Weekend America: Music for the Deaf
For many of us, going to see live music on the weekend is something we take for granted. We obsess over a band, listen to their music and go to their shows.
There's a smaller segment of the population that has been mostly ignored by musicians, but they're just as passionate about the music: the deaf and hard of hearing.
Sean Forbes is a music fan, even though he hears about 10 percent of what most people hear. He's been partially deaf since he was an infant.
You can often find Sean performing sign language versions of songs at concerts. With his signs, he tries to add an element of emotion to match the songs. But he's not just satisfied with live shows: Sean helped create D-Pan, the Deaf Performing Artists Network, which releases sign language videos of songs.
Thomas Zurbuchen is also interested in helping bridge the gap. He's the director for the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship. The center is sponsoring a competition to come up with technology that will help the deaf/hard of hearing community experience music.
John Moe: Sean, how do you experience music?
Sean Forbes: My friends and I usually turn the bass up. Every time we watch movies or listen to music, everybody's always like, "Turn it up, turn it up!" I always turn the bass up, and it shakes my whole house.
Moe: What kind of music are you into?
Forbes: I love all kinds of music. I'm a big fan of hip-hop. When I listen to it, I can really feel the bass and drums. I know this might sound funny, but hip-hop is really easy for me to follow, because the rapper usually has a percussive thing going on with his lyrics. I love rock. I love blues. I like jazz. I like a little bit of country music. I like a little bit of everything.
Moe: Tell me about how you have been helping other deaf people experience music.
Forbes: It was always something that I did and something I always shared with all my friends, by interpreting lyrics into sign language. I was on a trip from Rochester, N.Y., to Gallaudet University in Washington, DC to visit some friends down there, and we were all in the car and I was signing all these songs. While I was doing this, a light bulb went off in my head, and I was thinking it would be cool if there were ASL music videos with deaf people interpreting these artists' lyrics into American Sign Language. And, it could be enjoyed by not just the deaf and hard of hearing, but the hearing community, as a new way to enjoy music and watch music in a different setting.
Moe: Thomas Zurbuchen, you're not deaf. What's your interest in this area?
Thomas Zurbuchen: This is one of those challenges where technology can make a difference in people's lives. You cannot meet people like Sean, and especially Sean, and not be moved. I have friends who are hard of hearing or deaf, profoundly deaf in some parts, and being able to touch their lives potentially, by doing something like this, that's a no brainer.
Moe: How does it match up with your field of expertise at the university?
Zurbuchen: You know, I build satellite instruments that go visit other planets, so if you ask why does that help? It needs to work. It needs to be small. It needs to be not power hungry, like many of the machines we have on earth. That's precisely the kind of technology we're looking for.
Moe: Thomas, I've heard there was an item on the market called the "Butt Kicker." What is that?
Zurbuchen: It's a device that you attach to table, or a chair, or a stage. It shakes the device. If you have it on your chair and the bass is turned up, all the sudden you feel this chair starting to shake to the beat.
Forbes: I first experienced this last Thursday. It was really cool. We had it hooked up to the P.A. system, and some of the musicians played the instruments. It really felt like my head was inside the drum.
Moe: Thomas, what do you think you'll be seeing in this competition that you're sponsoring?
Zurbuchen: I think we'll see devices like the "Butt Kicker," but smaller. Devices that people can bring to a concert by themselves. I think the kind of vibrational sensation that Sean talked about just a minute ago can be done in shoes. I know a few shoe people I'd like to talk to and figure out how to include that into a shoe design today. I think the second thing I would look at is a music belt. Like a belt with a Blackberry hanging from it, but it's not a Blackberry. It's a device that transmits and translates sounds into vibrations or other sensations.
Moe: Sean, what are you hoping comes out of this competition?
Forbes: You know, I go to a concert and I can feel it, but ever since I stood in front of the "Butt Kicker," I knew this was going to be a totally different trip. I'm really excited about the technology challenge and what's going to come out of it. I really hope that it brings deaf people to want to go to concerts more and want to be involved, and I know they do.
Moe: What do people in that community stand to gain from having more access to music in this way?
Forbes: It's interesting, because the older generation of deaf people--I'm not saying all of them, but a lot of them--are not into music as much as the younger people are. I think that that generational gap is because there wasn't MTV and YouTube back then. Now there's MTV and there's YouTube, and everybody wants to feel like they belong. I think that by deaf people going to concerts it would make everybody feel like they're a part of this. You have blind musicians out there, but where are the deaf musicians? There are deaf musicians out there. There are deaf people that love music and they want to be as much a part of it as anybody else.