Sign Language Choir Stirs Applause, Tears

Hometown Heroes, People
on October 7, 2001

It’s not often you can stop a professional performer in his tracks, but Symbols of Silence, a sign language choir in Brighton, Mich., (pop. 6,701) succeeded in doing just that when it appeared in concert with Randy Owen, lead singer for the country music group Alabama, last year. Joining the band onstage at the Fowlerville Fair, the 43-member choir began signing the words to Angels Among Us.

“When Randy realized we were doing something behind him that wasn’t just singing, the look on his face was priceless,” says Dale Hermsen, the choir’s co-founder and co-director. “Tears filled his eyes. He stopped singing momentarily, then knelt and sang directly to the kids.” Watching the children translate heart-tugging lyrics into a ballet of hand gestures, in wide-eyed, flawless unison, the audience of 6,000 responded, too—with a standing ovation.

“Their reaction was thrilling because people aren’t normally exposed to sign language,” says Lisa Webster, who joined the choir with daughters Blaine, 8, and Miranda, 11. “Once they see it, they’re in awe that words can be communicated through your fingertips.”

Headquartered at Spencer Elementary School, Symbols of Silence has been earning applause—and tears—for 20 years. Its co-directors (including Karen Coen and Tracy Kopczyk) believe it’s the only public school sign-language choir in Michigan composed mostly of children with normal hearing. (Currently, three are hearing-impaired.)

Hermsen is proud of another distinction: “In this school, the district’s center for first- through fifth-graders with hearing loss, we’ve managed to make sign language a cool thing—because of the music we choose.”

“We” includes the kids. With only one 45-minute weekly practice, they learn 10 songs, each containing 40 to 50 signed words. Choir members bring in songs they like and vote on the final lineup; co-directors have veto power.

The children perform periodically at several community venues—a senior citizens’ home, local schools and service groups, and at professional and high school hockey games. Hermsen encourages them to sing while signing “because it gives you a good feeling,” she says. Many do sing and sign—in the rain, sleet, or freezing cold, mittens off—during their traditional first performance a week before Christmas, caroling on neighbors’ porches.

No matter how much the children enjoy the songs, learning to sign is challenging. They must follow Hermsen’s lead in mirror-image fashion, forming each sign right to left. Many signs like “sister” and “girl,” “a” and “the” are confusingly similar. “I also have to remind them to make big signs so the audience can see them,” Hermsen says.

Kevin Bozek, a 10-year-old with moderate hearing loss, joined the choir when he was just 6. “I like it because we get to go places,” he says.

“I don’t get nervous before performances; I get excited,” confides Brad Bartkowiak, 10, who hears normally. A self-confessed “sports kid,” he especially likes signing the national anthem at hockey games.

The choir’s directors have seen how participation in the group produces immediate and long-lasting benefits. “The hearing-impaired kids build confidence as they show the community what they can do,” Coen says. Some hearing students go on to interpret at their churches.

Hermsen says she has stuck with the choir the last two decades because she loves it, pointing to the logo she and Coen designed in 1981 and applied to T-shirts the kids wear, in rainbow colors, during performances. The logo, a heart with wings, “shows where our songs truly come from,” Hermsen explains. The wings were a natural choice, too, “because we feel lighter, uplifted, whenever we perform.

“I’ve stayed with this,” she says, “for pure joy.”