Can you actually sign music without lyrics? As a living and breathing form of expression, music, as with many other things in life, means something distinctly different to each of us.
For Janis Wong, it is both her profession and a calling. Having worked closely with the orchestra to convey music to the hard-of-hearing community, the freelance sign language interpreter has played a vital role in our annual National Day concerts. As a familiar friend of the SSO, Janis has been involved in both live and digital concerts in recent years. Prior to COVID-19, you would find her standing at the right of the stage, signing the entire concert, from emcee introductions, to guest speeches, to the music. She was also actively involved in the recent SSO National Day Concert 2021 held online.
Growing up, Janis enjoyed playing the piano and attained her Grade 8 when she was 16 years old. She went on a church trip to Australia in 2008 and came across youth groups signing hymns. The possibility of bridging the understanding of music to the deaf community piqued her interest and she was determined to learn the sign language upon her return to Singapore, and did so through a course with The Singapore Association for the Deaf.
As with any other new skill, practice makes perfect. Armed with passion and her newly acquired skills, the bubbly Janis started serving weekly in her church as a sign language interpreter, translating services for the hard-of-hearing community. This was a great form of practice for her to be in touch with the language as well as to better understand the needs of this community.
Song signers that Janis has come across mostly sign lyrics of songs. She explains, “Some people are more comfortable signing words than music, the same way how others may be more comfortable expressing themselves through singing than speaking.” Her role is akin to a professional translator, and is definitely challenging, considering one has to be quick and accurate.
Through orchestra performances with the SSO, Janis is on a journey to make music visible. The mother of three describes the process as long and complex. Before every concert, she spends copious amounts of time studying the concert programme, the background of the new compositions and the arrangements, as well as history of the music through thorough research, such as factors that led to the creation of the original piece and what the composer may be trying to express. She can often be found sitting through repeated rehearsals to understand the intricacies of the melodies, taking notes of movements of various instruments and the sound it produces, to be able to convey the music (like a story!) to her audience.
Janis observes, “Unlike well-known works of composers where research can be readily accessible online, I feel like I have been granted a rare opportunity to be one of the first to listen in to works of our Singaporean composers. Getting to know them and their passions also helps me in interpreting their pieces.”
As part of her preparation, Janis picks out key parts of the music that stand out to her, and strives to express them through a mix of signing of the music’s background, instruments, beats and uses her facial expressions to channel mood (e.g. lively, sad, solemn, nervous music) – all while staying close to the origins of the music. Her role is no less important than others on stage, and serves as an accompaniment, much like dance to music. This has made it possible for the SSO to share our work with a wider range of audience.
Janis sees herself as a translator to share an interpretation of the pieces with the audience. She shares, “This National Day, I am proud to be part of this concert to help showcase the works of our talented Singaporean composers and national orchestra to a wider community!” While she is an expert at communicating through sign language, she often worries if she is doing justice to the piece since music is, after all, subjective.
Fortunately, her worries have been unfounded as the feedback from the hard-of-hearing community has been nothing but positive. We are grateful to Janis for sharing this gift and hope this journey has been equally enriching for her.
Having a sign language interpreter at the SSO National Day Concerts not only provides an opportunity for the hard-of-hearing community to participate in our event, but also serves as a learning platform for all others, to pick up simple signs in the language and appreciate the visual aid that complements our music.
Catch Janis in action and enjoy works by our Singaporean composers via our online SSO National Day Concert 2021. This concert is available until 28 September. Get your tickets here!