Great Singing, Great Signing

Signed song is a genuinely inclusive music activity, if it is done well


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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. There are plenty of published resources for Signed Song, but almost no studies and reports on good practice, and in response to this, we have designed an inclusive project, in partnership with Paul Whittaker OBE.

Great Singing, Great Signing is a project to start and run two new singing and signing ensembles in areas of the region where there is currently no singing and signing activity; one at Withinfields Primary School in Halifax, Calderdale and one with the Doncaster Deaf Trust. Doncaster Deaf School (run by the Trust) is an educational organisation specifically for Deaf, hearing impaired and learning disabled young people.

The project involves a series of singing and signing sessions, run at both locations, with the children at each school and accompanied by Paul, Paul’s interpreter and one or two trainee musicians / practitioners. Training for these practitioners consists of first hand shadowing and delivery at ensemble sessions, masterclass visits and workshops by Paul to share good practice.

We will also be putting together a research and outcomes document into good singing and signing practice to understand different needs of ensemble members, supported by our very own director, Gail Dudson (who is currently undertaking an MA in Music Psychology at the University of Sheffield) the results of which we will share here on our website.

Here are the pupils from the Withinfields practicing ‘The Signing Bus’ for a mini concert to their parents at the school:

Paul has just recorded a series of videos of signed songs, which are currently being edited. We will post these online very soon!


Further Information

BSL (British Sign Language) and other sign systems

The main sign language in use in the Deaf community the UK is British Sign Language (BSL). Like spoken language it has regional variants and localised phrases. It is also distinct from other sign languages in English speaking countries (almost no match with American Sign Language, for example).  BSL is a rich and complex language system with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. In common with translation and interpretation between spoken languages, ‘word for word’ does not give the best results. When interpreting from spoken English to BSL, skilled signing represents emphasis and tone of the original accurately, and finds appropriate alternatives where literal translation would be unhelpful; as with translations between spoken languages for example, metaphor often does not travel easily between spoken English and BSL.

Makaton is a sign system for and used by people with learning disabilities which originally borrowed signs from BSL but is now very distinct. It is designed to support spoken language and the signs are used with speech, in word order. Sign Supported English (SSE) works in a similar way. As such they are not truly languages.

They can all be used as well or as badly as any other language; factual and regimented or graceful and poetic – in the right hands (literally!). In BSL there is not one sign for ‘bridge’ – the sign can illustrate the shape (flat, arched, short, long) – adding detail, context and colour. Working with the right language, and learning to use it as an integral part of performance, and recognising that for some performers and audiences it is the primary communication, needs thought, care and skill. BSL is also the most accessible system for Deaf audiences (which is why it is used in signed interpretation in theatre, opera and classical music) – and is the ‘gold standard’ because of its richness and capacity for interpretive use.

The Deaf Community

Deaf people do not necessarily regard themselves as disabled, and many self-identify as a member of a minority language group. Deaf people believe that BSL enables them to access their own culture, community and identity.  There are creative artists – poets for example – who work in BSL. There is mis-understanding in the hearing community; for example there is NO EVIDENCE to support the idea that learning BSL inhibits speech development in children and young people who are DHI, and even the best and newest equipment (hearing aids and cochlear implants) doesn’t make hearing ‘normal’. It is hearing – but different.