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Appropriate? Use of sign language to augment music

What do you think of the use of sign language for aesthetic purposes? Have you had interactions with the deaf community about this? I would like to use ASL on one selection only. I often use dance or movement, and art to enhance the meaning of the music, but understand the sensitivity with sign language.
I welcome your thoughts, feelings, and reflections.
Katherine Mitchell
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on April 17, 2014 12:25pm
I'm a choral director whose adult  daughter is a small step away from becoming a licensed interpreter.  I've learned a great deal from her progess toward certification.  One of the big lessons is that you need to be absolutely sure that the signs you're using are absolutely correct.  If you're having an entire choir sign, my advice is to have a professional teach you or the choir the best way to convey the song, and and come in several times to critique the ensemble.    A colleague told me about an earnest music teacher who made up (not that you're proposing this) signs for a first-grade presentation attended by Deaf grandparents.  Her logical but non-standard hand motions unintentionally conveyed something extremely improper.  Reportedly, the grandparents spent the song attempting not to laugh out loud!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 18, 2014 3:15am
I use it every year during the holidays on a beautiful version of Silent Night.  My students love it, and so do the audiences who see it.  I had a professional interpreter teach us and check our work.  It's a great way to teach rhythm using a lyrical approach and is great for kinesthetic learners.
I originally performed songs with sign language with John Jacobson when I was in high school when he visited for a workshop.  I'll never forget that beautiful performance experience on the song "He Ain't Heavy, He's my Brother".  
Best of luck!
Dale Duncan
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Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 19, 2014 5:07am
As a fluent user of sign language as a tool for communication - I was an interpreter for years but my certification has lapsed. . . it is never appropriate to use sign language for aesthetic purposes unless there are deaf people in the audience -in my opinioin. Otherwise, what is the point?  You can do intepretive dance all you want. It's a line people either come down on one side or the other but that's the side I come down on at this point. A DEAF person signing a song is a diffferent matter.  The only time I've signed in church without deaf people being present is during Pentecost - because they all heard the word in their own tongues. . I did not find a conflict in that. In a secular setting - no.  I have coached people who want to use sign in their church as an aesthetic thing. . and I always ask - are their deaf people? Are you starting a deaf ministry?  Little kids signing "Jesus Loves Me" is acceptable as often small children find meaning in their own use of movement. . however, an adult just because it's "pretty". . not so much. 
on April 19, 2014 6:58am
I certainly respect your opinion and convictions about not using sign language for aesthetic purposes, but it raises a question in my mind. Last summer I purchased a beautiful vase with chinese writing on it because I admired the beauty of the characters. I am not Chinese, nor is there anyone in my house who can read what it says. Was this improper in your mind? If so, why? If not, what is the difference in that and in admiring the beauty of sign language? Not questioning your convictions, just curious.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 19, 2014 11:05am
My oldest son has autism.  When he was 27 months old  and we were beginning our "autism journey," he worked three times a week with a private speech pathologist in addition to the 0-3 program's speech therapist.  After a few months, his speech path asked if we would be comfortable with him using "total communication"--which is spoken language as well as ASL signed while speaking.  It took us six months to teach him ONE SIGN and then, not as long to teach him others.  In his early 30s, he still is not able to speak but does use about 15  ASL signs.  He is not deaf, in fact, he has perfect pitch. The only way my non-deaf autistic son is able to communicate is by signing........and he's not a child.
In his elementary school music experience, his program often used ASL to enhance their choirs communication.  In fact, I still tear up when I recall his signing "Up On the House Top" while his peers sang it....I conduct Bach but my son signing that children's holiday song is probably one of the most moving musical experiences of my ilife!
When I had my children's church choir, we used an anthem series with sign language translations (and it was ASL, I checked...I think it was published by Shawnee) included. We worked very had to get the signs correct and occassionally, one of my adult singers would join us signing. I  tried to program at least one of those anthems once a year, often at Pentecost but not always.  I felt it was giving a place to my son and others like him in church and my singers loved signing and singing.
Russell does understand spoken language to a certain extent but when in doubt, we sign as well.  It couldn't hurt to communicate as completely as possible IMHO, no matter who is doing the signing.
on April 21, 2014 10:28am
It's tacky, pandering, and cruel when you are not providing an accessible experience for the rest of the performance.
on April 24, 2014 6:49pm
Pandering to whom? Cruel to whom, and why? This is a strong respondse which, it seems to me, would be better understood with some more explanation.
on April 25, 2014 2:31pm
I understand the pandering comment.  We recently had a big deal in my city with a choir that had regularly used a sign language interpreter and the deaf community.  This particular interpreter, who also works with deaf populations, used at least some (many) signs that were not accurate to the text, but pretty to watch.  The deaf community took the choir to task about their frustrations with the signs that made very little sense to them.  They would have preferred more accurate signs, even if they weren't as pretty to see.  This hasn't ended very amicably.  I guess it could be considered pandering, because it makes a visible effort towards inclusion that really doesn't include the deaf and hard of hearing people in attendance.  It looks good on the surface, but isn't really of genuine help.
I know and deeply care for people on both sides of this confict and I wish there had been a better resolution.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 24, 2014 7:04pm
It seems to me that using ASL, when done well, promotes an awareness of the deaf community among the choristers and audience alike, which is a very good thing. I see no reason why it should be viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate.
on April 25, 2014 5:05pm
hi, Katherine-
Most of the choristers I know would agree that having them learn some ASL and integrating signing into their performance would not have as great an impact as employing a professional interpreter to sign for someone in the audience who is deaf or hearing impaired. I know this is an issue that I myself am sensitive about, as the special needs parent of a daughter (age 28) with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. That said, here's a completely difference experience: years ago, I involved a local parent (whose son has multiple disabilities, including deafness) in signing for a performance "Sabbath Prayer" (from "Fiddler"), SSA arrangement, for an all-women audience. She opened the set with lighting the candles and reciting the Hebrew blessing, and then said it in English while signing it. As the chorus of women entered and sang, she signed the (English) lyrics. There was no one in the (hearing) audience who knew ASL, nor was there anyone present who was deaf or hearing impaired, yet everyone present found her signing moving, which in turn enhanced the emotional undercurrent of the song. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 25, 2014 8:01pm
I really believe ASL is a language, just like any language we sing.  I joke to my chamber choir when we sing in Latin..." I hope there aren't any native speakers in the audience."  We sing in Latin a lot and we work on our vowels and consonants (let's not get into Italianate Latin vs. Germanic Latin vs.........) but I am sure we are far from perfect. If a Latin professor came to one of our concerts, perhaps he would be disappointed, but perhaps he would think we did a fairly decent job of sung Latin (different from the vulgate Latin, remember).  We use a German coach as well as a Spanish coach and had a Hebrew coach when we sang Salomone Rossi.......but even so, we are not perfect.
If trying to do good by having a few pieces on a concert signed, either by the choir (or a few of the choir) or an interpreter is not right, than perhaps all of us should stick to our native languages and be done with it.
Since my son has autism, I can speak with some sort of perspective---if a musical organization  did something, made some sort of special allowance or performed a piece with him (autism) in mind, I would be THRILLED and so would he.  April is National Autism Awareness Month so there is still time, folks!
on April 26, 2014 8:12am
Chilcott's "Can You Hear Me" is written with sign language as an integral part of the work:
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