. We'll be back with more on music for the deaf in just a moment.
Ryan Wilde: This is the takeaway.
Katerina Barton: So the Deafhead movement emerged from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C. and over time it evolved from friends gathering just for fun and to enjoy a concert to something a little more organized.
Ryan Wilde: And one of the Deafheads at Gallaudet was Jeff Rosen.
Jeff Rosen: Later on, it became a little bit more formal as we were talking about how we can access the shows better and have a higher benefit from attending the shows they're very interested in, including the deaf and making sure they had that inclusion there. It was a very important concept, but some people don't understand how to incorporate it. So a lot of the Deafheads tried to explain a few simple concepts that really would help people accommodate what was needed and have an enjoyable show. And that's really what it was. When you think about Deafheads as a whole.
Katerina Barton: The Deafhead movement continued to grow. They began advocating for more accessibility at concerts, working with venues, promoters and the Grateful Dead Sound team. Eventually, venues started carving out dedicated deaf zones for Deafheads.
Jeff Rosen: Generally being close to the stage is good and you want to be close to the stage for the vibrations. That's how everyone can experience the music, both hearing and deaf and hard of hearing individuals. You feel it through your body in that sense. So some people would bring the speakers and they would be in there and you can really get into it and see all the vibrations and get the true feeling. And it helps rewire your brains so you can identify the music and the experience fully. And they would have like interpreters, the Grateful Dead, for example, they have a huge repertoire. There's several hundred songs. So in that case, you want an interpreter who is able to effectively get that. And that's done in the zone and that's really great for people to be involved. So this way, not only that, people, but everyone can experience it as well.
Ryan Wilde: For the deaf. Experiencing music at concerts is in many ways the same as it is for hearing folks. But to heighten the experience, some Deafheads use something surprisingly simple.
Jeff Rosen: For some deaf individuals, they do make the decision to bring their own balloons so that they can feel the vibrations that way. And they can do so with their hands and they get the vibrations. And it really helps connect what's happening to their brain. So there is that auditory cortex of your brain. So if you don't have hearing, a lot of people resort to using this to get that same experience.
Ryan Wilde: Now, when they were using those balloons, it wasn't just about feeling the vibrations, it was about connecting to the overall vibes.
Jeff Rosen: Being there, being in the audience, being able to have the experience of the visual aspect of it, and having that connected with the vibrations and all of it coming together to one lived experience. It really evolves to something more than just music. It is an entire system. It's a whole experience that is obviously similar and dissimilar to deaf and hearing people, but it is really helping you process and understand all the signals that are coming into your body and connecting and relating to the music.
Katerina Barton: Jeff told us that the Grateful Dead's commitment to music accessibility fostered strong connections not just between himself and the music or himself and other deaf people, but a connection to the entire experience.
Jeff Rosen: I really think about like my life, my soul, you know, being able to communicate with everybody. Having that experience, having that shared experience. I think that's beautiful. And my experience has just been wonderful. It's just been really has a lot of me, a lot broader of an understanding about how important some things are in the world.
Ryan Wilde: It's really cool how they use the balloon, but what if there was a better way to catch the vibrations of the music, say, with your entire body?
Katerina Barton: Well, it's funny you mention that, Ryan, because that's coming up next on The Takeaway.
Katerina Barton: Back in the summer, New York's Lincoln Center hosted a season long music and arts festival called Summer for the City, and they strive to make it more accessible for the deaf community.
Ryan Wilde: That meant having different options available ASL interpretations, screens with captions of lyrics and even screens with creative descriptions of the feeling and the tone of the music.
Katerina Barton: And they also collaborated with a tech company called Music Not Impossible. They aim to create inclusive, accessible, live music experiences.
Ryan Wilde: And this is where some of the cool innovations come in.
Paddy Hanlon: Instead of just broad brush strokes, we actually were giving them like an easel and a load of different colors. And like you can go into high detail of where you're sending the vibrations and it just takes it to a whole different level. My name is Paddy Hanlon and I'm co-founder of Music Not Impossible and a vibrant DJ.
