Bob Hiltermann grew up in Germany, where he was the tenth of eleven children. Spinal meningitis left him deaf at the age of four; but it was not discovered until he was 10 years old. When he was five, his family relocated across the Atlantic to Canada. Moving to a new country and adjusting to a different life with eleven children to care for, Hiltermann’s parents never realized he was deaf, they just assumed he had learning disabilities. Besides not being able to hear, everyone was speaking in a new language. Hiltermann wondered if he had learning issues when he could see others communicate so easily, but it was so hard for him.
Finally, when he was ten-years old, a hearing test uncovered the fact that he was deaf. After all this time, his family had grown accustomed to treating him as if he were mentally challenged. It must have been extremely frustrating for Hiltermann who is a very intelligent person, so his memories from the age of ten to seventeen were far from happy. When he was 18, a counselor suggested he attend Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. It was there that his life changed when he was introduced to American Sign Language.
“I think that’s why it’s so important to him now, to share the joy of Sign Language with others,” says director Marty Elcan, who produced and directed the popular DVD series Shut Up & Sign that stars Hiltermann.
His credits include; a year’s run on the soap “All My Children,” a guest star in “Cold Case,” several feature films that include, “Children of a Lesser God,” “The Heart is a Drum Machine” and “The Hammer.” Hiltermann is one of four deaf entertainers featured in the well-received documentary “See What I’m Saying.” He is the drummer with the wildly popular, all-deaf rock band “Beethoven’s Nightmare,’ which performs around the world and will be performing in France and Russia this year. Hiltermann co-founded “MUSIGN,” an extremely popular Signing/Mime musical troupe, and Deaf West Theatre, a multi-awards theater in Los Angeles.
Splash: Tell us about the band and how you formed it.
Hiltermann: Back in early 2000, I was thinking about reforming a deaf rock band that I had back in my college days. Since we had taken a long break from performing, I contacted Ed Chevy, my bassist and Steve Longo, my guitarist, and they agreed to regroup. We came up with a new name, “Beethoven’s Nightmare.” This was to honor Ludwig Von Beethoven, for his amazing classical music and his worst nightmare, which was his deafness. We’re all deaf rockers, hence the name. We play all original songs with the exception of our cover song, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Since we reformed, we’ve rocked across America and our fan base has grown tremendously. I realize now, that my band is truly remarkable – one of a kind – the only deaf band in the world. It has been a great honor working with two extremely talented deaf musicians.
Splash: Please explain how you can tell if your music sounds good to hearing people?
Hiltermann: We tend to invite hearing folks to hear us play and give us feedback. During live concerts, we see hearing people pumping their fists, enjoying our music just as much as deaf people. So many people are astounded that we deaf musicians can really play at the same professional level as our hearing counterparts. We enjoy rock music because it feels right deep down inside. Ed Chevy wrote the lyrics and composed all the music. We learn these songs through intensive rehearsals in blood, sweat, and tears until the music is perfectly in-sync.
Splash: What challenges do you see your band having in the future?
Hiltermann: The biggest challenge we have is finding a manager who can help us to crossover into the major music environment. We’ve been together for 12 years since we reformed, and I would like my band on the radar - to be the opening act for big name bands, and to show audiences that we can rock their socks off. I would also like my band to perform on TV, such as: late night talk shows, American Music Awards, Grammy, Saturday Night Live, 20/20, CNN, etc. I just wanted to share with the world how miraculous it is that a deaf rock band can do what nobody ever thought possible. It’s like a freak show that everyone would be curious about. These are the challenges that I see my band having right now, but I’m optimistic.
Splash: How do you think you are influencing other deaf students?
Hiltermann: My influence to deaf students has been mostly about positive attitude and believing in themselves no matter what anyone says. If someone says no, move on until you find a yes. They can make their dreams come true by staying focused and working hard. There’s no free ride.
Splash: What would you like to see in the future for deaf people?
Hiltermann: Since American Sign Language has become very popular (the third most common language used today), more and more hearing people are opening up and communicating with deaf people. I would like to see more accessibility, equal rights, and opportunities for deaf people. They can do just about anything hearing people can do, except hear. I would also like to see more deaf people open up and learn to play music.
Splash: What do you do on the set when everyone else does not sign, how do you communicate?
Hiltermann: One of my skills is lip reading. I tend to understand better when I’m closer to a person, so I can see the details of the mouth movement and facial expression. Sometimes, they need to write down on paper, but usually, they hire a sign language interpreter on the set.
Splash: Why do you think you’ve been so successful, is it the struggles?
Hiltermann: Well, life is full of challenges. My struggles have shaped me into a stronger and wiser person. My success has been breaking down the barriers of oppressions and doubts. Learning to play music turned out to be the best decision of my life. However, one of my on-going struggles is trying to be hired as an actor in films and TV. There aren’t any roles for me. I once played a hearing role with a voiceover in the movie and it was truly a success. It had never been done before with a deaf actor playing a hearing role. It’s the first of its kind. Everybody thought I was hearing. I would love to do that again. I believe as an actor, anything is possible.
Splash: I see there is a new band member, how did you find him?
Hiltermann: We had been looking for a rock singer who can sign. I knew the actor and writer, Paul Raci, for many years, and he recently acted with me in the play “Cyrano.” In this play, Paul sang and signed a rock song that just blew me away to heaven. I never knew he could sing like that. Paul is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and used to be in a heavy metal rock band before he became an actor. One day he offered to sing for the band. After discussing with Ed and Steve, it was a big YES from us. Paul just wrote an independent film, Deaf Ghost, in which he will star and feature the band. We’re very excited and honored to have Paul as a new band member.
Splash: What is next for Beethoven’s Nightmare?
Hiltermann: We continue to come together for rehearsals in Los Angeles. Our next intensive rehearsal will be during Memorial weekend and then we record a new song, which will be available on iTunes. A music video will follow. This year we’re invited back to France to play for an audience that will be twice the size as when we performed in 2011. After that, we will be touring in great Russia. We’re very looking forward to these tours.
Splash: What is next for Bob Hiltermann?
Hiltermann: I just gave a motivational speech and conducted drumming workshops for the wonderful Deaf Arts Jubilee in San Diego. I continue to teach sign language classes in Los Angeles. In between, I audition, spend time with my family, and play music in my studio whenever I can. Soon, I’ll be hosting and acting for my 4th episode of the sign language educational series, “Shut Up and Sign.” This new episode will be called, “What a Wonderful World.” Then tour and rock with Beethoven’s Nightmare in France and Russia.
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