About five years back I spent a summer in the small town of Burlington, Vermont. A beautiful town where people are in love with life and music. In summer there’s a countless amount of music to be heard, whether it’s on the street, at restaurants, or at the gorgeous waterfront. Every week there was something called Concerts in the Park, where people gather and eat, drink, and dance. It was there when I first saw this woman standing next to the stage following the music with her hands. She was interpreting and signing the music to those that were unable to hear everything that was going on. I remember how beautiful I thought it was. Throughout the summer (and the next) I was lucky enough to hang out with her a few times and I think she’s pretty badass, not to mention how incredibly important her work as a music interpreter is! Readers, meet Dina Senesac.
Dina has a degree in Social Work, but took sign language classes during her time in college and took on several internship at deaf agencies. Since graduating she’s taking countless hours of workshops, had different mentors who taught her, and spent a lot of time socialising with the deaf community. And just like learning any language, that’s the best way to improve your skills. Born a Vermont native, Dina has interpreted a ton of local bands, under whom Grace Potter and Phish. But has also shared the stage with artists such as Gogol Bordello, MIA, Train, Asleep at the Wheel, and Muse.
“The first time I had no idea what I was doing, and spent over 80 hours trying to figure out the lyrics and how to handle the music”
Starting with the obvious, how did you get into interpreting music?
“I started interpreting concerts after I met a local deaf woman at a party. I was wearing a Grace Potter t-shirt and told me she’d just seen them in concert and would love to have them interpreted next time. I told her that, if the band would be okay with it, I would be willing to try.”
“The first time I had no idea what I was doing, and spent over 80 hours trying to figure out the lyrics and how to handle the music. The day I had to get up on stage, I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat – and with all the heat of the stage lights and the excitement, I almost passed out on stage.”
What’s the best reaction you’ve ever had regarding, or following, your role as interpreter?
“I had a hearing woman to come up to me after a concert (which is usually not the best time to approach me because I am completely exhausted and mentally fried after interpreting). She had tears in her eyes and told me that she felt the music so much more because of seeing it visually through me. Honestly, it’s difficult to react to hearing individuals when they compliment me, because the purpose of me being there is for those that are deaf or hard of hearing. Not for the enjoyment of hearing people. I try to focus on how deaf people would enjoy a song and ignore what hearing people might think. But I’ve had both deaf and hearing people come up to me and comment on my facial expressions, and that I seem to feel emotions. That’s a huge compliment to me, and one I treasure the most.”
Following up on that; what, for you personally, was the best experience as an interpreter?
“There’s been a few times where there were songs I studied really hard on. And when that song comes on, there’s something about it. The crowd, the way the band is singing, I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I stop thinking about the lyrics and the beat, and just go with the song. I feel the energy of the music flow through me and it’s effortless. Usually after such a song, I don’t even really know how I signed it. It’s a sort of out-of-body experience that is very special and happens rarely. I talked to another music interpreter and she’s had a very similar experience.”
I find it totally amazing and very important that music is available to those that cannot listen to the music and lyrics the same way those with hearing can, but could you maybe elaborate a little on why you think it’s important?
“I think equal access is important to anyone who has any kind of difference. There’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires people with disabilities to be accommodated with different opportunities and experiences and so people understand the need for health(care). But many struggle with offering similar opportunities and experiences when it comes to entertainment. I believe all people should have the right to enjoy life to the fullest. Fun and enjoyment is an important part of everyone’s life.”
The term that I see everywhere is ‘music interpreter’, do you indeed also interpret the actual music, or merely the lyrics? And is there any way you can elaborate on what those with hearing disabilities can follow when it comes to the music?
“There’s no way to answer what a deaf person would be able to follow. The spectrum of hard-of-hearing to deaf encompasses a whole variety of things on the audiogram. Some people may just have difficulty understanding the words with all the background noise, others could be profoundly deaf and only feel the vibrations.”
“When I interpret music, my choice in signs, how I put them together, and where I sign them, is incredibly different than when I would sign a lecture. I visually show if the voice is high or low, if they hold the note, if the concept is playful or serious, and if the pace of the song is slow or fast. I keep the beat of the song by tapping my foot or moving my hips. If drums are important to a song, I might blow out my cheeks to show it’s loud and booming, or purse my lips to show it’s a snare drum. Basically, my body becomes the whole band and I try to show as much of the whole experience as I can.”
“Sometimes, if the song is a struggle, I’ll write out the song as a story and try to make sense of it that way.”
Could you walk me through the process of interpreting a song from start to finish? From preparation to performance.
“For me personally, I spend about a week listening to the music and getting a feel
for it as a whole. After that I’ll research the lyrics, I’ll read them and match them to what I’m hearing. Then, if it’s not apparent what the lyrics mean, I browse the web to find the background and meaning of the songs. This significantly impacts how I sign a song. Next, I start assigning signs to the concepts. Sometimes, if the song is a struggle, I’ll write out the song as a story and try to make sense of it that way. After that I start practicing the speed of the signs with the song, eventually working up to practicing in front of a mirror.”
“At the performance, it’s important to have a set list. I also wear an inner-ear-monitor and tend to ask the sound technicians to lower the music and up the vocals, so I can really hear what’s going on. I usually take off my shows so I can feel the bass and drums through the floor. This because that’s likely what deaf people can feel in their chest.”
Thanks so much Dina! Is there a last thing you’d like to give to us?
“Well, I think it is super important that people realize that this is work. Interpreting music makes an experience accessible for a community of people that are often disenfranchised. It takes a lot of preparation, and a ton of mental and physical energy to keep going for that long in two completely different languages. I enjoy doing it, but it’s very hard, exhausting, life affirming work.”