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Symphony of signs: CLC students interpret music through ASL

Central Lakes College American Sign Language student Chelsey Loven performs to "Believer” by Imagine Dragons for her final project Tuesday in the Chalberg Theatre. Ten students completed their ASL 3 coursework by performing their musical selection before about 150 spectators. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Gallery

It may seem paradoxical to give a loud, boisterous music performance for the deaf, but in the hands of American Sign Language students the experience is not diminished, it is deepened and amplified.

Tuesday morning, about 150 spectators—representing a spectrum of hearing abilities—filed into Central Lakes College's Chalberg Theatre to see the final projects of 10 students completing their coursework in the ASL 3 class. Their assignment? Choose a song and work to interpret its music and lyrics into American Sign Language. Then perform it, in all its complexities and nuance, for an assembled audience.

Instructor Tanya Hoting Mrazek said these linguistic gymnastics—placed in the framework of a public performance—are perfect for confirming for the instructor and for the student that they're ready to dive into any social context and engage the deaf or hard-of-hearing in a language they understand.

"American Sign Language is so visual and has so much facial expression," she said. "This is a nice opportunity for them not only to translate English into ASL, but really to make sure they have strong body language and facial expressions."

Stage fright only begins to describe a laundry list of obstacles students had to overcome in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's performance. Contrary to common misconceptions, American Sign Language is not the exact translation of English words into visual signs. It's a language unto itself—complete with its own structures, syntax and grammar. One key difference, students identified, is American Sign Language is built around concepts, versus specific words or phrases we recognize in the English language.

On top of that, musical performances add more layers of complexity, as the act of signing is meant to express the dynamics of music the majority of people experience through hearing. For example, performers used high gestures or low gestures for their respective note registers. In terms of rhythm, they used sharp, jarring gestures for stacotto and smoother gestures for sustained cadences. They employ wide, expansive motions for loud sounds and tighter, gentle movements for softer sounds—though this explanation does little justice to the complexity of each and every movement in the performance.

Chelsey Loven, a second-year student, explained each gesture has to capture the right expression of lyrics and music simultaneously, but there's an added twist:

"At the end of the line the last word rhymes, so if the last word rhymes, then your hand shape needs to be the same," she said. "It needs to look great at the same time. There are many signs for the same word in the English language."

While the onus isn't entirely on the shoulders of the performers—for example, hearing audience members were advised to wear ear plugs because the music was blasted loud enough to feel the resonance, and balloons were handed out to serve as a kind of handheld speaker for this purpose—it falls to them to interpret the song in such a way that the magic of the music isn't lost in translation.

It's a painstaking process. As a student who already has a degree and is pursuing American Sign Language as something of a labor of love, Jenney Grover said the process begins at the onset of the 16-week course and practices take place almost every week. Between translating the music and costuming, she estimated students put between 40-50 hours into their final project for the class.

While the preparation is careful and calculated, Grover said when it comes down to the performance the act comes second nature.

"It's almost like a basketball game. You practice, practice, practice and then you just go out and have fun," she said. "It's muscle memory. You kind of zone out and you just do it."

Beyond a letter grade, Loven said the rewards are deeply fulfilling and, as she continues to explore the language, she's found her aspirations increase in scope as well, from casual interest to plans to become a fluent interpreter.

"I just started off enjoying watching American Sign Language. My mother-in-law is an interpreter, actually, so getting to watch her communicating with deaf people just ignited a flame in me to pursue this," she said.

Grover's passion for American Sign Language dates back to her early years, when she was tasked with learning basic sign language for her youth group's theater program. What was once an item "on the bucket list" has now morphed into a desire to reach out to disconnected communities.

"It really is needed. Imagine if you were to go to another country, (for example) Germany, and you don't know German. How do you communicate? How do you get what you need?" Grover said. "And we have that within our own country. We have deaf people in every city who can't communicate with people because they don't know ASL."

For a gallery of Central Lakes College American Sign Language students in action go to

" target="_blank">bit.ly/2iY4Q4g.

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