Bringing children from different backgrounds together, a chorus that combines singing and sign language will perform at Istanbul Music Festival on June 29.

By Yao Hsiao

Photo courtesy of İKSV Alt Kat

Focusing on children and young people who have limited access to artistic and cultural events, İKSV Alt Kat—an initiative of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV)—opened a new space at the Nejat Eczacıbaşı building in February and organized a series of workshops on arts education in cooperation with İKSV biennials and festivals. Working with the 47th Istanbul Music Festival, Birlikte Güçlü Sesler Chorus is the initiative’s first project.

Borrowing the idea form the White Hands Choir by El Sistema—a music education project founded in 1975 in Venezuela—Birlikte Güçlü Sesler Chorus consists of two parts: singing and sign language, performed by children with disabilities and the Music for Peace Chorus.

Efruz Çakırkaya, Director of Istanbul Music Festival, had the idea of supporting disabled children through music ever since she saw a performance by the White Hands Choir at Salzburg Festival in 2013. “It was shocking, emotional, and inspiring,” she told The Guide Istanbul. So when Alt Kat’s team came to discuss working together, they decided to organize a chorus for visually impaired and hearing impaired children, which would perform at the Istanbul Music Festival.

Thirteen visually impaired and 17 hearing impaired children aged between 5–16 years old joined the project in the beginning of this year. Coming from different neighborhoods of Istanbul, it’s not always easy for them to come to Alt Kat’s rehearsal space every week for practice. Nevertheless, the parents manage to find a way to get them there. “They told us that they had a very difficult childhood and they don’t want their kids to be isolated as they were,” said Elif Obdan Gürkan, manager of Alt Kat. And the opportunity to perform on the festival stage is also a big motivation for everyone, she added.

The choir is conducted by the musician and teacher Zeynep Eren Kovankaya, while the sign language section is lead by sign language trainer Buket Ela Demirel and rhythm instructor İpek Aktaşlı. Before merging as one chorus, the two groups practiced separately. The process is very challenging. For example, the hearing impaired children started with learning the lyrics. “Some words we use don’t exist in their sign language,“ Gürkan explained, “so the instructors first need to deconstruct the song and tell them what each sentence means.”

People often think the hearing impaired have no connections with the music. But it’s not true. They can also experience it and dance with the rhythm. “Even though we don’t hear the sound, we feel the music through vibration,” the chorus instructor Buket Ela Demirel, who herself is also hearing-impaired, explained. “We feel the music inside. We live the music,” Demirel translated what the kids told her in sign language.

Since May, children from the Music for Peace Chorus—a children’s chorus from Edirnekapı who had performed in the Istanbul Music Festival last year—have joined the initiative and the three groups began rehearsing together. Support from the Music for Peace Chorus aims not only increase the musical quality but to also bring diversity to the learning environment.

“We want kids with different capacities and specialties to work together,” said Gürkan. Often isolated from society, children with disabilities now have the chance to interact with new people outside of their communities. “We also want some kids from the Music For Peace Chorus to join the hearing impaired children and ‘sing’ in the sign language,” she said. In this way, people can see that—like any other language—sign language can be learned by everyone.

It is not just the children who are learning through the Birlikte Güçlü Sesler Chorus project. Gürkan said that the team is also learning from the children, and they hope more people will understand that those usually seen as disadvantaged actually have their own strengths. “Sometimes I feel the visually impaired kids see better than we do. Sometimes we look but we don’t see,” she said.

Birlikte Güçlü Sesler Chorus plans to learn and perform five or six songs at the concert. “We’ll see how it goes,“ said Gürkan, “because the most important part is to let the children have fun, learn something new, and be closer to society.”

The concert will take place on June 29, 8pm–8:30pm at Zorlu PSM outdoor venue; free admission.