Even though Beethoven was deaf when he wrote his monumental Ninth Symphony, the notion that hearing-impaired people can and should enjoy musical performances still surprises many people. After all, what's the point of attending concerts if you can't hear what's going on?
To dispel that misconception and make the joys of music accessible to deaf audiences, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. has for the last two years provided an interpreter to sign performances at its summer Open House at Hollywood Bowl, now in progress, and its winter-season Symphonies for Youth concerts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Every morning this week through Friday, interpreter Henry Lowe takes the Open House stage, capturing the spirit of programs running the gamut from South American songs to Asian and Native American dances to opera, jazz and musical theater presentations.
To do so, he is just as much a performer as those he interprets. Rather than using only traditional hand and arm signing movements, he depicts mood through facial expression and conveys rhythm through his bobbing head, swaying torso and tapping feet, becoming a living embodiment of the music.
During a recent blues set by the John Carter Sextet, Lowe fluttered his hands to indicate a fast piano passage, then simultaneously mimed clarinet and trombone playing. When a scat-singing vocalist took over, he mouthed and spelled out her words, still swaying and tapping. Afterward, a number of delighted children came to the stage to say hello in sign language or shake his hand.
"I'm a conduit between the music and the audience," Lowe said between performances later that morning. "People think if a person is deaf, they have no hearing at all, which isn't true. They have hearing, but it's jumbled. I clarify it, differentiate the instruments and show them what they're hearing.
"You'd be surprised at how well deaf people relate to music. They have rhythm. Some can dance me under a table, and I think I'm a pretty good dancer. I'm here to make sure they get what's happening on stage and feel that they're part of the audience. If I can make just one deaf person feel a part of the hearing world at a concert, then my job is done."
Lowe, 31, comes by his empathy naturally: His parents were deaf. "I've been signing since I was potty-trained."
He nurtured his performing skills as a dance and art major at the High School of Performing and Visual Arts in his native Houston, then, after an Army stint, spent several years as an interpreter for the Tacoma, Wash., public school system. For the last five years he has been a special education assistant at Marlton School for the Deaf in Baldwin Hills, and is also a college senior working toward a master's degree in special education and an administrative credential.
As effervescent and engaging off stage as he is on, Lowe launched his Philharmonic career in the best show-business fashion: When the orchestra's regular interpreter could not make a Symphonies for Youth concert in February, 1986, Marlton teachers attending the concert on a field trip suggested that he fill in. He was such a success that the Philharmonic Assn. asked him to stay on permanently.
His working methods vary depending on the event, Lowe said.
"For the youth concerts, I tape the rehearsals, get to know the music intimately and practice before a mirror, but with Open House it's more off the cuff, because there are so many different groups and no rehearsal time. Wherever I am, though, I visualize all the space in front of me as a huge sheet of music with bar lines, and I fill in those bars with the range. I close my eyes, concentrate on the most important sounds, identify the lead instrument and let my hands take that.
"You have to have a basic knowledge of instruments. The clarinet, for instance, has a high range, so my arms can go above my head to indicate that, but with a trombone's lower range, my arms wouldn't go beyond eye level."
Lowe has high praise for the example set by the Philharmonic, which may be the nation's only orchestra regularly to employ an interpreter. "Not only are they allowing deaf people the luxury of experiencing music, but they're showing hearing people that there are others in this world, and that deafness is only a disability of language and has nothing to do with intelligence."
The interpreter, who will also be signing this October's Theatre Arts Festival for Youth in Agoura, has made an impact not only on those deaf and hearing audiences but on his fellow performers as well.
Clarinetist John Carter, who has a deaf sister-in-law, called him "the most dynamic and creative person I've ever seen in signing." And dancer-choreographer Patricia Bulitt, after five days of watching Lowe interpret her original Eskimo-themed dance, summed up, "Henry is a silent partner who is very loud in what he's doing."