Why I believe sign singing is not the same as Interpreting… 

I had a pretty awesome sign singing job this month. I was booked by Sky 1 to sign 24 songs for a new televised contest called Sing: Ultimate a Capella.

The contest shows a Capella groups from across the country competing to win the chance to record an album at London’s Abbey Road studios and release a single in time for Christmas.

Sky 1’s social team had previously seen sign performers translating songs for Snoop Dogg and Ed Sheeran and wanted to give their viewers the chance to see some of the songs in sign language too.

And that’s where I came in.

Usually when I get asked to work on signed songs, there’s lots of time for rehearsals and normally there’s just one song to study. Unless it’s for a live show then I usuallly have a clear set list and opportunities for sound checks, dress runs and lots of practice.

But seeing as this was a live show, with one episode being recorded per day, this was faaaar from the average sign song job.

The 24 songs were given to me the day before the first episode was set to shoot. None of the songs could be finalised or a set list given because it all depended on which singing group got through to each round. Each episode also had a guest act and several of these artists would not confirm their song or the actual lyrics until it was their sound check an hour before show time. Cue manic studying from me!

A few of the songs I was given weren’t really suited to BSL, and a lot of them were in the form of medleys which meant there were several songs all fused together with differing rhythms and varying sounds.
It was an unpredictable, highly challenging job but an exhilarating one at that.

Not only did I get to sign for the talented groups that were competing but also for the artists JP Cooper, Midge Ure, The Vamps, Gregory Porter and Imelda May. I felt honoured and humbled.


(Mid rehearsal above) 

Despite being deaf,  music is in my blood and I felt privileged to be sharing songs with some incredible voices. They sang, I signed.

The fact that Sky 1 recognised sign song enough to employ me to work for them is immensely encouraging. For too long sign song has been viewed as just a “fun thing to put on you tube” and it hasn’t been valued as the art form it really is.

I was asked during my work if I was a sign language interpreter, with several audience members who came to watch the contest coming over to me and attempting to speak in my ear. It was a surprise for them to discover that I’m actually deaf. And not a sign language interpreter.

I then had an interesting discussion with another artist regarding the difference between an interpreter and a sign singer. You need to be able to hear to be a formally qualified interpreter but to be a sign singer hearing is irrelevant.

If I was hearing, maybe my job at Sky 1 would have been processed differently. Perhaps when we weren’t given a set list, I could have simply listened to the artist when they began singing and translated as I heard the lyrics. It would have been a great back up plan if nothing else.

Instead, I had to memorise the entire songs beforehand (with the little time I had) and scrutinise the artists’ sound checks, using a communicator to work out if any changes had been made. I didn’t have a back up plan and as a deaf sign singer you never do. You have to study the songs and trust yourself, reacting to what you can feel, see and/or hear if anything.

There’s a vulnerability to being a sign singer, especially if you can’t hear what’s around you. And this is what makes it different to Interpreting. In my case, I work with a hearing communicator who acts as my visual cue for the music and keeps me in time.

Being deaf also means I am less stimulated by outside influence, so my relationship with the songs is intimate, personal and born from me. Hence why all sign singers have different approaches to a song.
Whether interpreters regard sign song as an art form or not, it is my belief that the best sign singers are not always those who are most proficient in the BSL language, but are those who have an innate connection to music and lyrics, and a desire to personify these. Whether they can hear or not is irrelevant.


(Above: all of the songs studied and performed)

This is why I regard my work with Sky1 as a sign performing job and not an Interpreting job. The nuances involved in sign singing are incredibly detailed and I suspect are not included in a regular BSL qualification anyhow.

With Interpreting there is usually a right way and a wrong to convey an idea. In sign singing, you have an artistic freedom to express lyrics while respecting the rhythmical placement of the words. It is not pure BSL because it’s being fused with music. But it’s this fusion that I find especially beautiful.

You can watch the sign performances online when the series is aired in mid September. And if you want to see more sign singing by deaf artists, why not make a trip to Derby on September 9th to see Caroline Parker, Colin Thomson and myself for an evening of sign song.  Email hello@sarahgatford.co.uk for ticket info

And now cue the compulsory fan pic (it’s me and with The Vamps!!! 😃)

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