If someone told my ten-year-old self that I would grow up to perform sign songs and teach them, I would probably have laughed in disbelief. “Sign song, what’s that?” I would ask.
Despite being able to converse in BSL from a young age – due to my exposure to deaf youth clubs and the like – back in the early 90s I had no idea signed song was even a thing. Even though I was diagnosed with a progressive form of deafness, I pursued my love for music by taking up dance and joining a choir.
Throughout the years I sang songs in arena’s across the country and even performed solos in shows. Music made me happy and despite being the only hearing aid wearer, I knew being amongst a choir of singers was like ‘home’ for me.
When I moved up to secondary school – which had a unit for deaf children – I caught my first glimpse of what signed song was. Some of the deaf students along with staff members had set up a group and together they signed the words to one songs for an assembly.
I gazed in wander as I saw my older sister (who is also deaf) sign the lyrics to Robson and Jerome’s rendition of ‘I Believe.’ As my sister’s hands became the rainfall, giving birth to a flower, I was mesmerised by the fluidity and rhythm of her actions. At home, I begged my sister to show me all of the signs and I remember how we sat in my parent’s hallway practising together in perfect sync.
As my hearing deteriorated and I felt myself become less confident using my voice to sing, I started to sign along the words instead. I did this at first in the privacy of my own bedroom, with the stereo blasting on high. Soon I started to sign songs to friends, choreographing dance routines to match the signing too. It was all fun with no pressure to be ‘perfect’ – I was just glad I still had a way of expressing myself!
It was only after I landed my first television acting job on BBC 1’s Grange Hill that I was approached by a Channel 4 programme to sign a song for a music video. I selected a Sugababes track to perform – simply because I liked it the tune – and the video was soon shot in London.
Looking back, the song I chose was probably not a good idea. My signing style at the time was very heavily SSE (sign supported english) and the chorus’ phrase ‘Ooh, boy – do ya miss me like a hole in the head’ did not make sense in sign. However, it was a learning curve for me!
Over the last 15 years I have signed songs for mainstream artists such as Tom the Lion and Gypsy Hill. I have also performed live next to artists such as Billy Ocean, The Vamps, Gregory Porter, Imelda May and Midge Ure. I’ve signed in theatres, in schools and for fundraising campaigns too. Many of these jobs were carried out without the assistance of another pair of deaf eyes or a BSL consultant to support me, and I can honestly say I’ve had my fair share of hits and misses.
When I first started taking on sign song jobs I was taken aback by some of the negativity aimed at signed song. Sure, I understand the frustration of seeing hearing non-signers mess up a song with higgledy piggeldy signs but as a deaf sign performer, I was quite hurt by what little support was out there for people like myself who were deaf – and proud – yet still wanted to perform to music.
Thankfully with all the experience I have had I can now affirm that many deaf people can and do enjoy signed song and still want to find a way of being involved in music somehow. Signed song does work to bridge the divide and the achievements I’ve been fortunate to have in the last year really are evidence of this.
During lockdown I actually started working with a music charity called Kakou and we delivered a series of sign song workshops to hearing and deaf people across the country. After the success of this and a new round of funding, I was asked early this year to begin running two ‘Signsinging for fun’ sessions per week with one being aimed at BSL beginners (and therefore with an interpreter present) and the second group for fluent users of BSL.
I did not anticipate just how successful and popular these groups would be – especially the fluent group which is attended by mostly deaf sign language users. In the group we look at the english lyrics of a popular song and create BSL translations to perform it, whilst still honouring the musical structure and phasing of the song.
I always tell my students that a great sign song honours both the lyrical meaning and the songs rhythmical structure. If we only focus on the BSL translation and neglect the music, it’s BSL poetry we are creating not signed song!
Songs we have worked on together include ‘I dreamed a dream,’ ‘You’re the One that I want,’ ‘Never Ever,’ ‘The Rose’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’ Songs by ABBA, Queen and Michael Jackson are always firm favourites too. I thoroughly enjoy working on these sessions as I learn so much from the participants and their suggestions of creative ways to sign things.
I attended Norfolk Deaf Festival last month and during my sign song workshops I invited attendees to explore a line from a song, and then asked them to notice the many variations of how this phrase could be performed. What we soon discovered is that there is not a singular ‘right’ way to sign a song.
Like anything else in the art field, sign language interpretations are personal and specific to the individual translating, and therefore as long as they were accurate and clear in the way they were signed, they couldn’t really get it wrong.
In May this year, something very exciting happened for signed song, whereupon I was invited to put together an all deaf sign performance group for the first time to perform live on stage to 21,000 people and to a television audience of millions.
From the success of the Signsinging sessions I was able to cast 18 deaf people from across the country who were passionate about sign song – many of whom had never set foot on a stage before and together we signed a song with artist Calum Scott and a gospel choir for the National Lottery’s Big Jubilee Street Party.
We called ourself Unify – inspired by the fact we were unified by our love for sign language and music, yet we came from all over the UK. We shared backstage spaces with artists such as Mark Owen, Heather Small, Steps and the Kaiser Chiefs and when Jason Manford introduced us as ‘Unify -a signing choir’ I felt so incredibly part of everything. So included.
Since then Unify and I have enjoyed performing for the Commonwealth Games creative festival, with a flash mob performance at Birmingham New Street and an evening show at the Birmingham Royal Conservatoire too. We will have other shows in the pipeline and for those who are curious to see an all deaf sign performance group, I can only say – watch this space!
Someone recently asked me if I had ever found it hard working in signed song. I would say one of the hardest things has been the relative newness of it all. With no clear guidelines on how to create signed songs I have always had to experiment and explore and rely on feedback or collaborations to find out what works best.
This is still a work in progress, however I am currently an Associate Artist for Derby Theatre and one of my intentions over the year is to explore how deaf performing artists can really take signed song to the next level.
I was told I couldn’t be culturally deaf if I signed songs. I was told that music belongs to hearing people only. I was even asked to debate with others on television and defend my work against their beliefs that ‘sign song couldn’t be part of the deaf community.’
But you know what I’ve realised after all this time? All deaf people are different. There literally is no one size fits all. Liking music doesn’t deny you the right to be part of the deaf community. Anyone who tries to define you or put you in a pigeonhole is simply being divisive and a bully.
Embrace what you love and move towards it. Being deaf shouldn’t mean all doors to music are automatically slammed.
Even as we become more open and inclusive towards deaf sign singers, I still feel there is so much more to do. I would like to see more deaf people writing and producing songs, and more involvement in the creative process when it comes to music and performing songs.
My ten year old self would probably have been distraught if someone had forewarned her that she would become profoundly deaf at the age of 18, no longer hearing her voice or her instruments with her ears. But you know what, I had the will and I found a way.
As the quote goes, keep following your bliss and doors will open where there were once walls.
To keep informed of (free of charge!) forthcoming Signsinging sessions via Zoom, go to https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaAnneWithey