by Ashley Lodato, Education Director for Methow Arts
At Brewster Elementary School, music assemblies are always bilingual, thanks to the skills of sign language interpreter Gail Brand. So whether students are deaf or hard of hearing, they can still experience the performances Methow Arts brings into the six schools in the Okanogan County Arts Education Partnership.
Brand began learning American Sign Language (ASL) in the 1970s (“just after the dinosaurs disappeared,” she says). She learned from the very best of sources—a deaf man and his wife, who were fluent in ASL. Brand took classes at Whatcom Community College, got to know the deaf community, learned about deaf history, and ended up with a job in a deaf program in public education in Bellingham. In addition to her work with preschoolers through high schoolers, Brand also interpreted at Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College, and Skagit College.
Brand was born in Omak and raised in Malott, so although she only moved to Brewster from the west side three years ago, it is a bit of a homecoming for her. “When I thought about living in Brewster and working with students there, I felt a little ‘click’ in my soul,” she says.
Brand’s journey back to Brewster, she says, “began with the idea of teaching hearing kindergarten through second graders to read using ASL.” At Brewster Elementary, Brand teaches Enrichment classes with K-2 students, using ASL to teach sight words, numbers, and other vocabulary, as well as working with a deaf student. “It’s amazing how quickly kids pick up the signs and connect them with the written word,” she says.”
When Brand interprets a music performance, she sits on the floor or on a chair near the performers, facing the students in the audience. Then her goal is to communicate the music to the deaf students. “I love to interpret music because it lends itself to a free and unique expression,” she says, adding “No two interpreters will ever sign the same music exactly the same way, which is a beautiful thing about ASL—it is all about concept.”
Brand says she tries to match the demeanor of the performer (“I am not the show,” she emphasizes). “I strive to express the music in such a way that the deaf audience gains a soul-satisfying experience as much as the hearing audience.”
Watching Brand is much like watching a dancer; her style is very expressive and fluid. You get the idea that she is interpreting not only song lyrics, but also the tone and mood of the music, using expressive motions. She says, “One of the things that makes me an effective interpreter is that I am very expressive.” She continues, “Music flows and its interpretation should flow along with it. Because ASL is concept-based, I try to set up the topic of the song and then describe around that topic, which provides that fluidity.”
Brand teaches a beginning sign class that is open to parents, students, and staff who want to learn ASL. Brand is adamant that such public outreach is necessary for the success of deaf students in the school district. “Deaf students need to see a variety of people signing,” she says. “It’s their right to have equal access to communication.” She adds, “I’m thrilled about this class.”
According to Brand, the term “hearing impaired,” which many people use, is meaningless. “A person is deaf or hard of hearing,” she says, “but not ‘hearing impaired.’” ASL is a whole language, Brand explains. “It has grammar and syntax and everything else a language requires. It is a living and evolving language. ASL uses facial grammar, body language, and hand motion/orientation.”
Brand finds great joy in opening doors for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. “I have interpreted many, many concerts and plays over the years, and I love to see the children—all of them—filling their minds and hearts with performance art. We have kids who might never otherwise get to see these kinds of performances, were it not for organizations like Methow Arts.”
The joys of working with children—hearing and deaf alike— are infinite, Brands says. “They are the best teachers.They keep me humble.They remind me to be curious.They laugh and make everything right with the world, again.” And, she says, “They will work for jellybeans. The good ones, StarBurst Jellybeans, not the bulk kind from the big-box store…I tried that a couple years ago—they have almost forgiven me.”
Brand says that she has “the utmost respect” for ASL and the deaf community. “Plus, signing is so much fun!” she says. She refers to signing music as “a gift,” and notes that not everyone is comfortable doing it. But for the audiences—both hearing and deaf—who get to experience Brand’s music interpretation, it is truly an offering given by Brands, straight from the hands, straight from the heart.