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Loretta Freeman's not a trained dancer or musician, though if you saw her onstage during a show at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. She's the short, blonde woman off to the side who's bopping up and down in rhythm to the music, waving her arms in the air and making elaborate gestures with her hands.
But she's not just rocking out. She's a rare breed — a sign-language interpreter who specializes in music.
For Freeman and other musical interpreters, it's not enough just to sign the lyrics. "People used to say during the jams, 'It's music, look at the stage,'" she says. "But they never tried to communicate what music looks like. Deaf people would see other people respond, and they wanted to know what they were feeling.
"I believe you can represent music," she continues. "That's why I do it. You try to represent the rhythm and the emotion in your interpretation."
No one's completely sure where and when signers started interpreting at concerts. But Freeman's mentor, Mary Luebke — who's the coordinator of the sign-language interpreting program at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley — was the first person to do it in St. Louis. It was at the Veiled Prophet Fair in 1981, and the singer was John Denver. "Deaf people loved it," Luebke remembers.
The idea caught on. Even before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, local concert venues, including the Fox Theatre and the Muny, were hiring interpreters to make shows accessible for deaf audiences. (Most theaters only bring in interpreters by request, but the Muny has them on hand every Monday night.)
Luebke assembled a staff of interpreters to help keep up with the demand. Among them was Freeman, one of her students at Flo Valley.
Freeman had started out studying child care but had become fascinated by the sign language interpreter who accompanied one of her fellow students. She took a signing class and was hooked. "I had no idea how rich the language was," she says.
Working with Luebke, she developed ways to embody music, using not just her hands, but her entire body. She made up signs for the different instruments and gestures to show the volume and emotion of the music. Gradually, Luebke began to concentrate more on musical theater while Freeman handled the concerts. A few years ago, Freeman broke off and formed her own business, Lo's Communicate Plus. She works with about a dozen other interpreters, though there's not enough demand for everyone to do music full-time.
Freeman's repertoire is remarkably diverse. "I've done rap, heavy metal, Chicago, James Taylor, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra," she says. Most other signers, though, prefer to stick to a few genres or artists.
"I wouldn't do Paul Simon on a bet," says Tom Flynn, a colleague of Luebke's at Flo Valley. "He's got too many layers of meaning. But Loretta can do it."
Each show requires hours, if not days, of research and preparation.
"You can't interpret unless you have background information," says Flynn. "During the Pope's visit, one guy kept signing 'Holy Ocean.' You know, because the Pope can be called the 'Holy See.'"
Freeman avoids that kind of homonym confusion by hunting down the lyrics beforehand. "The Internet's been a godsend," she says. "Hootie & the Blowfish was the first concert I could find the lyrics for. It made a huge difference in the way I was able to portray the music. I was more confident in what the songs are. I'm not comfortable with going 'blah, blah, blah.' That's not what the artist is doing."
Sometimes the band will send her a setlist in advance, or she'll be able to find ones from other stops on the tour. But if she can't, she'll buy stacks of CDs and listen to them while studying the words. She doesn't practice the exact signs, though she says a lot of other interpreters do. "Mine is more mental preparation," she says. "I analyze the English words and try to figure out what to sign. I analyze the sign choices." But when she gets onstage, she finds her work goes more smoothly if, as she puts it, the music takes over.
The most challenging part comes when the musicians decide to play new, never-recorded material.
"If it's a new song, I'm behind," says Freeman. "I have to hear the first chorus — if there is a chorus — and then by the second time around, I've got it. I'm not only hearing it, I'm translating it into sign language, and my brain is holding onto it. It's a different process to hold and remember. Sometimes the second time around, I'll realize they're saying 'life,' not 'light.'" She laughs and playfully shakes a finger.
Most musicians, Freeman says, understand her role and why she needs to be onstage. But occasionally she'll run into performers who think she's trying to hog the spotlight and banish her to the orchestra pit. One singer who shall remain nameless left the stage and refused to come back until Freeman moved.
"It's their show," she says. "They don't understand ADA. The idea is for a deaf person to see both of us at the same time. If I'm off to the side, they have to make a choice — us or the band."
Over the course of her career, Freeman's gotten to play guitar with the Barenaked Ladies, dance with Tim McGraw (the only time, she reports, she's ever forgotten how to sign) and sign obscenities with Rob Zombie. ("He wanted to see what the sign-language lady would do. I'm glad my daughters weren't there.")
The best part, though, is watching her audience.
"It's amazing to see deaf individuals who have never been exposed to music before," she says. "I love to see their reaction. When the B-52s played Live on the Levee, there were 40 deaf people who were laughing and enjoying it as much as anyone else. They were getting just as crazy as the band was. It was like, 'Rock lo-ah-bster!'" — she sings and signs, making a fist and then snapping her fingers together. "The deaf people loved it."