Signing Music

As some of you may know, I’m proficient (but not fluent) in American Sign Language (ASL). I regularly interpret for the deaf at my church on Sundays. While I’ve had no formal training, I have taken several classes as the Austin Sign Language School (mostly vocabulary classes) and have interpreted for a few deaf individuals. I’ve considered taking the test and becoming certified in Texas however my receiving (ie: reading ASL) is very poor due to my lack of practice.

One of the things I love to sign is music. I don’t have much of a singing voice (that’s Benjamin’s department) but I have been told by both the deaf, interpreters, and others that I have a knack for signing music. In fact, just last Sunday a hearing woman came up to me after the church service and said that my interpreting was so beautiful that it almost brought her to tears. I, personally, think that’s over the top — but apparently it does move some people.

I should probably take a moment and describe a little bit about our church for you to better understand the rest of this post. I attend church at Gateway Community Church. It is a non-denominational church here in Austin that is very uncontemporary. Each and every Sunday the live band covers a song that 80% of the audience knows and would hear on the radio. To give you an idea, I’ve interpreted at least one song from each of the following: Madonna, Matchbox 20, Hootie and the Blowfish, U2 (lots of those), Green Day, Nickleback, Sherryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, The Police, Sting, The Eagles, Coldplay, and many, many more — you get the idea, this isn’t your normal Baptist Hymnal.

Interpreting music is a bit different than interpreting someone speaking. Typically with music you get the lyrics ahead of time so you know what you’re going to have to interpret whereas with someone speaking you’re good to know the general topic. On the flip side, with someone speaking you just become a living conduit — hear what they are saying into your buffer, parse the meaning, translate that into sign (using a huge mental thesaurus), and sign it a couple of seconds after the speaker has said it while still filling new input into the buffer. The delay really isn’t that important as we’re obviously going for content — the delivery itself just has to be comprehendable. Music on the other hand goes through the same general buffer but to capture the true meaning of a song, the delivery can often be more important than the content being delivered. The interpreter’s movements have to mimic the music, not just convey the meaning, to be truly enjoyable to the deaf. I personally believe that a good song interpretation is part dance.

Interpreting music for the deaf is often very challenging. Think of the last song you heard on the radio. Do you actually know what every word was? If you actually do know all the words think quick: what did the artist mean with those words? Could you explain it to another person? How much of the song’s enjoyment is from the play on words? The rhyming? To interpret a song and do it well you have to break the song down into it’s core meaning and interpret that into signs that convey the same meaning in a way that is visually appealing. Just as a poet or artist might choose a different word to better fit their work, an interpreter might choose a different sign with the same meaning to better fit in with the previous and following signs to make it look better. Now imagine doing that on the fly while trying to maintain sync with the music. Without previous exposure to both the lyrics and the music this is virtually impossible.

There’s a very interesting article titled Keeping deaf fans rockin’ that I saw linked from Fark. I think the article does a great job of showing some of the challenges that deaf interpreters experience when signing songs for the deaf. The article discusses a great deal of the same topics that I’ve touched on although in a much more succinct way.

I’ve interpreted several concerts although all of them have been in a church setting. I’ve interpreted a mini-concert by Wide Awake, Malford Milligan, and others although their names escape me. Usually I have about a week’s notice of the concert and if I’m lucky I can borrow a CD or two from someone to listen to during the week and “get into” the music. I’d like to do more music interpreting but if I’m going to go down that path I really need to get certified first. No time for that now however.

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I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

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