Ryan Wilde: Yeah, a Vibro DJ as in Vibrational. Katerina, you want to take this one?
Katerina Barton: So music not Impossible, created what it calls a haptic suit, which basically looks like a vest that you would wear if you were playing laser tag. But this one is for music, and Paddy’s job as a Vibro DJ is to translate the music into vibrations that you can feel throughout your entire body.
Paddy Hanlon: I'd carve out the kick drum. Just use an X and I'd send that to the lower back. I'd start there as a sub and then I'd go around the mids and create like a base element and I'd send that to the mid back, back, back. And then I grab a snare and what I do is I'd put that in the spine, just like a constant that's keeping the motion going. High heights I'd put in the wrist, keeping the motion going guitars, or I put the piano player in the recess, keeping the motion going. So we're in complete control of what vibration we send to whatever part of the body.
Ryan Wilde: So it creates this immersive musical experience where you don't have to hear the music to feel the music.
Katerina Barton: And we spoke to some folks who were at this event. They are part of the deaf community and we're able to try this technology out.
Ryan Wilde: This music is from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, performed by the mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. It's conducted by Louis Langrée with pianist Conrad Tao.
Alberto Madero: My name is Alberto Madero. I am a sign language interpreter. I am also a coda.
Katerina Barton: Ok real quick. A coda stands for a child of a deaf adult. And you may remember the Oscar winning film by the same name. Most of Alberto's direct family is deaf, including his mom, and we spoke with them together. Alberto interpreted this interview for his mom.
Merry Cuascut: Well, my name is Merry. Cuascut Is my last name. I was born in six years old. I got sick and I–that's how I possibly got deaf. Growing up deaf, my family had no communication skills. My brother and my sister, you know, they went to classes and they got to learn maybe a little bit of sign. So that's pretty good. I'm deaf, you know, because I feel things to vibration. I don't hear no voice. I can't hear anything. I'm completely, completely.
Katerina Barton: Merry usually experiences music through that vibration.
Merry Cuascut: I feel it mostly through the floor, not through the speaker or through the walls. I feel it through the bottom coming up. And then it's like, if I like if I want to put my hand on the floor, I'll feel it, you know, more so. But the vibrations are strong through the floor.
Ryan Wilde: Now, going back to Alberto, he often works for Lincoln Center as an interpreter for their concerts and symphonies. And at the mostly Mozart concert, he got to try on one of these haptic suits for himself.
Alberto Madero: Words can't really describe it. You know, like I said before, I grew up in a household of deaf members. And oftentimes, you know, you listen to music and it's a feeling that you get inside. It's a feeling that you gain your heart. It's a feeling that just moves you. What moves you may not move me, but all in all, to be able to explain that to someone that doesn't really hear the music, it's kind of hard to do that. So by me putting on that device, I literally cried. I had I had a moment where I just saw myself not having to be able to explain the feeling because the the haptic vest did it for me. It took away that element of me trying to explain the feeling when they can feel it themselves. And all I had to provide is the element of the lyrics or the wordplay on top of it, if you will.
Katerina Barton: In other words, the vest became its own sort of interpreter.
Alberto Madero: They made me look back when I was younger growing up, not being able to translate music and just the feeling of it. I felt so disconnected when I would listen to music and my parents would say, Hey, what do you you know, what are you listening to? What are you doing? And I'm like, Oh, I'm listening to music. But it was much more than that. And that that haptic vest, I think, provided that that layer of connection in music now with me and my mom. And my mom loves music. She loves to dance. So I think that was just amazing. So I had to tell my mother to come the next day to feel it.
Ryan Wilde: For Merry, the concert going experience wasn't always accessible and she didn't feel super connected going because the lack of accessibility meant a lack of community around the music.
Katerina Barton: But the vest opened up a whole new level of access to music.
