An ASL class artistically interprets songs to make music accessible to deaf audiences.
by Alison Graef
For the last three years, students in an American Sign Language class have staged signed performances of music and poetry as a glee club.
In SLNG 1206, Interpreting in Artistic Texts, students learn and practice entertainment interpreting, the skill of providing quality entertainment to deaf audience members in plays, musicals, concerts and other performances at which they would otherwise be left out.
ASL instructors Julie Razuri and John Cage are the directors and founders of the ASL Glee Club, the performance group of the Interpreting in Artistic Texts class. Razuri had experience interpreting plays and concerts, and Cage, who is deaf, enjoyed attending theater performances, but neither had prior experience with an ASL glee club.
“We had an idea and just tried to make it work,” Razuri said.
The ASL Glee Club is a class, not a student club, and is only composed of students who are taking SLNG 1206. Four semesters of ASL are prerequisite to taking the class.
The glee club performed their interpretation of LeAnn Rimes’ “National Anthem” at SACtacular Oct. 14 in the mall. Dressed in black from shirt to shoes, 19 students used their bodies, heads and hands to strikingly paint the lyrics in the air as the song played. From the choir’s fingertips stretching up like the “dawn’s early light,” the sudden popping motions of the “bombs bursting in air,” to the final question of “does that star spangled banner yet wave?” — when all eyes fell on a lone signer whose hands drew the flag’s stripes and dotted its stars — the glee club seemed to truly understand what song would be without sound.
“We spend hour upon hour working on the anthem,” Cage said through ASL interpreter Stephanie Rotheram. “The goal is to have a perfect performance. When they first perform, I generally don’t see any goose bumps, but after we’ve put those hours in, and we’ve gotten it so perfected, I always feel goose bumps when we hit that sweet spot.”
While there are interpreters who provide interpreting at live performances such as concerts and plays, Razuri has not found any local groups who interpret the music as a glee club. Razuri said she wishes there were more glee clubs that could get together to share ideas and put on collaborative productions.
“We’re actually the only ASL (glee) club that we know of, and we’ve been looking,” Razuri said. “A national show — that would be incredible! But we haven’t found anyone else.”
An ASL glee club is different from an English glee club in that the production needs to create a visual interpretation of the lyrics and music that a hearing person would experience. The goal is not to simply interpret the lyrics for the deaf audience, but to interpret the essence of and feelings evoked by the music as well. Entertainment interpreters use their bodies, facial expressions and hands in tandem to convey songs to deaf audience members.
“Because deaf people can’t hear the music, we want it to be as stunning as it would be if it were in English,” Razuri said.
A performance must help a deaf audience to visualize the music.
“Hearing people can kind of close their eyes and through their ears create that picture in their heads, whereas a deaf person can’t,” Cage said. “For a deaf person, we need to see that picture and by seeing that picture we can get the story out of that song.”
Razuri said the group dynamic of the club allows the music to be more effectively interpreted than if there were just a single interpreter.
“There is only one sound that a singer can make, but if you take it to a choir, there can be harmonies,” Razuri said. “If you think of it from an a cappella standpoint, one voice can do something, but with 10 voices you can do so many things.”
There are not any deaf students in the glee club this semester, but rather all 19 current students are aspiring ASL interpreters. However, Cage brings his own invaluable insight to the club.
“His role is really crucial to us because he is representing the eyes of the deaf community,” Razuri said. “The timing has to be right, every head flick has to be right, everything. … I don’t think either one of us could do this alone.”
For ASL Glee Club students, the end of a semester is not the end of the glee experience. Alumni of the class are invited to join Gleek Squad, a club of about 100 former ASL Glee Club students. Gleek Squad members assist the ASL Glee Club with productions and mentor the glee students.
“The glee club knows to pay attention to the Gleek Squad,” Razuri said.
Additionally, Gleek Squad honors the deaf culture of giving back by doing community service and volunteering through community performances at venues such as Missions games, an AIDS hospice care center and Morgan’s Wonderland. The group also supports the NEISD program for deaf students “Imagination Creation” and no-kill shelters.
“We try to be involved with the community,” said Aaron Hope, an ASL interpreting sophomore and Gleek Squad treasurer. “It’s a big part of deaf culture to be a part of the community.”
Hope said members of the Gleek Squad think of the group as a fraternity of students that feels like family.
“You spend a lot of time together in and out of school,” Hope said. “You just become like family.”
Unlike the ASL Glee Club, which is a class, Gleek Squad is a club and has student leadership and its own bylaws.
“The Gleek Squad is representing the school at functions … but also representing the deaf community, so their bylaws are actually stricter than the student code of conduct,” Razuri said.
The ASL Glee Club’s next performance is Veterans Day Nov. 11 at this campus.
To learn more about the ASL Glee Club and the Gleek Squad, visit facebook.com/ASLGleeClubGleekSquad.
Videos of ASL Glee Club and Gleek Squad performances are at youtube.com/aslgleeclub.