It’s often assumed that when profoundly deaf children are involved in any kind of musical performance it’s mainly for their therapeutic benefit: a worthy attempt at confidence-building or something that might help with their speech development.
But watching the teenagers of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls choir perform the traditional Irish song May the Road Rise Up to Meet You in Irish Sign Language (ISL) is to witness something special. Not special in the “special needs” sense. Just special. Hands moving, faces animated, bodies swaying; it’s a compelling performance, not least because it is effectively bilingual.
The girls are signing in time to a backing track of the song with the guidance of the conductor, but they are not signing each and every word of the lyrics. The song has been translated into ISL, a language of the face, hands and body that is very different in structure and grammar to English. (It’s a common misconception that sign languages are based on spoken languages. The national sign languages of other English-speaking countries are all different ).
You don’t need to know any ISL to appreciate it, in much the same way that you don’t need to be fluent in Italian to appreciate a performance of Nessun Dorma.
This choir has performed for audiences of thousands at several venues around the country, as well as on TV, including RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show.
At a concert in Germany last September, accompanied by the world-famous Mahler Chamber Orchestra and a group of backing singers, the group was one of the stars of the concert. It was part of the annual Beethovenfest in Bonn, where the choir performed along with three other signing choirs from Cologne, Prague and Brescia.
The choir left a lasting impression on concert organiser Paul Whittaker, a profoundly deaf musician and founder of UK charity Music and the Deaf, when he met them in Dublin this year.
“I was so impressed with them, they actually made me cry,” he says. “I have seen many signing choirs over the years but the ensemble, musicianship, body language and facial expression they showed was phenomenal. Signing is not just about what your hands do, but the whole body, and St Mary’s are absolutely first-class.”
The Beethovenfest concert came about through a project run by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra called Feel the Music (see panel). “It was so interesting watching all the different signing choirs in Bonn and the different approaches they all had,” says Whittaker. “I know that each choir learned so much from watching the others, and it was a huge privilege to be part of that event.”
The choir members had a great time. “It was a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Emma O’Higgins. And Aimee McLoughlin adds that “it was amazing to hear the other languages from the different countries, and to see what their sign was like compared to ours”.
When conductor Shirley Higgins started up the choir four years ago, she did not set out to form a “cute deaf choir” but one that would be respected as a choir in its own right. It has since performed at DCU’s Helix, Dublin Castle, Belfast’s Titanic Exhibition Centre and Croke Park.
“We’ve been so lucky,” says Higgins, a teacher at the Cabra-based school for 18 years. “Everybody we have worked with has just treated us amazingly and with full respect. And the awareness it is creating around Dublin, around Ireland, is huge.”
Signing choirs are emerging as a growing genre of community-based musical performance. Whittaker says a signing choir gives people who might not feel confident in singing vocally (he describes his own singing as a “painful noise”) an opportunity to be part of a choir, and to perform, but using a medium other than the human voice. “Deaf people say that their voice is their hands and their bodies.”
While St Mary’s is blazing a trail in this emerging genre, it’s also clear from Higgins that being in the choir has an educational value for the teenagers on many levels. Not least of these is their “X-factor” confidence: seeing performance as a normal, natural thing, and in front of audiences of thousands. “I have kids who, when they first came here, had no self-esteem, no confidence, and I see them, a year later, full of confidence,” says Higgins.
It also adds depth to their musical education and listening skills. Higgins encourages them to listen to and choose the songs they perform, and then gets them listening to the key rhythms, signing them, devising movements, and even setting up signing “harmonies”. As a result, the teenagers say they are listening to music and sharing tunes with each other far more.
One of the biggest benefits is in language development. Higgins says understanding abstract meanings in songs doesn’t come anywhere near as naturally to deaf children as those with normal hearing. “While they are in the choir their language is just being opened up. They are looking for the hidden meaning. They are not just looking for the exact meaning of a particular word. They can see the emotion.”
It has filtered through to their understanding of poetry. “Their English teachers have come to me and said you can see that they are thinking more; the feeling from it, the hidden meaning from it. And that’s coming through the music.”
But it’s not all about English. The choir members also renew their appreciation for ISL. In St Mary’s, sign language has roughly equal status with spoken English as the medium of teaching and communication. Higgins trained for two years at the centre for deaf studies at Trinity College for an ISL teaching qualification, so she is well able to guide the translations of song lyrics from English to ISL.
The proliferation of signed choirs is dovetailing with a growing interest in sign language in Europe, says Whittaker. “Signed song really makes you think about the lyrics, and a visual interpretation of a song can have a very powerful impact.”
But he adds that some “wannabe” signing choirs have tried to take shortcuts. “I have met quite a lot of signing choirs in schools who have simply watched something on YouTube and copied it. The risk there is that they don’t know whether that signing is actually good. It may not even be the right sign language for the country.
FEEL THE MUSIC: CLASSICAL MUSIC OPENS UP TO DEAF CHILDREN
The recent success of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls’ signing choir brought them to the attention of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which runs Feel the Music, a project designed to open up classical music to deaf children across Europe.
Under the guidance of Paul Whittaker, a profoundly deaf musician who runs the UK charity Music and the Deaf, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes visit children from deaf schools and invite them to hear, feel and play their instruments, including a grand piano, kettle drums, a viola, a cello and an oboe.
In Dublin, 25 teens from St Mary’s got to physically play the instruments, put their fingers on the strings of the piano, crawl under the piano and feel the soundboard, to sit with the 50-piece orchestra during rehearsals and to have a go at conducting them. “There wasn’t a sound to be heard,” says teacher Shirley Higgins. “They were so focused on it, listening to it. An amazing experience.”
Feel The Music is part of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven Journey concert series, which will have visited 40 European cities when it finishes next year. Part of the project examines how Beethoven’s own deafness – which began when he was in his 20s and left his career as a virtuoso pianist in tatters – not only brought him to the brink of despair but greatly influenced his compositions.
“Feel the Music has been the most exciting and inspiring project I have done in my 26 years of working at Music and the Deaf,” says Whittaker. “It has shown thousands of people that deaf people can enjoy [and make] music; it’s been a real eye-opener for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and for Leif Ove Andsnes.
“And it has opened new doors and opportunities for many deaf people whose experience of music may previously have been non-existent.”
He thinks it would be a shame if the project were not to continue after next year. “I want to keep in touch with all the schools that have taken part, to visit them again if funding can be found and to encourage them to develop links with music organisations and venues in their own country.”
This article first appeared in the Irish Times