Last month the first national signing choir competition took place in Nottingham. Organised by Simon Astill of Harmoneyes, there were four junior choirs and ten senior groups that had travelled across the country to compete.
As one of three judges I was really looking forward to seeing so many sign song enthusiasts come together. The mayor of Nottingham attended the evening which played to a full house, with coverage from the local media as well as See Hear. The event was also hosted by Stewart Hill, an ex soldier who was part of the Invictus choir led by the BBC’s Gareth Malone.
As the signing choir competition began it was clear that although the standard differed from group to group, there was great potential for development and artistic success within sign song.
The winners of the junior group, de Ferrers signing choir, were a passionate choir whose eyes sparkled when they signed. Each performer was confident and their professionalism edged them into the lead for sure. The senior category was won by Dee-Sign of Chester who cleverly fused BSL signs with English lyrics and performed a highly polished Abba medley with intricate choreography.
Yet there are also a few others that deserve a special mention. Heathlands school had charismatic, charming performers sign What a Wonderful World. Their artistry and sign language skills were astounding and they had me smiling throughout. Being an all deaf group, I felt proud of how beautifully they portrayed the lyrics and still honoured the timing of the song. I feel this strength in BSL performers is where attention must be poured in order for sign song to grow in popularity amongst deaf community.
Another of my favourites was Vision signing choir from Kent. Their rendition of Phantom of the Opera remained with me for days after. I was only vaguely familiar with the song beforehand but the clarity of their signs transported me to the haunting setting of the Phantoms opera. The way in which they portrayed the dramatic chord changes using their hands was brilliant and their faces of longing and desire depicted the ambience of the Phantom perfectly. I loved it.
Another memorable group was Revolution signing choir who performed a funk routine and fused their signs into choreographed movements that helped me feel the beat and made me want to get up and dance. They were fresh and innovative and I loved seeing the freedom of dance routines within their set.
All of the choirs mentioned above had unique strengths which distinguished them from the rest with such a variety of performance styles. It was endearing to see so many people enjoying sign song and experimenting with its delivery.
I’m aware a lot of sign choirs are formed as a practice group for those learning BSL and most perform at fundraising events for charities. They are raising the profile of sign language and deaf awareness. So regardless of how adept or not their signing may be, they clearly have a love for the language.
Yet there’s an elephant in the room that I have to address. Where were all the deaf people?!
Out of the 14 choirs on the night I saw only one all deaf group and the rest had one or two but mostly zero deaf performers in their group. So what’s going on? After all, wasn’t it the deaf congregations in churches that sign song was born out of? Why are there so few deaf sign singers now?
Speaking to audience members after the show, I began to get a clearer picture of why this may be. A deaf couple approached me and told me their views, asking me a question that sparked a lot of thought;
“Why do the hearing own signed song?”
Its our language! the couple told me. And yes, it is ours. But it’s ours to share. The real crux of the matter isn’t that hearing people own signed songs but that there is a serious lack of deaf representation when it comes to signing choirs.
Deaf children don’t grow up watching signed choirs like hearing children do listening to pop groups. Therefore where’s the encouragement to perform going to come from? That’s why the group from Heathlands are especially inspiring because they are paving the way for a fresh take on sign singing, right from the hands of deaf children.
I feel it’s not about taking ownership of sign song away from hearing people but claiming our stakes in it too. Don’t be afraid to try something just because of a preconception that it’s owned by those who can hear.
Sure, being deaf means the task of learning a song’s intricate make up is harder. Rhythms have to be memorised or cues used. Beats have to be broken down and dynamics explained. But it’s not impossible. And a hearing person will have a whole other battle to contend with when learning sign song; the translation.
So at the end of the day when it comes to being a good sign choir – it’s all about artistry. Whether you’re deaf or hearing, in my eyes, is irrelevant. A native user of sign language who embodies a song can be anyone. An all deaf group can do it just as well as a hearing one.
So perhaps there’s hardly any deaf performers because there’s a preconception that it’s something only hearing people do. Or maybe it’s just because the groups are formed at centres where (predominantly hearing) people go and learn how to sign. Or maybe with so many deaf children dispersing into mainstream schools it’s harder to find them and thus introduce them to a sign choir.
The possibilities are many but this fact is clear; there is no reason why we can’t have more deaf groups leading the way for sign choirs. It will require a change in viewpoint and it may need some deaf leaders to come forward and initiate a change in how the art form is delivered. As deaf people, we were the original sign singers so rather than seeing it as something only for those who can hear, why not be pioneers for a new way forward?
The next national sign choir competition will take place in Liverpool in 2018. I think it’s time to get practising, dont you? See you there 🙂