The Brilliance of Integration: Making Music for the Deaf

3 Min Read  •  Special Needs

I was just talking with a friend of mine who is a visual artist and a retired teacher.  She was saying that she thought teaching with the arts was just good teaching.  To her integration was just what she did naturally, not intentionally.  I totally understand what she means.

I was using the arts to teach other content and teaching something about arts along with it before I had ever heard of arts integration.  But  that is how we all first start as learners.  If you go into any preschool you will find dramatic play acting and dancing and singing and drawing and painting connected to everything that they do.  Integration is natural – segregation is what is not natural.

But as we get older we compartmentalize and specialize and forget that the integration of things can make them more meaningful.  It becomes a really novel thing when someone gets the brilliant idea to integrate things together. And sometimes the ideas really are brilliant.

Integrating Music

Take Amber Galloway Gallego.  She herself is a hearing person but she had several opportunities in her life to become close with others who were not and in the process she learned sign language.  She went on to study American Sign Language and was enrolled in an interpreter training program.

In an article in, Amber explains that after seeing a dance performance by a dance company of deaf performers, things starting clicking in her head.  Amber was inspired by seeing how deaf people could interact with music.  At a party she had thrown for friends who were both hearing and deaf, on a whim she started to sign a song that came on and her deaf friends were blown away.  They had never seen someone interpret a song in the expressive way Amber did.

Connecting the Dots

And that was how it all started.  Amber began to integrate elements of theater and dance and American Sign Language in order to express elements of music and help counteract statements deaf friends had made that music wasn’t for deaf people.  Now, Amber may not articulate it that way but that’s how I see it.  She noticed that people who signed at concerts were translating the way they would translate a press conference or a dry speech.  Amber could understand why those who were deaf would have trouble connecting to the experience – the interpreters were translating the words and not the whole musical experience.

By keeping the beat in her body, by using facing expression and posture, by exaggerating her movements and by layering signs with other forms of non-verbal communication that we all understand and use to convey meaning, she brought the music alive.  The deaf members of the audience could better grasp the nuances of the lyrics and appreciate the rhythm.

Bringing Music to Life

Amber now has her own company of interpreters who specialize in becoming experts in the music they are hired to interpret and find ways to convey not just the interpretation of the words but the poetry of the language and the music as well.  It may seem obvious but it took Amber’s life experiences to realize the signing needed to be theatrical and integrated with elements of the music to make music and the whole concert-going experience connect to audience members who could not hear it.  Brilliant.

Now Amber interprets for big names in all different genres of music and you can see examples of her work on her YouTube channel.  (She even has some children’s music if you were interested in learning it for your classroom!)  I highly encourage you to check it out.  Even without understanding sign language you can appreciate the brilliance of her interpretations and her approach of integrating ASL with performing art to make music with her body for those who can’t hear it.