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South Holland Master Chorale’s longtime sign interpreter steps down

75-year-old Gloria Goss-Harris ready for retirement

by Phil Schwartz
sign interpretor
Gloria Goss-Harris serves as a sign interpreter during a musical performance by South Holland Master Chorale. Goss-Harris, 75, a resident of Chicago’s South Shore community, is stepping down after nearly 20 years as signing for the chorale. (Photo provided)

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 23, 2023) – 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 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.”

Telling the story

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, much of the success of the interpreter’s presentation depends on her skill in representing visually the images and ideas that the music is relating. In a concert, the only element that uses a standardized sign language, Goss-Harris says, is spoken words, such as introductions to or commentary about songs on the program. While there may be standardized ways of representing certain ideas, such as God, Jesus, bells, Christmas, and the like, the interpreter must understand the story that the song is telling and create ways of expressing that through gestures and physical movement.

A lifetime of signing

Working with people who have hearing and visual impairments has been almost a lifelong activity for Goss-Harris. When she was a teenager, her high school had a program that paired 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.

Although she began 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 so that she could work with Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization that provides employment, support, and training opportunities for people with visual impairments. Later, she received a master’s degree from University of Illinois at Chicago so that she could work with deaf-blind individuals.

That experience led her to Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side, where she began sign-interpreting sermons and religious music. 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, where she has been involved for more than 20 years.

Coming to the Chorale

It was at Covenant that the Rev. Pamela Stallings, a longtime member of South Holland Master Chorale, met Goss-Harris and 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 and help make it accessible to a wider audience.

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. She has never hesitated to state that her talent comes from God and is used 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.”

Two more concerts

Noting that over the years she has seen some of the same deaf or hard-of-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, www.southhollandmasterchorale.org.

South Holland Master Chorale
South Holland Master Choralehttps://southhollandmasterchorale.org/
South Holland Master Chorale grew from a group that began in the early 1970s at what was then Thornton Junior College, later renamed South Suburban College. The Chorale now receives financial support from the Village of South Holland, from which it takes its current name. Over its long existence, the Chorale has performed throughout the Chicago south suburbs and Northwest Indiana, presenting major works both classic and contemporary.

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