Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Questions of voice

It’s a good point to make: reading aloud well is a pleasurable art. And the point was made, and made well, in a recent blog comment from Meg in Australia. She added: ‘Making readers more aware of their voice and range of options, like those of an oral storyteller, has got to help young listeners understand and feel what it is to read “with expression.”’

So what is it about speaking aloud to others that freezes so many people? I’ve been thinking about the question a lot – and especially in relation to the book on storytelling and story-reading with early years children that I’ve just finished writing. The book is about helping people with both storytelling and story-reading. Inevitably one of the frequent problems it had to confront was that fear of using their voice that many people have. In the case of storytelling, it can be a fear people have of forgetting, a fear of being themselves, a fear of performance. In the case of story-reading, perhaps it’s also a failure to realise that, even when you’re putting across a story in a book, you have to put yourself into it.

I think I was lucky:

Maybe one of the basic problems is when people are not inculcated into the joys and pleasures of voice when they’re children. I think I was lucky. Growing up in Wales, we did a lot of singing and  part of the expectation was that we’d enjoy it. Growing up in Wales, we also recited. Poems, verses from the bible, speeches we’d put together, votes of thanks – speaking aloud was part of our school and social experience. A lot of it was competitive. It had to be because there were so many of those competitive occasions called eisteddfodau not only at school or in chapel but in the youth organisation called the Urdd.

So there I’d be, reciting not only in individual competitions but also in the competitions known as  Cyd-Adrodd. These are when children, young people or adults are speaking poetry together in a group. To prepare, you’d have lots of rehearsals, gradually achieving the art of matching your voices in expressiveness and pace and volume as the words of the poem required.

I loved it. This doesn’t mean there weren’t any nerves. Being seen and heard by others is almost inevitably nerve-wracking in one way or another. Yet in Wales it is taken for granted (still is for many) and I think it is great practice for dealing with things you might need to do later in life.

It’s not you you’re communicating:

Now I ask myself if all that practice was one reason that contributed to me becoming a storyteller. I think so. I think it was because early on I’d learned to love voice in all its potential for expressiveness and communication. I think, too, that I’d learned that it’s not you that you’re communicating, it’s the poem you’re trying to put across.

And that, I believe, is what happens with stories. You choose a story. You think about it. You want to share it with others and to do that, you have to use your voice. So it’s what you are communicating that (hopefully!) comes to the fore. If I hadn’t already learned that lesson fully as a child, I certainly had to learn it when I took piano lessons again as an adult. Already I’d learned quite a lot as a child.  But now the person who became my beloved piano teacher of me as an adult required me and his other pupils to play our pieces for each other.

Terror! All that self-consciousness and fear of mistakes that can so seize potential storytellers now happened to me. What alleviated it (but never entirely) was my piano teacher saying very firmly  that it wasn’t me that people would be listening to. It was the piece of music I’d be playing.

Voice, piano: it gives food for thought and especially because, whether it’s a story or a piece of music you’re offering, it should be offered with as much love and care for what you’re giving as when you’re offering a meal.

PS: Cue for photos of nice fresh things to eat.

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4 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Questions of voice”

  1. Meg Says:

    Thank you, Mary.
    I love your analogy – telling a story with as much love and care as if you’re offering a meal.

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Meg, Your comments always make me feel as if I’ve been given a lovely meal. Thanks so much. All the best, Mary

  3. Pam Says:

    Thank you Mary for this thought-provoking post. When my children were young I tried to read to them ‘with expression’ I suppose because I didn’t like people I heard reading without expression! The story I well remember reading aloud was about the Armadillo from Kipling’s Just So Stories, because we laughed so much. When I started my podcast (on my website), I enjoyed reading the fairy tales because of their beautiful language. More recently I have been focusing on telling, but I really think there is a place for both and I would like to try some public story-reading – as opposed to being recorded in a cupboard!

  4. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Hi Pam, do you know how enriching it is to get thought-provoking comments such as yours? Your wish to try some public story-reading made me think of Isak Dinesen, the Danish author who used to read her stories from the stage. In my life, I think public story-reading has got largely overwhelmed by the storytelling. But whenever I’ve had a chance to do it, I’ve loved it – and so, evidently, has the audience. Mind you, one piece I’ve read on several occasions is Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and where can you get anything more engaging than that? I definitely think you should come out of the cupboard. And I’m now, belatedly, going to look up your website. Best wishes, Mary.

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