How The World’s First Deaf Rock Band Feels Music

Beethoven would have loved theseguys.

How The World’s First Deaf Rock Band Feels Music

Josh O’Connor

Beethoven would have loved these guys.

Like most kids in the ’60s, Steve Longo was blown away the first time he heard The Beatles. But unlike most kids, Longo was born profoundly deaf.

Contrary to what you may think, many deaf people can actually hear some sounds, just not very well. Longo grew up hearing Christmas songs and nursery rhymes, but it wasn’t until his brother dropped the needle on a Beatles record that he was truly hooked on music.

He could hear most of the frequencies, but not the higher ones. He also couldn’t hear letters like “S” and “Z” — so he read the lyrics to know what John and Paul were singing.

Longo also taught himself to play the guitar. He plugged his headphones into his amp and used a device called an illuminator, which turned on a light whenever he played.

Meanwhile, Bob Hiltermann was growing up as the only deaf member in his family. His 10 brothers and sisters played classical records, but he couldn’t hear them. He first experienced music when his older sister brought a Beatles record home.

“I pressed my good ear to the speaker and heard their music for the first time,” Hiltermann said. “I was blown away.”

Hiltermann’s neighbors let him practice on their drum kit, and he taught himself by playing along to cranked up rock music through a pair of headphones.

“I can only hear low frequency, and I can tell the difference between the snare, toms, floor toms and kick drums,” Hiltermann said. “I couldn’t hear the high hat and cymbals well enough. Practicing on my own was difficult. But I learned a lot.”

Over the years, he jammed to The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Beach Boys. Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, who was famous for playing really loud and with sticks so big they were nicknamed “tree trunks,” gave Hiltermann a whole new experience in music.

Around the same time, Ed Chevy was growing up in an all-deaf family. His dad played country music just to create some noise around the house. And his mom was a flamenco dancer, using castanets to keep time. But music wasn’t a big part of their lives. That changed when Chevy got a hearing aid at age seven. Suddenly, he could hear those slow country rhythms and the clicking of castanets. He learned to count out beats and measures, taught himself to play the bass and started writing songs.

Each of these three young rockers attended Washington, DC’s Gallaudet University, where they formed a band that’s still together four decades later. Their stew of heavy metal and punk is pure L.A. rock — blazing guitar solos, crazy outfits and frenzied stage antics. They call themselves Beethoven’s Nightmare — “The Greatest Deaf Rock Band in the World.” And they’re changing the way the world thinks about hearing impairments.

Because music wasn’t a big part of his family’s culture, Chevy says his parents taught him to perceive art visually. Today, that same lesson influences his songwriting.

“I’m looking at a portrait on the wall. The picture shows a woman looking down, holding a rose to her heart,” Chevy said. “When I see that picture, I play my music according to the story in the frame. Then I end up writing my lyrics last.”

He considers his process a brand new art form. But there are still challenges. When composing a new song, the biggest obstacle is making sure the guitar and the bass are in the same keys. So, Chevy and Longo learned to closely focus on each other’s fingers and where they’re placed on the strings. Chevy also has trouble hearing the pitch and the melody. To follow the changes in a song, he watches the light show and visual cues from his bandmates.

Ed Chevy, Bob Hiltermann, a dancer, and Steve Longo of Beethoven’s Nightmare. | Beethoven’s Nightmare

Even when faced with these hurdles, Beethoven’s Nightmare still plays the same instruments in the same way hearing bands do. And now, thanks to new tools and technology, it might get easier for deaf musicians to hear — and play — music.

Richard Burn is a PhD student at Birmingham City University in England. He’s researching tools to make it easier for deaf musicians to play virtual instruments (VIs) like synthesizers — computers hooked up to piano-style keyboards.

Right now, he’s developing software that creates a “sonic fingerprint” for each VI sound using simple animated shapes. A snare drum hit might look like a circle with a lot of sharp points on it to symbolize the many frequencies. Deaf musicians could then visualize each sound by simply looking at the screen while they’re playing.

Burn is also exploring how musicians “hear” with their bodies. He envisions a chair that incorporates resonating chambers — similar to the body of an acoustic guitar. Musicians would sit in it, and the chambers would vibrate, delivering different frequency vibrations to different parts of the body. The Singapore University of Technology and Design has already invented the “haptic chair,” which is lined with speakers and gives deaf music fans a full-body “listening” experience.

Chevy believes that playing for deaf audiences ultimately comes down to three important elements: sound, sensitivity and sight.

“I never stand still like a dead tree,” Chevy said. “I move to the music!”

Attend a Beethoven’s Nightmare show and you’ll see it for yourself. Chevy jumps around. And he and Longo wail on their guitars, back to back, just like the best rock ’n’ rollers do.

The visual aspect incorporates light, too. A dazzling light rig “plays” along with the band, shining red, green and yellow lights on the audience to mimic the low, medium and high frequencies.

“I wanted the deaf to see music as well as hear it,” Longo said. “They loved it.”

Now, he’s building a rig that will bathe the audience in millions of colors. And the he best part? Although these musicians literally “amp up” their performances for the benefit of deaf audiences, it’s one hell of a show — whether you can hear or not.