In a few days, Cindy Mease will stand on stage and sign the blues.
She’ll capture the emotions, the wrenching soulfulness, the rollicking rhythm and liquid notes that seem to melt into each other.
There will be songs echoing joy and pain, triumph and sorrow, with a message that is worn but deep.
Because that’s the blues.
But instead of her voice, the music will flow through Mease’s hands.
Since the Western Maryland Blues Fest first took up residence in Hagerstown 16 years ago, Mease has been a part of what she calls “the Blues Fest family.”
While performers energize the crowd with vocals and guitar riffs, Mease also is on stage, but playing a unique role. She is one of several individuals interpreting the music for those who cannot hear — using sign language to connect them to the blues experience.
“We are capturing the essence of the performer and the performance without being the show itself,” she noted. “It’s something we take very seriously.”
Mease will once again offer a bridge between music and the hearing impaired when Blues Fest opens Thursday, May 31. It continues through Sunday, June 3. She will be joined by other interpreters as part of a relationship between the City of Hagerstown, which hosts the event, and Deafnet, a local nonprofit agency that serves the deaf and hard of hearing in the Quad-State area.
The use of interpreters is being underwritten this year by Volvo, said Karen Giffin, the city’s manager of community affairs and a Blues Fest executive Committee member.
According to Deafnet staffer Miranda Ganley, there will be two interpreters on the main stage for the duration of the Blues Fest — five hours on Friday, nine hours on Saturday and five hours on Sunday.
“We also will have interpreters in the children’s area,” she said.
Ganley said Deafnet has received a lot of positive feedback from both deaf and hearing individuals, who are pleased to see interpreters present at the event. As an active participant, Mease said she, too, has received feedback.
“People often tell us that the Western Maryland Blues Fest is the only festival that they have attended where interpreters are provided,” she said. “They also tell us that they enjoy watching us and regular attendees look forward to seeing us every year.”
A nationally certified, freelance interpreter and a founding member of Deafnet, Mease said she is a Hagerstown native who currently lives in Richmond Hill, Ga. But the idea of not returning to her hometown to work the Blues Fest never occurred to her.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. Mease has been joined at almost every Blues Fest by fellow interpreter and friend Nancy Verdier of Hagerstown, who specializes in onstage musical interpreting. During planning sessions for the early Blues Fests,
Verdier said organizers “had a desire to make all of the event activities and shows accessible to all members of the community. It was and is a wonderful example of how festival planners and city government employees care about and respond to their fellow citizens.”
Verdier said she works at The Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Md., and does onstage interpreting for various musical artists.
“I’ve been a professional musician since 1966 and a church musician for most of my life,” she said.
Verdier views her interpreting role as an opportunity to bring music “to those who might not be able to hear it, but can use their other senses to feel it.”
“When I began onstage music interpreting, my deaf mentor once told me, ‘Show the deaf how the music feels,’” she said. “I have always tried to remember his advice. It’s the only way I can work. The songs, especially the blues, must not look like an interpreted speech. They are music. They are the blues.”
Verdier said she conveys performances by feeling “to the very soul the lyrics, the meaning, the rhythm and the emotions.” “We feel this music to our core and sign it as if we were singing or performing it ourselves,” she said.
Although they might not be able to hear, “deaf people use their other senses to access the musical experience,” Mease added.
“How many times have you been at a concert where you can see the artist on stage but the music is really loud and you can’t hear the words? One thing you do is feel the beat in your body. And before you know it, your head is bobbing and your body is moving. In this way, your experience is similar to that of a deaf person at a concert except, if there is an interpreter there, the deaf person has the advantage. He or she will be able to understand the lyrics, including the ad libs, while the hearing audience will not.”
While musicians have the luxury of rehearsing before a performance, Mease said interpreters rarely get a set list from a performer “and, even when we do, we may not be familiar with their work. I call it baptism by fire.”
“Additionally,” she said, “because the festival is a live event, improvisation by the artists on the stage is sometimes the norm. We have to adapt on the fly to whatever the artist does on stage. It is hard work and challenging, but it’s fun.”
“We work extemporaneously and hope we have a good vocal feed so that we can understand the words,” Verdier explained. “For a formal concert, I do learn all of the songs ahead of time, if possible, and give a lot of thought to how I will put the pictures in the air so the interpretation can be very musical and true to the writer’s meaning. But at Blues Fest, we are strictly on our own — spur of the moment, difficult and challenging. But it’s some of the most fun I have all year. But then, I love the blues.”
It’s also a rewarding experience, both women admit.
“One local deaf man attends every year,” Mease noted. “We look for him in the crowd but he makes sure to get our attention when we’re on stage. We’ll adjust our position, if necessary, to ensure that he has a clear line of sight for the interpretation.”
Verdier said she receives positive comments throughout the year from people who attend the Blues Fest — “like when I’m dragging into Urgent Care looking very sick and awful and a Blues Fest fan will stop me and say how much he or she appreciates the interpreting. It’s a service that Blues Fest provides that the community seems to appreciate.”