A Little Body English Goes A Long Way For Music Interpreter


July 21, 1991|By Dolly Merritt

Actions speak louder than words for Sandra Moore Gerhardt.

Tapping her toes and wiggling her hips, the 53-year-old can belt out a songwithout so much as lifting a vocal cord. It's her fingers that do the singing when she takes her place at the side of the stage during concerts at Lake Kittamaqundi.

Gerhardt, a Columbia resident for 17 years, is a certified interpreter for the deaf.

"When interpreting, facial expressions and body language play a very important role in the meaning of a word. It's one of those things that cannot be taught by books," Gerhardt said, who is not deaf herself.

For the past eight years, Gerhardt, a free-lance interpreter, has worked full time for the Baltimore City schools placing students in special education programs at two elementary schools.

Gerhardt learned American Sign Language through her colleagues and deaf friends at Gallaudet College in Washington. She was offered a job teaching art there shortly after graduating from the MooreCollege of Art in Philadelphia in 1960.

"I had never met a deaf person in my life," Gerhardt said. Because she regarded the job as an interesting opportunity, she immediately took summer courses in signing and "became totally involved with deaf people at Gallaudet. . . . I would sit down at lunch and there would be six people -- three who were hearing, and three who were not. I learned to communicate and this put me on the road for the rest of my life," she said.

She later earned a master's degree in special education for the deaf from Gallaudet.

With her two children -- Susannah, 26, and Paul, 25 -- grown, Gerhardt began working as a free-lance interpreter about 15 yearsago.

Her signing skills led to everything from interpreting legalproceedings for traffic tickets to communicating medical informationduring the birth of eight babies.

All of the parents are friends of Gerhardt and she was very willing to provide her expertise gratis,sometimes for up to 18 hours.

But the interpreting job that has given her semi-celebrity status in Howard County is her presence on the stage at the Kittamaqundi lakefront.

For about 12 years she has communicated everything from rock to reggae music before crowds that have assembled during the annual Columbia Birthday Celebration. When she goes shopping, it's not unusual for people to approach her and say, "I know who you are. You do the signing at the lakefront."

Describing herself as a "platform signer," Gerhardt uses her "stage voice" -- large signs to convey words to a crowd -- a marked contrast fromthe "whisper" created by small manipulations of the fingers. "The style depends on the personality; everyone signs differently," said Gerhardt.

Platform signing, she says, requires an "outgoing personality," a trait immediately evident when one meets Gerhardt for the first time. A genuine smile and an eagerness to talk about her work beliethe fact that she experiences "butterflies" in her stomach every time she faces a large audience. But she says the anxiety disappears when she looks into the crowd and sees friendly faces. Some people even wave.

Gerhardt doesn't rehearse. She occasionally talks to performers before a show.

"Some groups will bring me in, talk to me, and treat me as part of the group; others will avoid me," Gerhardt said. Her worst fear, being unable to communicate what is being performed, occasionally occurs.

"When there are just a few people in a band, I can usually follow," Gerhardt said. She wears a headset that allowsher to hear vocals above the background music. "But whenever there are big bands who come on, particularly a rock group who may not know their own words or have not prepared a set (of songs,) I have to stand to the side and read lips in order to get the words," she laughed. If she still doesn't understand, Gerhardt signs, "Sorry, I don't hearthe words; the mike is up at the mouth."

One time a reggae band started singing French lyrics.

"I had to stop and walk off the stage," she said. "Had I been traveling with the group, it would have been my duty to know the words, but I am doing this cold," she said. Occasionally, an interpreter in the audience will "feed" interpretationsto Gerhardt if she isn't able to determine what is being sung.

Most of the time, however, Gerhardt, manages to go with the flow. For instance, she laughed about a particular group of female singers whoselyrics contained suggestive innuendoes.

"I thought, 'Whoa, wait aminute. How am I going to do this?' I decided it's up to the deaf toget the innuendo; I can give them the feeling, place and rhythm of what goes on; it's body language."

So much body language, in fact, that tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome are physical ailments that Gerhardt suffers.

She also has otosclerosis, a disease diagnosed about 30 years ago that is causing gradual deafness in her left ear.

"It allows me to be part of the issues of the deaf world," she said.

Nonetheless, Gerhardt shows no signs of retiring.

"Sign singing is the fun part of interpreting, but there's a lot of serious private interpreting that's necessary for the deaf," she said.

Interpreters follow a code of ethics and honor the right to confidentiality when they interpret in everyday situations. At issue, she says, isthe right of the non-hearing to communicate with the hearing .

"Whether a situation involves a dentist or a police officer or wherevercommunication occurs, we need an easier flow; we need more interpreters," she said.

The deaf, she said, "need information just like weneed information and we all have our certain rights and privileges. The interpreter is just a tool which should be readily available."

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