Anyone who has been to a Heartland Men’s Chorus is no doubt familiar with Rick McAdams. He’s always poised inconspicuously on the side of the stage interpreting the performances in American Sign Language (ASL).
When signing he focuses on whoever is predominant, soloist or chorus. “Sometimes it makes my job a little bit easier when there’s a whole lot of ‘stuff’ going on the stage – sketches, and dancing and those kinds of things, because some of that I can do what is called ‘toss the focus,’ as if to say, ‘look over here, this is what’s going on.’ It gives me a bit of a break for a moment.”
“There’s a difference between what we call interpreting and transliteration.” ASL syntax is closer to Chinese than it is to English, so “it does not always adapt itself well to music. It goes more easily with poetry. There are parts of interpreting music that need to be closer to the English form to be able to maintain the rhythmic progression because melody is totally lost to the deaf. There’s no way to really convey that.”
“I try to stay as close to conceptual accuracy as possible so therefore I’m leaning more to the ASL side, but still maintain enough of the English side of it that it stays as visually appealing as it is auditorily for hearing people.”
McAdams explained that he does not translate the lyrics of a song word for word, but rather tries to convey “the concepts of what that person is singing.” He gets the music well in advance and goes to rehearsals so he can make a plan for the concert. “Quite often when I’m at rehearsals, I’m sitting in the back and I’m looking over the music but also kind of tuning my ear to listen to harmonies, to pick up on what is strongest here and there, and how I’m going to deal with that.” In deciding how he will present the concept of a piece when it is performed, he asks himself, “Will it make sense in deaf language and deaf culture? does it need to be put out there exactly as it is?”
“It’s a very complex process that we go through mentally; it’s a constant circle: you’re taking it in, processing it, putting it out while still taking in more and processing and putting it out.”
“Music is not part of native deaf culture,” he said. “For those who were born deaf and raised deaf, their native language is ASL and music is not part of the culture.” Like many others, he does not use the phrase hearing-impaired. “I really don’t like that term. Nowadays people are saying, I’m deaf. I’m not hearing impaired, I’m not broken, I’m not impaired. People describe themselves as deaf or hard of hearing.”
“The ones with hearing loss that I would expect to see at concerts would be those who had hearing at some point and lost it but still enjoy aspects of music and concerts and those sorts of things.”
In addition to his work with the Heartland Men’s Chorus McAdams is a familiar sight signing at AIDS Walk and other community rallies and events. For about 10 years he also coordinated the interpreters for the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. He works full time translating from videos when not signing for the HMC or other groups, although he tries to do at least two community events a month. In 2003 he was in Belgium interpreting for a one-day symposium. In October 2007 he may be going to Cape Town, South Africa. During our interview he had just gotten an e-mail that morning to hold the date in June, 2008 to interpret in Rome for a Mass and an audience with the Pope.
“From very humble beginnings, sitting on my grandmother’s knee having them teach me an old-fashioned two handed alphabet, not knowing if we ever had any deaf person in my family, none that I ever met, to having it as a hobby and going on and getting my degree in psychology and doing all kinds of other things and meeting deaf people who taught me the language and study on my own and eventually getting certified—I never dreamed I would make a living doing this,” Rick said.
Rick said it also surprises him that he gets recognized. He thinks, “Okay, where do I know this person from, and then I have to remember, well I’m standing on a stage in front of a thousand people at a time in the spotlight flapping my arms around.”
He’s been working with the Heartland Men’s Chorus 11 years and sometimes travels with them to concerts out of town. He enjoys meeting other interpreters at the GALA events and joked “We’re able to watch each other work and say, let me swipe that idea, that’s great.”
Born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, Rick has lived in Kansas City since 1987.