Using American Sign Language in Children's Choir

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Singing is a full-body activity (source). And movement (especially for younger singers) is a valuable tool to helping children understand and engage with music. American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual form of communication among Deaf communities. ASL signs may use one or both hands/arms. Signs are comprised of certain hand shapes, orientations, and positions on the body, and many involve movement (source). This is unique because it brings the word to life in a way, pairing language with visual art. It's almost like a form of dance.

ASL works well with music, bringing new meaning to the text and giving children a tangible, physical way to interact with the music. Having motions to do while they sing also helps children stay focused in rehearsal and memorize the music more quickly.

Looking to include ASL in your children's choir? Here are a few helpful resources for getting started: 

American Sign Language Resources

With Heart and Hands and Voices - songs with sign language for Sunday School, choir, and worship

ASL Children’s Songs - a wonderful resource from the LDS church, this site features a collection of children's songs with PDF scores, professional recordings (with and without vocals), and ASL video demonstrations. Be sure to look at Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and Beautiful Savior.

We Sign: Christmas Carols - perfect for children's choir plays, caroling, and special Christmas services

ASL Hymns - another resource from the LDS church, this site includes a varied list of hymns with PDF scores, professional recordings (with and without vocals), and ASL video demonstrations. Titles include:

Away in a Manger
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
For the Beauty of the Earth
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Joy to the World
Doxology
Silent Night

Signing Bible Songs - a DVD resource with lots of popular children's choir songs, including Jesus Loves Me, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, Lord I Want to Be a Christian, and He's Got the Whole World In His Hands.

Watch a few video samples here, here, and here.

Do It Yourself: Add ASL to Any Piece

The above resources are great for popular children's songs, hymns, and Christmas carols, but what about anthems? With the help of the Internet, you can easily add ASL to any piece.

Here's how:

1  |  Pull out an anthem you're working on and study the text for a few minutes.
2  |  Sing or play through the melody and get a sense of tempo, text declamation (how fast the pace of the text is), and important words.
3  |  Choose a few key words in each phrase and look up signs using this handy video dictionary.
4  |  Jot down a few notes in your music to help you remember each sign.
5  |  Practice singing through the anthem and signing before introducing to children.

Here is an example using Mark A. Miller's "I Believe" (a great anthem for combined choirs!):

I believe in the sun, I believe in the sun
Even when, even when it's not shining.

I believe in love, I believe in love
Even when, even when I don't feel it.

I believe in God, I believe in God
Even when, even when He is silent.

Great text, right? I chose key words from each phrase to sign (marked in bold below):

I believe in the sun, I believe in the sun
Even wheneven when it's not shining.

I believe in love, I believe in love
Even wheneven when I don't feel it.

I believe in God, I believe in God
Even wheneven when He is silent.

Using the signing video dictionary, I looked up each word:

believe
sun
even when (even though in the dictionary)
not
shining
love
feel
God
silent

I sang through the phrases in my head as I watched the video for each sign to see how they would fit together.

A Few Final Thoughts

Show signs with the opposite hand/arm so children can mirror you. For instance, the sign for "God" is done with your right hand (thumb side of hand facing you, moving from forehead to chest). To teach this to your choir, show the sign with your left hand so children will mirror you with their right hands.

Don't overdo it. If you're adding ASL to one of your anthems, pick a few key words to sign for each phrase. Don't take away from the melody. Let the movement be natural, not frenetic.

At the same time, be true to the text. If the text reads "even when it's not shining," don't just sign the word for "shining." We're creating more of a sense translation by not signing every word, but try to be true to the text as much as you can.

Have you used ASL with your children's choir? What are your favorite pieces to sing and sign?

*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you purchase through them, Amazon.com will pay me a small fee for referring you to them at no extra cost to you. Win-win!