Musically Inspired ASL Storytelling

Musically Inspired ASL Storytelling

When I made a music sign language video back in 1994, I started to define the work that I do as “musically inspired ASL storytelling”. Musically inspired ASL storytelling is mostly ASL improvisation. This craft includes ASL improvization along with creative use of handshapes, rhythm, and symmetry along with the aspects of the Visual Vernacular, a term coined by Bernard Bragg.

Briefly, describing the aspects below that are engaged. It is when a live musical selection is played and used as a backdrop to support the ASL delivery of that piece of music. The translation into ASL from English includes a personal or cultural translation. This cultural piece is beyond interpreting. The selection in ASL becomes either Deaf-centric or Coda-centric; meaning it is tied to a personal or group reference and/or expresses Deaf cultural ways of being to draw interest from the Deaf community in the delivery of music via storytelling.

ASL is the language used to express the lyrics of the music. In some cases the music merely serves as a backdrop to support ASL improvisation being expressed as the music plays. This is often by native users of ASL. This form of storytelling through music has become quite popular. Some native users of ASL have given the idea their best shot and have tried to depart from the original lyrics into a personal or cultural translation and have been successful.

This craft and has come to be used by Deaf, coda, and interpreter colleagues across the country. For example, within the CODA International organization, reflected during performances of our entertainment evenings, you can see this craft at work and expanding by community use. Also there is evidence that ASL interpreters are working with this craft as well. Perhaps they are seeking depth with their use of ASL and music, the fusion of two genres.

Everyone is talking about Musically Inspired ASL Storytelling. The flurry of others trying this craft and having success is nothing short of inspirational and amazing. This phenomenon has had surprising influences in both CODA and interpreter communities in North America and abroad.

“Musically Inspired ASL Storytelling” is a phenomenon first used by Sherry Hicks when working with music and American Sign Language in April, 1991. This came about through the collaboration and creative work of two Oh-Codas, (only hearing members of Deaf families and Deaf siblings) Sheila Jacobs and Sherry Hicks. Their coming together was reflected in a creative manner using ASL and music to tell stories.

This term, “Musically Inspired ASL Storytelling” outlined below describes what the craft entails. This is applied when song-signing takes place; the artist or “teller” breaks form and signs the song to audiences with the song itself becoming merely a backdrop providing sound entertainment. Signing-wise, a whole other performance takes place.

In accessing the visual-gestural realm, an explosion of symmetry, rhythm, and handshape play are delivered in a flurry that accents the music heard. Along with this, there is a storyline that is loosely connected to the music heard by employing yet another aspect; the personal or cultural translation. Once in a while the ASL may match the music on a certain beat to give it more flavor and punch. The story will often be a departure from the original- often adding a personal or cultural (Deaf-centric, Coda- centric) translation, purely for engaging these audiences in storytelling. The use of other elements listed below may be all used or not. Employing these features often gets favorable results.

Sherry Hicks developed a workshop in February of 2000 and first debut this particular topic and craft in Atlanta, Georgia at Perimeter College for interpreters and students. She along with long time collaborator Michael Velez unveiled their secrets of “translation work” along with the elements of “musically inspired ASL storytelling”.

The workshop takes participants on a journey that is a step beyond interpreting, although the interpreting process is applied. What is developed and focused upon is introducing the elements of “musically inspired ASL storytelling”. These include: rhythm, symmetry, handshape play, along with personal and/or cultural translation. Important skill building in the use of the Visual Vernacular, (V.V.) a term coined by Bernard Bragg, is vital to the on going advanced development of sign language interpreter’s work. The V.V. includes all human movement within the film frame and outlines the use of different relationships including a close-up of a certain character, and its use in space. Other relationships include: slow motion/fast motion, panoramic view, zooming, and role shift. Practice with characterizations and the exchange of going back and forth between the long shot/close up of the character and/or the use of space.

These elements make for a dynamic interesting workshop sure to move participants to new heights in their understanding and incorporation of these elements of ASL that are so vital for success in communication in ASL.

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