Merry Cuascut: I know the vibration of when when I'm on the dance floor, and then putting on the vest, it's just different. Like you feel it on your side, then you feel it on your arm, then you feel it on your hip, then you feel it on your legs. I was like, Whoa. Like, I was kind of like it was kind of cool, like, and then the fact that it was on my feet, it was like in my ankle. I was kind of laughing because it was something I've never felt before. I like the fact that the vibration was on the leg and it just like, just kind of like, make me want to get up and just kind of dance.
Ryan Wilde: Katerina, from what she did describing it sounds fun. Like she's wearing a roller coaster on her body.
Katerina Barton: Yeah. Merry said she didn't even want to take it off.
Merry Cuascut: And then when I took off the device, it was like, Oh, man. Like, it was just. It just felt different because the vibration just felt me made me feel so connected at times throughout the whole the whole concert. I really loved it.
Ryan Wilde: All right, one last break, but don't go anywhere. We're going to be trying on these suits for ourselves. Up next on The Takeaway.
Katerina Barton: So Ryan and I walked into NuBlu, a music venue in the East Village of New York City that is working to become the first fully accessible music venue.
Ryan Wilde: And we came on to try and experience haptic suits for ourselves. And we just want to reiterate, Katerina and I are not deaf or hard of hearing, so we were testing this out as to people who can hear the music as well as feel it.
Katerina Barton: So first, Ryan got strapped in.
Ryan Wilde: They cued up some Skrillex.
Music Not Impossible Staff: You could see the actuators here. They're about 24 points of vibrations across the suit. I am going to fit this on to you as if it were a bookbag, and then I'm going to make some adjustments to make sure that the suit is snug around your body so that you can feel the vibrations.
Ryan Wilde: It's like a jetpack. It's like I feel like I'm ready to go somewhere, be transported.
Ryan Wilde: And I went somewhere. It was like, boom, 0 to 60, straight into a full body Skrillex, DJ set. And if you hear some buzzing sounds, that's the sound of the vest.
Katerina Barton: Where are you feeling the vibrations?
Ryan Wilde: I'm feeling the vibrations everywhere, intensely in my torso right now. So it feels like I'm like I'm a drum set almost at different parts of my body. Are different parts of a drum set. It's really strange. But it does compel you to want to dance, that's for sure. The only thing holding me back out of these headphones, I really want to move my body.
Katerina Barton: And while I was watching Ryan holding back his dance moves, the actuators were lighting up all over his body at the points of vibration.
Ryan Wilde: I got to say, probably for the best, for all those in attendance that I held back on the dance moves.
Katerina Barton: Well, now I want to try it on.
Ryan Wilde: Yeah.
Music Not Impossible Staff: That’s what I want to hear. Great.
Katerina Barton: And I got to experience the more subdued tones of Binarium by Danny Dunlap. He's one of Music: Not Impossible’s vibro tactile composers, and he's a Vibro DJ.
Katerina Barton: It definitely tickles. It's like slow rolling, like…vibrations across these, like, checkpoints in your body where the monitors are. Wow. Yeah. And you can hear I don't know if you can hear me, but you can hear the different instruments. I feel like I like the different pulses of the song. It's like every once in a while, a little pulse by my ankles and the pulse in my arms. It’s like honestly, like, you're in a sound bath. Like it's a full body experience. Obviously, I can hear the music too, but…it’s very cool.
Katerina Barton: You know how there's, like, surround sound? This was like a surround body experience.
Ryan Wilde: It felt like I was a teenager again with a massive sugar high.
Katerina Barton: Yeah, it makes you, like, want to dance like you said. Like, you can feel like all the pieces.
Katerina Barton: Ryan and I both felt like dancing when we wore the vest. So let's hear from someone who is actually a dancer.
Shelly Guy: My name is Shelly Guy. I work as a director of Community Engagement and Events coordinator and the director of Artistic Sign Language for Body Language Productions.
Ryan Wilde: We spoke with Shelly through an ASL interpreter, and Shelly was at Lincoln Center for their Silent Disco.
Katerina Barton: Which is…?
Ryan Wilde: Everyone is together. But instead of music playing through speakers, you're hearing it through individual headphones. You can still feel the energy, the vibrations from the rest of the crowd. And there's dancing, but you're having this individual listening experience within this collective experience.
