- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

Unlike most members of music groups, Shirley Childress doesn’t play an instrument or sing. In fact, when she performs with her ensemble - hometown favorites Sweet Honey in the Rock - she remains cloaked in silence.

Miss Childress delivers her part of the harmony using only her hands, her body, her face - and yet, the impact of her storytelling is no less profound than that of her louder counterparts. To some people, her performances are the sun around which everything else onstage circles.

The performer who possesses this rare skill is a sign-language interpreter who proudly “sings” in the key of A: American Sign Language, accessibility and, not least of all, artistry.

The child of deaf parents, Miss Childress learned sign language early. “My parents used to sing,” she says, leaning over a steaming cup of mint tea at Busboys & Poets restaurant in Northwest. “My mom would break out into song in a minute. She sang, but in sign language.”

The performer recalls with glee the road trips her family took when she was a child and the ever-graceful gestures her mother would make from her passenger-seat vantage point.

“Beautiful mountains and rivers,” Miss Childress says, while her hands carve out a delicate poem in the air, her long-sleeved white blouse sighing. This is the way her mother used to do it - her mother, who once, in church, moved a man to tears with her sign-language rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

In 1980, the younger Miss Childress got the opportunity to touch hearts with her own hands when she received an invitation to join Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female black a cappella ensemble that was looking to expand the reach of its spiritual, social-justice-seeking message.

At the time, Miss Childress had years of experience working as a freelance sign-language interpreter and lots of exposure to “signed song” via her parents. But standing up onstage, using her hands to weave a complex mix of words, melodies and meanings into one cohesive silent show? This was a new bag.

Interpreting a music concert isn’t a cut-and-dried, word-to-word job. It’s more like translating a great piece of literature. There are countless choices to make, and each has a consequence. Word choice, rhythm, facial expression, body language and movement, how much and what type of background is provided on the song and the songwriter - all of these factors contribute to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment.

Like any expressive art form, the interpretation of music inevitably is highly subjective.

“If you look at a song like ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ if you give it to four different interpreters, you’re going to see four different versions,” says Justin Brown, cultural-access program manager at Silver Spring’s Sign Language Associates Inc., a company that provides interpretation for more than 200 performing-arts events each year around the District.

To be good, interpreters must have not just sign-language know-how, but also confidence, stage presence, good judgment about what information to relay and the self-restraint to serve as a conduit rather than an attention hog.

“Sometimes you hear a piece of music, and the song or the lyrics might be nothing special,” says Tom McGillis, principal sign-language interpreter for the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. “But the music just really hits you in some way; it’s so incredibly beautiful, so incredibly moving. … I have to get that hearing-impaired person to in some way experience that, too. If I just say what [the singers] are saying, they might as well just have captioning up onstage.”

Nearly 30 years after teaming up with Sweet Honey, Miss Childress is quite adept at leading deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members into a sonic world they otherwise might not be able to enter. She is an artist painting ever-changing landscapes with disappearing ink, and somehow, the overall picture - the sum of her every twisting, slicing, sweeping or stuttering brushstroke - gleams brightly when the song has stilled.

“I get excited about what I do,” she says. “It’s more than a paycheck.”

The relationship between Miss Childress and Sweet Honey - in which the sign-language interpreter is an integrated performer who regularly rehearses with the group - is fairly unusual. Austin City Limits, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and some of the other major music shindigs regularly use interpreters, and other, more local music venues bring them in when requested by a ticket holder. (The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires organizations to provide “access” upon request.) In contrast to people like Ms. Childress, however, these sign-language experts typically have just weeks to learn an artist’s catalog and style, which can limit their confidence and familiarity with the material.

So why isn’t sign-language interpretation a more integral part of the concert world? Because it hasn’t been historically; because sometimes artists worry about the cost and possible distraction; because many people question whether deaf and hard-of-hearing people would even want to attend a sound-based event.

Artists like Ms. Childress and Mr. McGillis argue that everyone should have the option to tap into music’s power and beauty if they choose - and rather than drawing money and attention away from their respective groups, these performers bring added value.

“It’s not intended to … help your bottom line,” says Kevin Dyels, director of talent acquisition at Sign Language Associates.

“It’s part of a celebration of life,” Ms. Childress says.

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