Back in November 2021 when we were all watching Strictly on a Sunday evening and Rose Ayling-Ellis was flying the flag for deaf and hard of hearing people, my friends Vanessa and Adrian challenged me to learn sign language to a song, and perform it at a gig.
We originally planned for me to learn a Christmas carol and deliver my performance at a big old singalong knees-up in December but, like lots of things, the event got cancelled because of Covid. Fast forward to June 2022 and I noticed the same team were putting on a summer singalong event and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to complete my challenge.
Vanessa and Adrian volunteered their 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, to learn the song and perform with me, so we agreed a well-known song – Stand By Me by Ben E King – and set about rehearsing.
What I found fascinating was that every YouTube tutorial video I watched seemed to be using slightly different signs and gestures. I couldn’t fathom this, as I wondered how people would understand each other if they all used a slightly different system. But, a quick search showed me that American Sign Language is quite different to British Sign Language (BSL), and that there are other systems in operation, too. There are also regional variations, much like spoken English has many regional dialects.
This may all be obvious to you but I had never known enough about sign language to be aware of this, so I’m grateful that my challenge gave me the opportunity to learn.
Sign Supported English
Without really knowing what I was doing, the version of Stand By Me that I’d chosen for us to learn uses BSL SSE, which stands for Sign Supported English. It’s a slightly simplified system based on BSL and close to Makaton, which is widely used these days.
Anyway, it worked, and we spent several hours trying to learn each line and perfect the signs.
Then it was the day of the big performance. I must confess, I was very nervous! The room was full of faces that I didn’t know and who probably wouldn’t be interested in my story or the reason I was doing this slightly random thing. Of course, I had Isabella with me but she wasn’t nervous AT ALL*!
Air violin orchestra
The instrumental breakdown in the original version of Stand By Me features a violin solo. Hats off to the band’s keyboard player for recreating a violin sound in the live performance so I could get everyone involved with this. We had an air violin orchestra in full flow, as can be seen in one of the photos!
Big thanks to Matt Howes and The Mighty Handful for allowing us to take over the stage for a few minutes, and for giving me the opportunity to tell my story AND pass collecting tins round the audience. And even bigger thanks to everyone watching who joined in, applauded, and donated – we raised £65.10 on the day!
All in all a brilliant experience, an inspired challenge and a joy to complete.
*I later found out that she was nervous but she just hid it very well!