Sign Language Institute Offers Advanced Music Interpretation

The South Carolina Sign Language Institute is now offering courses in advanced ASL Music Interpretation.

If you’ve ever watched a sign language interpreter translating music into signs, you’ll notice that, while the words of the music can be rendered very literally, the interpretation of the music is not nearly as precise. The rhythm is more or less there, and perhaps a general feel for the music, but so many nuances are lost.

SCSLI’s new course is a bold first step to correct this situation.

“Music,” says Institute director Henry Johnson, “is such an individual thing. Each performance is unique: the same song performed by grade school children at a school concert, by a professional chorus accompanied by a symphony orchestra, and by a tone-deaf woman singing in her bathtub will be a very different thing. In order to give the hearing-impaired as nuanced and rich an experience of reality as we can, interpreters need to employ their signing abilities with a extremely high degree of subtlety when interpreting music.”

Techniques in advanced music interpretation include faultless control of facial expression to convey both the degree and the type of pleasure or pain that the music produces. Humorous music, poignantly sad music, and gauche out-of-tune notes should be accurately reflected in the interpreters face. In addition, students are taught to use their legs to express important musical elements including key, tone color, and dynamics. They also learn how to artistically stick out their tongue to emphasize a dramatic crescendo and to capture percussive elements: “To achieve real proficiency in signing music is as demanding as an equivalent degree of musicianship,” explains instructor Marie Sanchez. “Our graduates have complete expressive command of their bodies, and are accomplished artists.”

The program takes a minimum of seven years to complete. Students entering the program are expected to have facility in advanced ASL, three or more years of classical ballet training, and the ability to bench press at least 100 pounds.


“Kopfschmerzen,” by George Cruikshank, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Detail.


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