Signsong tends to spark a love it/hate it response from the Deaf community. However as a performer and tutor of signsong I can see for myself how interest in the art form is surely growing.
But when I tell people what it is I do, I still get the occasional screwed up face and an exclamation of:
“But you’re deaf! Music isn’t for deaf people!”
Cue exasperated sigh. Because here is where they have the most common misconception.
Its. Not. About. The. Music.
If sign song was all about our ability to hear then yes, I would put my hands up and get myself another job. But it’s not. Baffled? Let me explain.
I’ve always believed that signsingers are in effect very skilled story tellers. When you look at a song you are basically looking at a story. The lyrics, of course, are the words to this tale.
The melody of the lyrics portray the unique style in which the tale is being expressed. This can involve emphasising certain words or phrases, and even the clever use of pauses for dramatic effect.
Rebecca signing Crash and Burn by Savage Garden
The musical setting – the tone, pace, composition of notes – all works to set and support the mood of the story. Drum breaks and crescendos can amplify powerful feelings whereas softer instrumentals depict a sorrowful sentiment.
You may wonder how this is possible if you can’t actually hear the music and therefore can’t pick up the style, the mood or the tale of a story. And this is where those signsinging sceptics are partly right. Because I would never choose to perform a song that I could not follow.
A lot of the songs I use have strong bass lines, powerful beats and easily identifiable rhythms. Without giving my performance secrets away too much, it’s mostly memory and guess work that keeps me in time with the music. That and my trusty communicator, Lady Liz, who dutifully acts as my visual metronome throughout the song and cues my song starts.
There have been times where my hearing aid has cut off mid performance and I’ve had to rely on the visual beat I could see in the form of Liz’s hand tapping and my own memory of the song’s rhythm to keep me in time. Maybe it’s my years as a dancer that has given me the ability to remember rhythms physically, but I do think it’s a skill that can be developed.
Funnily enough, I’ve met plenty of hearing people who are tone deaf and as musical as a plank of wood… And yet there are Deaf people who naturally have rhythm in their soul. They may be aware of this gift from a young age, depending on their exposure to music and its accessibility. Other times it takes a while before they discover this form of expression.
Countless times in my sign song workshops I’ve met children and adults who have, in their words, called themselves ‘Proper Deaf.’ These are strong BSL users who most definitely do not want to associate themselves with music.
But throughout the course of the workshop they find they’ve learnt a brand new way of expressing themselves. A way that takes their native language and paints a visual picture, supported by a rhythmical frame of beats and pauses.
Some participants have even been moved to tears, overjoyed that they are now able to access the lyrics of the great songwriters and fully share their meaning. There are phrases in songs that can depict a powerful sentiment in a simple sentence and made even more beautiful by using sign language.
I believe the role of a signsinger is to tell the story as visually and honestly as possible. We are not merely ‘interpreting the music’ or ‘translating the words.’ Instead we embody the song and become living personifications for the story that is being told. We become the tale.
By breaking down the rhythmical components of the song and ultimately communicating the ‘story,’ sign singing is most definitely an art form that all children and adults can participate in – regardless of their ability to physically hear.
We all have a story to tell. And sign singing is just one way of expressing it.
Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.
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