Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

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 (5): 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
How to teach Sight Singing to Middle School Students-  Full Bundle/Year Long Lesson plans 10-15 minutes per day now available:
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 2
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.
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.