A group of 23 students, mostly from Cumberland and North Yarmouth, won’t utter a word Wednesday night when the national anthem is sung live before the Boston Red Sox game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park.
Instead, the students will stand silently – behind home plate – and perform the national anthem in American Sign Language, a non-verbal language expressed through hand and finger movements.
The Sounds of Silence, a community group based in Cumberland, has been chosen to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” using sign language to communicate the lyrics to baseball fans who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s an honor that has the group’s teacher, Robin Sidders, and her students pinching themselves, just to make sure they are not dreaming.
“You guys can make a difference and I want you to realize this,” Sidders told the Sounds of Silence members as they rehearsed signing the anthem Sunday evening at the White Pine Ministry Center in North Yarmouth.
AWARENESS OF DEAF CULTURE
Sidders created the Sounds of Silence program in 2009, when she was teaching music to elementary school students in California.
She moved to North Yarmouth in summer 2010 and established a similar program through the Cumberland Recreation Department. About 80 percent of her students, who range in age from 8 to 17, attend Maine School Administrative District 51 schools. Students learn sign language skills and develop an awareness of deaf culture through the program.
Sidders said her students have performed the national anthem at Maine Red Claws and Portland Sea Dogs’ home games and at L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, and they are now appearing in a Renys department store television commercial.
A spokesman for the Red Sox confirmed Monday that although individuals have signed the national anthem at Red Sox games before, Wednesday’s appearance will be the first time that a group has done it.
“We get a lot of requests for the anthem and we keep them on file,” said Dan Lyons, the Red Sox’s senior manager of entertainment. “We noticed this group and thought that this would be something different and very unique.”
Lyons said the team does make sign language interpreters available for pregame ceremonies on request, but not for every game.
The Sounds of Silence will be signing the national anthem during a live performance of the song by Karen St. George, a teacher from Westford, Massachusetts, Lyons said.
Wednesday’s performance will be the first time that most of Sidders’ students will sign the national anthem with a live performer. In the majority of their appearances, the students have signed to a musical recording.
“It’s going to be a real challenge, but I think they will be up for it,” Sidders said, noting the unpredictable pace of a live song.
BIG CROWD, TELEVISION AUDIENCE
Sidders reached out to the Red Sox last September with her idea for a sign language performance, but it wasn’t until three weeks ago that she received an official invitation to perform at the annual Disability Awareness Night game.
It will be by far the largest crowd that any of Sidders’ students has performed for. Fenway has a capacity of more than 37,000 and all of the team’s games are televised.
“I am scared out of my socks. I’ve never performed at anything this big,” said Will Klein of Cumberland, who will turn 11 on April 13, the day after the group performs.
Klein, an avid snowboarder, said he’d one day like to serve as a sign language interpreter at the Winter Olympics.
Rehearsals like the one held Sunday evening are valuable because they give Sidders a chance to keep her students focused. With a large group of parents watching and a news photographer’s camera clicking away, the distractions serve as a good learning tool.
“Watch me, not the camera,” Sidders said in her teacher’s voice during the rehearsal. Sidders’ role is similar to that of an orchestra conductor: The students have to follow her gestures because the pace of a live performance is vastly different from a recorded song.
Sidders likes to challenge her students, asking them to sign the national anthem without music before signing it to a recording.
“There’s no music this time because that’s the way the deaf will hear it. They will hear it with their eyes,” Sidders tells her students. “I want you to think about bridging the gap between the two worlds.”
A PASSION FOR SIGN LANGUAGE
Anna Hoffman-Johnson, a 17-year-old home-schooled student from Falmouth, describes herself as a visual learner who enjoys learning new languages, singing and the arts. One day she would like to put her skills to use, possibly working as a sign language interpreter at a Broadway show, she said.
“I’m not nervous,” she says of her group’s upcoming Fenway Park performance.
Stephanie Bruder, 14, an eighth-grader at Greely Middle School in Cumberland, said she has developed a passion for sign language, starting when she was in fourth grade and her mother signed her up for a class.
“I thought it was cool that they used their hands to talk,” Bruder said.
Sidders is grateful that the Red Sox are giving the Sounds of Silence an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I know what this can do for their self-image,” she said. “It can help these kids take off.”
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: