Inspired by a deaf Detroit-based rapper, Ferndale Marching Band incorporates sign language into show

Despite taking over the Ferndale Marching Band in 2004, Elon Jamison has never done a show quite like this. Then again, he's pretty certain no marching band has undertaken such a performance.

"Our drill designer, he's been in the marching arts for 30 years. He judges, writes and one of the things he says is there are no new ideas," Jamison said. "We think we actually got a new idea."

So what brave new world has the Ferndale Marching band entered with its new performance? Silence.

Calling it a "bit of a renegade idea," Jamison said the ambitious direction taken by the school district was meant to help bridge the gap of how groups who are hard of hearing perceive music and sound with groups who may not struggle with hearing. So what does this performance look like? Well, you start with one of the most famous deaf musicians of all time: Ludwig van Beethoven.

"People believe it (his deafness) came from tinnitus, that buzzing in the ear - so we do several moments where tinnitus blocks out the sound," Jamison said. "It's a musical silence." 

Following the second part, which is a series of lullabies like twinkle twinkle little star, members of the marching band put down their instruments and perform the chorus to "Watch These Hands," a song performed with sign language by Detroit-based rapper Sean Forbes.

Forbes has become somewhat of a celebrity in the deaf community, partnering up with Eminem after forming the Ferndale based nonprofit Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN). Their work has produced several American Sign Language interpretation music videos for musicians like the White Stripes, John Mayor, and Christina Aguilera.

Despite being a headlining artist who tours globally, Forbes said he was speechless when he was asked by the district to help choreograph part of the show.

"Life is quite a journey and having Ferndale perform "Watch These Hands" and for me to coincidentally have recorded the song down the street," Forbes said in an email.

There's probably no song more fitting to perform during the performance. Forbes said the song is his way of telling the world "Watch me, I'm going to do what I love."

"It's basically my life story summed up into a song from my upbringing to my journey to get to where I am today, to how lucky I really am that I was born into Detroit, into a musical family that was well respected by many of the Detroit music scene players," he wrote, "I've always felt extremely lucky and the reason I set up a nonprofit is because I felt like through all these experiences I've had as a deaf person music has always been at the core of everything I do."

If Forbes is the architect behind a system that immerses people who are hard of hearing in how to experience music, then the Ferndale Marching band is the vehicle for executing that system.

"When we were looking into the deaf community, we found a whole school of ASL interpretation that tries to communicate to the deaf community what's actually going on in a musical performance," Jamison said. "For deaf folks watching, they get a better sense of the vibe of the music."

Finally, in part four of the show, the marching band performs "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. 

The Ferndale Marching Band put their talents to the test on Saturday by performing at the Michigan Competing Bands Association's State Championship. They earned second place.

You can watch the original video of Forbes performing "Watch These Hands" here.

Jack Nissen is a reporter at Fox 2 Detroit. You can contact him at (248) 552-5269 or at