Katerina Barton: And if you take off the headphones, a silent disco sounds kind of like what you would think it sounds like.
Ryan Wilde: Here's Shelly, again.
Shelly Guy: I was born deaf at eight months old. We found out that I was deaf with hearing aids. Maybe I can hear a dog barking, a plane flying overhead, maybe a car honking. But that's pretty much it.
Ryan Wilde: Throughout her childhood, Shelly got really involved in dance performance. You might assume that it's harder for deaf folks to dance, but Shelly told us that she learned to rely on certain cues, and the dance moves followed.
Shelly Guy: So before the vests, I would always say that the people around me were my music. And what I mean by that is I would see how other people dance and I would kind of pick up on the beat and reflect their dancing. If someone was moving, then I would watch their body movements and I would copy them. Sometimes in a concert, I'll move closer to the speakers so I can feel the bass. As for performing on stage, I rely a lot on counting, especially as a dancer. So it's like if I know what the beat is and I'm like, okay, five, six, seven, eight, and it's an eight count, and then I can rely on that. Of course I'm memorizing movement or feeling the movement of other people around me cues. And I also use lights as cueing systems to help me pick up dance moves and movement on stage.
Katerina Barton: Shelly also relies on music interpreters, and she actually works as one herself.
Ryan Wilde: She explained that there's more to interpreting music than just signing the lyrics. It's sort of like a performance art in and of itself.
Shelly Guy: When I get a song, I'll look at the lyrics and I'll work with an interpreter to understand the meaning and the metaphor behind all of the lyrics. Because in sign language you don't sign things word for word. A lot of people get confused with that. So interpreters don't just go on stage and sign just the words.
Katerina Barton: Shelly told us that at the Silent Disco, along with the music interpreters and the visual cues, she typically relies on the vibrations she felt coming from the Vibro DJ to the haptic vests sort of brought the entire experience together.
Shelly Guy: What was different this time was when there were violins or piano sounds. I had cues on my wrists and my ankles, and then there was also vibrations in the back of the vest that was different from what I would normally feel so like higher tinny sounds versus like lower beats and like the fluctuation of music itself. I got a better three dimensional experience of music before. It was just like, boom, boom, boom, boom. So there were a lot of things in the air that I was missing that were translated into my wrist and my ankles. And I was really in awe that right. It was a lot of stimulation, you know, And I was like, Oh, I see what you mean. I understand what you mean. And I felt like it was a very complete experience.
Katerina Barton: It feels like she's describing a lot of the things that we also felt like putting on the vest allows you to feel a deeper connection to the music.
Ryan Wilde: Yeah, exactly. And there is this common thread with everyone we spoke to, right? They all described a connection that even extends beyond just the music. You get the sense that greater accessibility can break down the barriers of a concert experience. It connects deaf folks to each other. It can connect deaf folks to hearing folks, and it all happens in this one unified experience.
Shelly Guy: Yeah. I feel like these vets are very inclusive because after so many years, this world is really, really focused on voice speech. Hearing, you know, radio, for example, and that it's a bad thing at all. But it's very audio centric. Right. And it can be very exclusive to the deaf community. But this time I felt like there was a huge opportunity to collaborate and include the deaf community and our experience with music. Maybe we don't experience music exactly like you guys are hearing people, but as a universal language, we should recognize that music is just that. It's a universal language.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Special reporting there from takeaway producers Katerina Barton and Ryan Wilde with some truly extraordinary Jay Cowit and Vince Fairchild sound design. And that's just part of the dope krewe that’s this team Takeaway. Also on the team: Sham Sundra, David Gabel, Mary Steffenhagen, Cat Sposato, Monica Morales Garcia, David Escobar, Jackie Martin, Zachary Bynum, Shanta Covington and Wonbo Woo.
Now, if you or someone in your life is deaf or hard of hearing, we will have a full transcript of our music for the Deaf segment up at The Takeaway.org. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This is The Takeaway.