What does ‘Great Singing, Great Signing’ actually mean?

Signed song is a genuinely inclusive music activity, if it is done well. It is accessible to a wide range of people – deaf or hearing impaired (DHI), learning disabled, or not. When signing is an integral part of the practice (i.e. not an add on) participants feel ‘less different’ when participating.

A relatively recent article on the BBC News website features a man who has filmed videos of himself signing along to popular songs from the current charts, for his mum, who is hearing impaired, to make the songs more accessible for her. It is a lovely idea, but it sparked debate at the YY&M office; his signing reflects the lyrics in the order in which they appear, but British Sign Language (or BSL) has its own grammar and syntax so in BSL the ‘words’ would not appear in the same order. Like translating English into French (and vice versa), there aren’t even necessarily the same number of words. So a direct translation, rather than an artistic interpretation, gives hearing impaired people a better understanding of how modern lyrics fit within the context of each song, but doesn’t reflect how the meaning would be conveyed in BSL.

There are plenty of published resources for 'Signed Song', but almost no studies and reports on good practice, and in response to this and to articles like the one featured by the BBC, Yorkshire Youth & Music (YY&M) has designed an inclusive project from the perspective of young BSL speakers in partnership with Paul Whittaker OBE called ‘Great Singing, Great Signing’.

Great Singing, Great Signing is a project running two new singing and signing ensembles in areas of the region where there is currently no singing and signing activity (in West and South Yorkshire). The project involves a series of singing and signing sessions, with signs for songs developed to be better understood by those who use BSL as their first language, and with the children at two schools. Some of the children are hearing impaired and one of the schools is specifically for children who are deaf or hearing impaired (DHI).

Each week, the children are taught signed songs, led by Paul, Paul’s interpreter and one or two trainee musicians / practitioners. Paul’s genius is his ability to sign songs in a way where the BSL is as thoughtful as the lyrics of a song – not straight prose but poetic, and with first langauge BSL speakers at the forefront of his translations.

Paul Whitaker leading some singing and signing

The project has had an exciting couple of months; we now have three people working alongside Paul to learn repertoire and principles of high quality signing. Anna Myatt and Natalie Davies are working with Paul in Doncaster, and our own Director, Gail Dudson is brushing up her singing, choir leading and learning signing at our Calderdale project. Gail is also undertaking an MA in Music Psychology and is using the project as part of her research work at Sheffield University.

As the project progresses, YY&M is developing accompanying resources to support anyone who would like to take this approach to singing and signing with their students (including those who are hearing impaired). We post updates on the Great Singing, Great Signing project page on our website along with information about BSL and the deaf community. We regularly include related resources on our website and on our monthly bulletins, and our April bulletin is no exception.

If you would like to learn more about YY&M and the work we do, please visit www.yym.org.uk and have a look at ‘What We’re Doing’.

Photography by Clare Daněk

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