Nfld. & Labrador

Singing in sign language: Meet the 1st deaf choir in Newfoundland and Labrador

Even if you don't know sign language, you can hear the music of the deaf choir. The members joined for a one-time performance, but realized they had something special.

Singers were assembled for one-time performance - then the phone started ringing

Singing in sign language is as different from speaking in sign language as singing and speaking are in spoken languages. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

The holidays are a busy time at the St. John's International Airport, but on a recent afternoon, travellers stopped in their tracks to take in a truly unexpected sight.

A choir, performing without words, singing with their hands.

The Deaf Choir was gathered in front of the massive airport Christmas tree. A dozen members, young and old, stood in the familiar semi-circle of choirs everywhere. The twinkling melody of I'll Be Home For Christmas filled the air.

But instead of belting the familiar refrain, the choir raised their arms, stretched out their fingers and signed the lyrics in unison.

Their actions swelled with emotion, their hands becoming musical instruments. In the language of deaf people everywhere, they sing.

"Oh, I feel fabulous. Very inspiring to teach deaf awareness here in the public," said choir member Myles Murphy, through an interpreter.

"It means that, you know, we were here. We are part of the public," said Murphy, a member of the choir and executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf.

Myles Murphy, left, is a member of the deaf choir and the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf. He is pictured with interpreter Heather Crane. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"I'm full of Christmas spirit here today," said choir member Linda Healey, also through an interpreter. "I'm really happy that people are getting the awareness out here, and we are showing that deaf people can do anything when it comes to performing."

A first of its kind

Weeks earlier, the choir squeezed into a small classroom at the association's offices in St. John's. It was rehearsal night.

At the whiteboard, choir director Leighanne Ryan and choir member Paula Coggins worked on translating English lyrics into American Sign Language. It's not as simple as translating English into French or some other spoken language. The signs need to evoke the meaning of the lyrics as much as the actual words.

But that's just the first challenge.

The deaf choir rehearses in a small classroom at the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf office. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

As the choir practised, the members watched each other constantly, trying to keep their actions in sync without being able to hear the music they're signing along to.

It's not enough to merely make the signs. Coggins said singing in sign language is very different from regular conversation — as different as singing and speaking with your voice.

"It is really different, actually," said Coggins through an interpreter. "In singing, you have so much more expressions of actions and movement involved to get the point across."

The choir members have to slow down or speed up the actions to fit the phrasing. They have to put emotion and emphasis into the performance. They have to do everything a regular singer does, plus more.

Paula Coggins says singing in sign language is very different from regular conversation and requires a lot of coordination for a choir. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Choir director Leighanne Ryan has never experienced anything quite like it. But then, neither has anyone else.

"It's like nothing I've ever actually seen," Ryan said. "I've been involved in music, I've been involved in theatre, I've been involved in dance. And deaf choir kind of takes all of that and puts it all into one beautiful package."

'We can't stop now'

The deaf choir came together for what was supposed to be a one-time performance. In September, the Association of the Deaf produced a video for Deaf Awareness Month. A key scene features a flash mob of deaf people, coming together at the cultural centre The Rooms and performing in sign language.

The flash mobbers practised hard, shot the video and it was a big hit. Everyone was happy.

But then a funny thing happened.

The phone started ringing at the association's office. People were asking if the choir did gigs.

The next month, the group was together again, this time on stage at Mount Pearl Senior High. They started to realize that they had something bigger than a flash mob on their hands.

"It just became something that was so much larger than we started off with," said Ryan. "And we can't stop now."

It's not just about the music. For the choir members, it's about each other.

Alexandra Garreffa, 11, uses cochlear implants to hear, but she also communicates in sign language, and feels like she's part of the deaf community. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Eleven-year-old Alexandria Garreffa has cochlear implants to help her hear, but she still uses sign language, and feels like she's part of the deaf community.

"It feels different, because I get to learn a lot more sign language than I used to do when I was younger," she said. "And it's nice being a part of a lot of other people who know how to sign, and I feel more comfortable along with them."

Sharing the music

On a chilly December afternoon, the choir gathered at the airport for its latest job — shooting a Christmas video with the group Play Piano NL.

The piano students moved their fingers across the keys, bringing forth the timeless melody. The choir members raised their hands together and launched into their version of I'll Be Home for Christmas, turning the classic carol into something entirely new. 

All around, busy travellers took pause. They put their hustle and bustle of the season on hold while taking in a moment of holiday magic.

People at the St. John's International Airport take in the deaf choir's performance. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Even if you don't know sign language, you can still hear the choir.

"Music is the universal language," said Ryan. "You can sing, or you can play the trombone. Ultimately, you want to be a musician. And what we've created here are musicians."

For Paula Coggins, making music with other deaf people has become a way to give the entire deaf community a bigger voice.

"I think it's absolutely fabulous," Coggins said. "It feels wonderful, it's very inspirational to show who we are and that we are the deaf community here in Newfoundland and Labrador."

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL.