ASL As Part Of The Performance Rather Than Reporting The Performance

There was a really interesting article in Dance Magazine about artists using American Sign Language (ASL) as part of dance performances or to underscore movement in shows. One choreographer, Bailey Ann Vincent, says that she knows most of the audience is hearing, but if there is someone that communicates using ASL, they will have a richer experience:

For Vincent, using ASL in her choreography—which might mean incorporating a sign to emphasize an emotion a character is feeling, or to communicate what a lyric is saying—is both an artistic choice and an accessibility-related one. Though her audience is mostly hearing, “I still try to approach all our shows assuming there might be someone who is Deaf in the audience,” she says.

Another dancer said when he was asked to move beyond the role of an interpreter for a performance, it changed his perception about the role of ASL as a medium of communication.

…“She asked me to represent all sounds in sign language, and also use my body as a dancer,” says Kazen-Maddox. “It was the most mind-shifting thing for me, because I was seen as an artist and a dancer and a performer, and was also representing in sign language everything that was happening.”

The experience was the beginning of a shift in Kazen-Maddox’s career, away from simply facilitating communication between­ Deaf and hearing individuals as an interpreter­ and towards an emerging genre Kazen-Maddox calls “American Sign Language dance theater.” But it was also indicative of a wider shift in the performing arts, one that is more artistically fulfilling for Deaf and ASL-fluent artists and that also repositions accessibility: Rather than something tacked on to and separate from the performance, it is something deeply ingrained and integrated.

But as you might imagine, as the use of ASL as an artistic element increases, there are concerns about it being co-opted. It is important to remain conscious and thoughtful about the intent behind the use of ASL as an artistic element and avoid employing it in a superficial manner or in the service of ill-considered goals.

…And when hearing artists and audiences value how signs look over what they mean, the fusion of dance and ASL can become offensive rather than enriching. Antoine the example of a hearing choreographer asking him to “reverse” a sign because it would look cool, which then made it meaningless or changed it into a distasteful word.

“When people who are not native signers see ASL incorporated with movement, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful,’ ” says Alexandria Wailes, a Deaf dancer and actor, through an interpreter. “Which is valid in its own right, but ASL is a language that is tied to culture, communities, and history. It’s not just something that you look at or do because it feels cool and it’s beautiful.”

Who Will Make Classical Music The Next Old Spice?

So hattip to Ruth Hartt who linked to a piece by David Taylor who argues that we shouldn’t be linking the lack of music education in schools to diminishing audiences for classical music. He points to the fact that other musical genres enjoy a fairly good level of support despite not being included in a formal curriculum.

….classical music education continues to be invested in significantly higher than other music genres. If you drive past a school, you will see students carrying violins, tubas, flutes, cellos, and all manner of classical instruments. But you won’t see some poor kid dragging along a set of turntables to school. I don’t think there is a person alive who has said “I’m not really into Electronic Dance Music, and that’s probably because I didn’t have access to DJ lessons as a child”.

EDM, Dubstep, Grime, and Hip-Hop have all thrived over the years despite there being no formalised music education. The significant majority of people who enjoy pop and rock music won’t have come to enjoy it through music education.


It is counterproductive, elitist, and dangerous for us to keep shouting about how we need music education to save classical music audiences as it reinforces the idea that you need to be educated in it to enjoy it, and if you are not then classical music is not for you.

He goes on to cite a number of studies which have been published over the last five years that find that younger generations (under 35) actually listen to classical music more frequently than their parents. From a quick scan of some of the studies, this listening seems to be happening outside of concert halls.

But they are listening and their numbers are growing, Taylor notes. What needs to happen is to give these audiences a reason to enter the concert hall, if that is where organizations want them to be.  He cites brands with uncool images like Old Spice which have worked to re-position themselves. (I would add Stanley cups to this). He points to Marvel which expanded their audience from consumers of print media to movies and television.

It certainly isn’t fast or easy to accomplish this sort of shift. It took Marvel awhile to hit their stride. I remember a number of misses and flubs before the first Iron Man and Avengers movies came out.

There is a fear that any changes that are implemented may alienate current audiences who provide admittedly dwindling support. But younger generations may have different ideas about how and where they want to experience classical music. The most effective approach may not typically put both groups in the same spaces as each other.

