While serving as chaplains at Gallaudet College eight years ago, Dan Pokorny and Rudolph Gawlik decided to try a new way to help the deaf understand and enjoy music. With musicians playing loudly in the background, the two men gracefully "sang" the words of the songs with their hanads - in sign language.
"That kind of concert had never been done before," said Pokorny of the concert held at Galladudet on Dec. 3, 1969. "We went into it with the idea that either deaf people would love the concert and it would be a huge success or they would hate it and it would be a bomb."
The concert was an overwhelming success and has since led to concert tours throughout the United States and Canada for the group of signers and musicians know as "The Rock Gospel Company." The group focuses on contemporary Christian music.
Recently, Rock Gospel presented afternoon and evening concerts at the Publick Playhouse in Hyattsville. The audience of 150 deaf adults and children and their hearing relatives and friends at the afternoon concert became caught up in the performance and were reluctant to leave when the concert was over.
"Sometimes when I read the words of a song, it's difficult to understand exactly what it means," said Vivian Rai, 20, a deaf student at Gallaudet. "But Rock Gospel helps me to understand the full meaning of music. The song is no longer just a poem on paper, but I can feel its meaning," she said following the concert.
The word "deaf" is perhaps misleading in that the word implies that an individual who is deaf has suffered a complete loss of hearing ability. In fact, nearly all deaf people have at least some residual hearing which enables them to detect the low-range pitches and bass tones of music and vibrations from other loud sounds.
"Most deaf people can pick up rhythm information for bass guitars and drums," said Daniel Bode, chairman of the Department of Audiology and Speech at Gallaudet. "In addition to what they can actually hear, the deaf person can get other information through acoustical vibrations. They also watch other people around them to pick up a sense of the music." The Rock Gospel concert combines the rhythm of drums, bass and lead guitars, the emotion expressed by vocalists and the graceful "signers" in the group who also mouth the words being sung.
Together the musicians, signer and vocalists provide their deaf audience with a full spectrum of the various components of music. Hearing audiences can also enjoy the way beautiful music and signs are skillfully blended to suggest a mental image of the music.
At last week's concert, the members of Rock Gospel frequently used audience participation drawing them into the songs.
On one song, "Spirit Is A'Movin," members of the audience were asked to make the sign for "spirit" and to sign-sing along with the group at the appropriate internals in the song.
The audience enthusiastically joined in, smiling and laughing throughout the song. Some deaf people who could speak orally, sang the words out loudly.
The guitars, piano and drums were all aplified more than that required for a hearing audience so the deaf people could feel the ryhthm of the music.
In another song, Rock Gospel members showed the audience how they make the sign for "I love you." Then the group sang the song, "I love you," with the audience signing the words along with the group.
Small deaf children were recruited from the audience and brought to the stage to help sign-sing another song, "I Believe in You," which was introduced as a tribute to all parents in the audience.
"We see Gospel Rock as a ministry of joy and celebaration," said Pokorny, who is founder and director of the group. "Our goal is to give deaf peopel an opportunity to celebrate in the Lord."
Mary Dalzell, director of music, for Rock Gospel, said that now there are other groups across the country which sign-sing to taped music. But she said such performances lack something.
"Taped music is not as strong," she said. "When we play, deaf people get a sense of the beat from the guitars and the drums. They can see the music being played and they can feel it as the musicians feel it."
The members of Rock Gospel, all of whom are hearing, is a mixed bag which includes a high school student of Catholic priest, a professional actor, a high school teacher, a professional guitarist, and an evangelistic counselor.
At the close of their concert, the members of the group left the stage, but the audience, which appeared to have been mesmerized by the performance, did not move.
"Apparently you refuse to go home," said Gawlik, when the group returned to the stage for an encore. "So we will just do one more song with you." The group then closed with the song. "Sing Out to the Lord."
"We do have a way for you to take us home with you," Gawlik told the audience in closing. He showed them a special song book for the deaf with illustrations on how to sign the words to the songs.