Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Blade and bell

A week ago, Paul and I went to a Memorial Service for a great and important person – the world-renowned tenor, Kenneth Bowen. We’d got to know him because of my Aunty Mali (yes, the redoubtable one). Kenneth used sometimes to go to call on her when he visited Fishguard, where he’d spent many family holidays in his youth. One huge love they had in common: music. And one aspect of music in particular: voice.

Qualities of voice

At the Memorial Service, each of Kenneth’s two grandsons sang. I was immediately reminded of the qualities of Kenneth’s voice.  How it could command attention. What an edge it had. (I think this is what singers know as blade.) But also what tenderness it could have, what beauty, what resonance, as if it was holding you within its embrace. (And this, I think, is what singers call bell.)

Thinking about Kenneth has made me think more about voice in connection with storytelling. Singer or storyteller, one quality of voice is essential. You have to have control of it and know its powers, loud and soft, strong and tender. You have to use that control to convey emotion and action. You have to command attention, but not in any bossy way. Rather you have to win the attention.

Yet here I have some questions.  For the storyteller, the story must be primary. Attention must be gained for what’s happening within the story, the words and feelings of it. I don’t think it’s quite the same for the singer giving a song. Here the qualities of the singing itself must be brought to attention. They are part of what wins the ear of the listener.

Enough – except for one of the many stories about Kenneth. A story that says so much about him, it happened when the London Welsh Chorale was on a singing trip to Prague. Kenneth was our conductor, Paul and I were in his choir.

Unforgettable

On one of our evenings in Prague, a group of us that included Kenneth were wandering through the narrow streets looking for somewhere to eat. It was late, there were about a dozen of us, restaurants were closing up. But, quite miraculously, we came to one where, immediately, we were ushered to an upstairs room with a large table which seemed to have exactly the right number of seats for us. Supper was brought. It was delicious. The atmosphere, too, was just as you’d want it. Outside on the street below, a small band was playing gypsy music.

After dinner, some of us cheekily began urging Kenneth to go to the window and sing to the musicians and people below. He appeared to take no notice at all of our urging (this was his style) until, suddenly, he got up from the table, went and opened the window and sang out into the night. It doesn’t matter now what he sang, only that all of us in our group were utterly amazed and delighted. The power of his voice, the way it rang out, the chutzpah. And all of us, I know it, were imagining what it must be like to be down on the street hearing this voice from above.

Later, we met up with other members of the Chorale who told us they’d been walking through Prague’s narrow streets when, suddenly, they’d heard a song ringing out through the night. ‘That’s Kenneth!’ one of the group (herself a professional singer) had said. ‘That’s Kenneth singing!’

In all the talk about Kenneth last Saturday, the story about the Chorale’s evening in Prague was one of the many that were told over the reception that followed the service. He was a much-loved man with a great, great gift.

P.S. The first photo is of Kenneth in his prime. The second is Kenneth with the London Welsh Chorale at the time I was a member.

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