Secret Lonely Lives Of Arts Loving Kids linked to a Hudson Review piece by poet and former NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, talking about how he became entranced by opera and classical music as a child, but realized it was not an interest shared by adults and peers in his life. Granted, his younger brother Ted is  a noted jazz critic and music historian, but their shared adult affinity for arts and culture probably was not apparent when Dana was in elementary school.

Gioia’s piece evokes the bittersweet feeling shared by so many who fall in love with forms of creative expression but perceive themselves alone in these passions unshared by those around them. This is not to say that his family didn’t have an appreciation of such things. He talks about his mother reciting poetry when they did housework. He also admits to being a snob and turning his nose up at the popular music of his youth. But he did see record collections of deceased a uncle sold off with only a couple classical music albums saved. Likewise, he managed to assemble a collection of opera records before his mother cancelled their subscription to a record club after two months.

Gioia discusses his furtive attempts to grab fixes of classical music after school when the apartment was empty and on other occasions with such evocative language, I am afraid the excerpting I am about to do is going to ruin its impact.

At the same time, I feel I may have pasted too much text below to hold some readers’ attention.  But I feel like so many of us have experienced these dismal, lonely feelings about experiences that enliven and energize us, that cutting much more would deny readers the realization of a more broadly shared experience than they might have recognized.

My conniving continued and worsened. When I was eleven, my school was given four free tickets for a Los Angeles Symphony youth concert featuring selections from the Ring. I had already gone the year before—… but I asked the sister who taught me piano if I could go again. She was appalled. She told me I was impossibly greedy and advised me to confess the sin. I knew she was right. My desire was selfish and disgraceful. I left her office embarrassed. On Saturday morning two hours before the concert, she called me. One of the chosen kids had decided not to go. While the other kids and parents sat bored beside me, I had the most thrilling musical experience of my young life….

In the car home, I wanted to talk about the concert, but I knew it would be a mistake. Everyone else had already forgotten it. It was best to hide my enthusiasm. I had already been exposed as greedy. Why add weak and weird to the list? Many children lead secret lives. Mine was simply more elaborate than most….

Keeping my mouth shut in the back seat of the car was an important moment. I knew the practical people were right. To treat art as anything but a brief diversion was dangerous. It made everyday living more difficult. Beauty had an effect on me I didn’t understand, but I recognized it made me cultivate a vulnerability that everyone else suppressed. There was no one to ask for advice. I could only wait and watch….

What Other Dwindling Skillsets Threaten Arts and Culture?

Last August, I called attention to the dwindling number of qualified piano tuners posing a threat to arts organizations’ ability to host concerts.  Along those same lines, posted a story last week about the shortage of engineers posing a threat to the continued operation of public radio stations. Where radio stations used to have 4-5 engineers in their employ, now they are lucky to have more than one according to Dave Edwards, the author of the piece.

The United States is projected to require 5,100 broadcast engineers over the next decade due to the retirement of 6,200 existing professionals. This anticipated shortage is particularly pronounced in the RF (Radio Frequency) knowledge domain. Factors contributing to the absence of new entrants include:

  • The allure of competing technical fields offers higher pay and more straightforward work conditions.
  • Broadcast engineering requires a broad knowledge base.
  • There is a need for more awareness among major stakeholders.

Among the things Edwards suggests are breaking out the skillsets required into more specialized areas. For example, making Radio Frequency (RF) engineering, Internet Broadcast engineering, and Office Internet Engineering into separate roles versus seeking someone versed in Radio and Broadcast Internet or Broadcast and Office Internet to fulfill a single role. Separating these broadens the pool of qualified people and ensuring people don’t get burned out trying to juggle too many tasks. Likewise, some of tasks can be outsourced while leaving internal staff to concentrate on crucial work only someone who knows broadcast regulations and troubleshooting specialized equipment can perform.

Reading stories about diminishing numbers of piano tuners and broadcast engineers makes me wonder what other important, but overlooked skillsets readers have identified as threatened?  Many of these roles don’t seem replaceable by AI. In some cases, these are the guys making sure the AI is functioning.