South Holland, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Without singing a note or speaking a word, Gloria Goss-Harris has enhanced musical performances by South Holland Master Chorale for much of the past two decades. Goss-Harris is a sign interpreter who uses her hands and arms – in fact, often her whole body – to tell the stories of the Chorale’s musical performances for audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Now 75 years old, Goss-Harris, a resident of Chicago’s South Shore community, is retiring from her role as the sign interpreter for South Holland Master Chorale and several churches and groups in the Chicago Southland and Northwest Indiana. She explains her decision by describing the mental and physical exertion required for the task.
“Deaf people look at the (interpreter’s) whole body and the emotions being expressed,” she says. “I have to interpret in a way that deaf people will understand.”
Especially for the classical and sacred music that South Holland Master Chorale sings – often in Latin – a sign interpreter can’t just sign word for word, Goss-Harris says. “I have to tell the story, not sing the song. I have to find synonymous words that express the same meaning.”
Oftentimes, a particular song may repeat the same text several times, and Goss-Harris must find varied ways to express the same thought. “Each concert is different. Each song is different,” she says.
Facial expression and body movement also are important, she adds. For example, if a particular song describes a ferocious rainstorm, “My interpretation depends on the intensity of how I bring the rain down and the expression on my face.”
For the Chorale’s concerts, the interpreter must represent visually the images and ideas that the music relates. In a concert, the only spoken words use standardized sign language, Goss-Harris says. This includes introductions to or commentary about songs on the program. There may be standardized ways of representing certain ideas, such as God, Jesus, bells, and Christmas. But the interpreter must understand the story that the song is telling. The interpreter then creates ways of expressing that through gestures and physical movement.
Working with people who have hearing and visual impairments has been almost a lifelong activity for Goss-Harris. Her high school had a program pairing students with classmates who were visually impaired to assist them with their studies. Goss-Harris was matched with students who needed assistance in academic areas where she was most qualified. She says she found that activity particularly rewarding.
Beginning her professional career as an insurance underwriter, she soon realized that was not the work she wanted to do. She then enrolled at Northern Illinois University to earn a degree. She hoped to work with Lighthouse for the Blind. The Lighthouse provides employment, support and training opportunities for people with visual impairments. Later, she received a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This allowed her to work with deaf-blind individuals.
That experience led her to Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. She began sign-interpreting sermons and religious music there. She also worked as a sign interpreter for Genesis Connection, a male gospel music group. Later, the Rev. Ozzie Smith invited her to do that work with Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland. She worked there for more than 20 years.
At Covenant that the Rev. Pamela Stallings, a longtime member of South Holland Master Chorale, met Goss-Harris. The Reverend invited her to bring her talents to the Chorale. Stallings told Goss-Harris she thought her sign interpreting would add to the Chorale’s music. She added signing would help make it accessible to a wider audience.
Gratitude from Longtime Colleague
Albert Jackson, former longtime music director of the Chorale, says, “Gloria Goss-Harris is the absolute embodiment of grace. Not just physical, but spiritual grace, and never hesitated to state that her talent comes from God. She uses this talent in his service. She was always insistent that I provide her with an accurate translation of any texts which were not in English, so she could portray both the meaning and the spirit behind it.
“I can’t count the number of times people without hearing impairments have approached me after a concert to comment on how much they were moved by her gestures as an enhancement to the sound of the music,” Jackson added. “I have spent my life as a conductor making gestures with my body to portray the music to singers and players, and I recognize Gloria as a true master of the craft. She has enriched the lives of audience members, whether hearing-impaired or not, beyond all imagination.”
Goss-Harris says she sees her work with the Chorale as “interpreting God’s word in a different genre.” She adds, “Working with the Chorale was one of my greatest accomplishments. I did it because I loved doing it.”
Noting that over the years she has seen some of the same deaf or partial hearing people at many concerts, she says she will miss being part of the performances. She plans to be in the audience for the Chorale’s two upcoming spring concerts, before her retirement to a small town in Spain.
The Chorale will perform Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem,” along with works by American composers Dan Forrest and Frank Ticheli, on May 14 at 4 p.m. at St. Maria Goretti Church in Dyer, Ind., and May 21 at 4 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Church in St. John, Ind. Information about those free concerts is available on the Chorale’s website at www.southhollandmasterchorale.org.