Spotlight: Festival ASL Interpreter Sara Groves on Representing Music's Biggest Acts for the Hard-of-Hearing

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Sam Farley
Sara Groves

"It’s hard sometimes, because we’re not to interject our own thoughts or feelings. I’m purely just providing information."

While live music and the hard-of-hearing might seem like an unlikely duo, more and more events are employing the services of sign interpreters for their deaf patrons. “Word has gotten around to the deaf community that they have a voice,” says Sara Groves, interpreter manager at RISE Interpreting. “They have the option to go and enjoy music just as anyone else would with the help of a facilitator to provide them communication access.”

RISE Interpreting is a family-run business that serves the deaf community of Southern California. In recent years, more of their services have been tailored toward live music festivals, widespread events that can be enjoyed by any person -- no matter their hearing ability. Viral videos of Chance the Rapper’s touring sign interpreter and hip-hop interpreter Holly Maniatty have brought greater awareness to the assistance utility.

“I think it’s good to understand that a deaf person can do anything that we can, except hear,” says Groves. “Some of them may have a different range of hearing, but they’re just like you and me. They’re there to have a good time and enjoy the show. The inclusion that is available to the population today is so different than it was 20 years ago.”

Translation is often a challenge because there is no one-on-one correlation between American Sign Language and English. It is the interpreter’s responsibility to understand its meaning and render accurate portrayal. “There are songs that I’ve sung a hundred times and then, after using the many research tools that we use, I’ll realize that I need to change how I’m signing it. Because that is not what they’re meaning in the song,” Groves says. “It’s hard sometimes, because we’re not to interject our own thoughts or feelings. I’m purely just providing information.”

Groves picked up sign language at the age of 6. A deaf girl in her classroom had been “mainstreamed,” or integrated into regular schooling, and many of the students learned to sign from her interpreter. In high school, Groves took ASL classes and had deaf friends. Now she has been a certified interpreter for more than 13 years, working anywhere from K-12 classrooms, to public events and other medical needs. 

“I realized that I had a skill that most people didn’t,” Groves recalls. “I loved finding different ways to translate information so there was a visual representation. It was a challenge for me every day and from then on, I was hooked. I kept wanting to experience more situations and settings. And I just kept going from there.”

Groves first got into the field of live music interpreting in 2010 when she was offered an opportunity interning as a performance interpreter. “Back then, we only had a few select deafs at festivals and concerts who would request interpreters,” she says. “Now, we have groups of deafs going and enjoying those events because they have that inclusion.” Groves has since worked her way up to where she is now coordinating staff at concerts and large-scale festivals -- including Coachella, Rolling Loud and Electric Daisy Carnival -- where sign interpretation is requested.

Concert promoters are able the gauge if interpretation assistance will be needed based on demand by hard-at-hearing patrons. Those with hearing difficulties can log onto a festival’s website and request an interpreter through its Accessibility or Americans with Disabilities Act page. While most major festivals normally provide services for top-billing acts, not every set will always have an interpreter. This is usually determined by demand or availability. From there, the festival will reach out to contractors like RISE Interpreting to sort accommodations for the event.

“Some people think we just show up and sign. Oh no, we’ve done a lot of work before that,” Groves says. Preparation for a festival performance can take months as interpreters study previous set lists and lyric sheets while memorizing music, she explains.

“We do a lot of research on the artists themselves. Where they grew up, what they look like, what they dress like, how they are perceived in the community,” Groves continues. “We watch a lot of the live shows that people post on YouTube. We even have some interpreters that will dress the part.”

Groves and many of her colleagues hope to depict an experience that is of equal caliber as that of the performance on stage. “We’re not up there reading lyrics off a sheet of paper. We want to really represent that artist in a way that’s similar and we do get a little involved with our production,” she says. “I wouldn’t show up in a business suit to a rock concert. That wouldn’t really match the vibe.”

Teamwork is a big part of what makes Groves’ job run seamlessly. Working alongside her at large festival events is a team of up to seven staff interpreters, who have the lyrics on hand and will help feed any information that may have been missed. But even when at set list is provided, nothing can anticipate moments of spontaneity, like new material or a special guest.

“Sometimes we’ve had performers come out and they’re like, ‘This is the first time we’re playing this song live.’ And we kind of look over at our team and go, ‘Okay we’re in for this.’ We have our earbuds in and we’re just waiting for the music to hit -- and then it’s live interpreting.”

Having shared a stage with artists ranging from Garth Brooks, The Bangles, and Nipsey Hussle, Groves is humbled by her recognition as a contributor to the overall performance. But she insists her commitment is only serving the needs of others. “I’m always reminding myself that I’m here for the deaf consumer. I want to make them feel attached to the performer instead of me. I’m always trying to relate them to what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”

SPOTLIGHT:

The greatest reward is watching our deaf consumers sign the songs with us during a show. To see their faces light up when they are able to identify the songs and sign along shows me that I am doing my job by bridging the communication gap.

When I strategize I like to use my fellow deaf co-workers to get different perspectives on meaning and sign choice. Being their first language, they are able to visualize the meaning differently than hearing interpreters. The interpreters will also get together a few weeks before the show and bounce ideas about different sign choices. We all bring a special talent to the group which makes our group stronger than most.  

I've learned that it is not about me. It is about the deaf consumers feeling the same feeling as everyone else in the audience feels. Without the deaf consumers, we would not be there to provide access.

I knew I was committed to music when I started signing songs in high school. I am a terrible singer and I can’t play an instrument, but I love music. Signing is a way I can be involved with music and provide a valuable service.

It's good to have a strong team of interpreters working together on any assignment. We support each other in every way. It’s not about our egos, but about the show and ensuring we are doing everything we can to make it the best of all times.

Most people don’t understand how much work goes into preparing for a show. We spend hours printing lyrics, understanding the meanings of the lyrics, converting the lyrics into ASL, working with our team on visuals - and this is all before we arrive at the location.

Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

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