By: Rachel Arfa

As a deaf person, when listening to music, the first thing I do is turn up the bass, making it easier for me to feel the beat. In high school, Japanese drummers performed at my school, making loud banging sounds on their gigantic, larger than life drums. I loved listening to the beat as it reverberated in my chest. So began my interest in drums.

In college, I began taking drum lessons from a friend who was a drummer in a band. I learned how to play 1/8th and 1/4th notes, practicing at home on pillows in between sessions to get the rhythm down. I was beginning to understand how music was structured; and perhaps I was inspired by Evelyn Glennie, an impressive international percussionist with a hearing loss, who often plays barefoot so she can feel the vibration of the music.

Technology has increased the ability for everyone to enjoy music. Lyrics to popular songs are readily available via Google. Captioned music videos on YouTube make it easier to match the lyrics with a live performance. Some people use a neck loop allowing one to use their hearing aids or cochlear implant, establishing a direct and clear connection to their iPhone or laptop that eliminates all background noise to maximize the music experience. When you cannot identify the song, popular apps like Shazam, Soundhound and Musixmatch detect the name of a song playing in a room and have lyrics available. One friend who is deaf memorizes lyrics to her favorite song, listening to the song over and over again to match the pace of the lyrics, and then adds the song to her Pandora account so she can practice recognizing the song when it plays.

In our post-ADA world, many concerts now provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, which provide visual access to the music being performed; and, at many concerts, a video of an ASL interpreter goes viral. For example, Timeout Chicago named ASL interpreters one of the best elements of Lollapalooza this year. Mainstream songs are often performed in ASL. Deaf rapper Sean Forbes has performed across the country and internationally using spoken language, sign language and displays his lyrics onscreen for concertgoers.

For a number of reasons, my music interest lay dormant for many years, until I was accepted into Fear Experiment – a group that would perform a stepping routine with twenty strangers in front of a sold out audience of 750 people at Park West. As I learned the steps, I thought I had mastered the movement. Then, I realized that each step made noise, and I could not hear the step/clap/step movement my co-performers were making. Back to square one. I re-traced each movement, making sure to inquire at each point what type of sound I had to make—a step, swipe, step, clap, step. I practiced these movements with my group, going to extra practices to ensure I had the dance down. I worried I would hit the wrong beat.  But, the night of the performance was thrilling – and we stepped, clapped, stepped all in unison to the sound of our beats.

Tonight’s performance of Beethoven Violin Concerto at Grant Park Music Festival is a reminder of everyone’s ability to contribute to, and enjoy the musical world. Beethoven, who became hard of hearing at age 26, spent the majority of his life creating music that changed our world forever.

Rachel Arfa Bio pic

Rachel Arfa is a staff attorney and PABSS Project Manager at Equip for Equality, where she represents clients with disabilities in employment discrimination and civil rights violations. She is a member of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) Steering Committee, which helped to develop and is leading the ADA25 Chicago 25 for 25 Cultural Access Project. Rachel has been named a Fellow for the 2016 class of Leadership Greater Chicago. Previously, Rachel was employed as Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. She is a 2007 graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Law and a 2000 graduate of the University of Michigan.