Sign choir’s music is all hand-made

Students will be putting on another concert tomorrow night at the high school, but you won’t hear them make a note.

The performers will be South Kitsap High School’s Sign Choir, who never have to worry if their voices are off-key or if they forget a lyric, because their music is all pre-recorded. Unlike most choirs, this group worries about its hands.

“It is a big challenge trying to deliver the meaning of the lyrics and the feelings the music is expressing,” said Karen Johnston, the director of the choir and American Sign Language(ASL) instructor. “We use the whole range of our expressive skills.”

Johnston said since her choir performs by signing along with a song as it is played, her first challenge is translating the lyrics into hand movements that both convey the words and complement the music.

“Ideally, all the signs would flow into each other, but they don’t always,” she said. “And tempo changes provide another huge challenge.”

Johnston said this leads to some rather loose interpretations of the lyrics, especially since the choir not only translate the words of a song, but the music and the feelings it evokes.

She said this involves using not only their hands and arms, but facial expressions and the rest of their bodies to convey the mood of the music. The students have even been known to perform a line dance to express an instrumental stretch in a country-western song.

She said the choir’s performances are hard to understand, and even harder to describe, unless you witness once for yourself. And if people see one, she said, they are unlikely to forget it.

“It’s pretty impactful,” Johnston said. “It’s very moving, with the music, and with so many bodies all signing together, with their facial expressions and their bodies moving.”

But the choir not only hopes to draw hearing people to the performance, it hopes to attract hearing impaired as well. Student Amanda Umberger said at the choir’s last winter performance about seven people who were hearing-impaired attended, and she said the choir would like more to attend its future shows.

Aside from the enjoyment their audiences gain, Johnston said she also loves providing an uncommon opportunity for her students, as well.

“It gives the kids who wouldn’t normally be in a performing group another kind of outlet,” Johnston said, explaining that every year she watches shy students blossom into great performers and leaders after becoming involved in the choir.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for kids. It opened up a whole new realm for those that aren’t in band, aren’t in choir, and aren’t out on the football field,” said Dale Green, the director of the Professional and Technical Education department(PTE) at the high school.

Green said he was also surprised at how quickly the ASL program grew after he started it a few years ago. He said so many students started enrolling in the classes that he had to hire two full-time instructors.

Green said he may have started the program, but Johnston deserves full credit for the choir.

Johnston, who has a master’s degree in deaf education, said she used to teach deaf students in Utah, and started a sign choir while teaching there.

“(Green) heard about what I was doing and wanted me to come out here,” Johnston said. “He was very persuasive.”

Green said every program in the PTE department needs to incorporate a leadership-building component for the kids, and that Johnston suggested fulfilling it with the sign choir.

“And it just blossomed from there,” Green said. “It grew from a handful of kids to the (dozens) that are there now. And they just love it, and just love going.”

Johnston said her students are especially dedicated—which is good, because the choir demands dedication.

“We meet every single week, all year long,” Johnston said. “There’s not that many activities here that require that much dedication.”

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