The Voice as an Instrument
by Heather Forest
Although I weave original music into the tapestry of my telling, I am not a trained musician. I taught myself to play guitar in my early teens and sang folk ballads popular during the folk music revival of the sixties. In the early 1970's, my love for folk literature and an affinity for singing and composing melodies led me to start creating original ballads based on world tales. I have enjoyed the process of exploring the terrain of my voice. As a workshop leader, I try to encourage tellers to think of their voice as a unique instrument. Here are some thoughts on the subject:
As an instrument, the human speaking voice produces a wide variety of pitches, offers complex tonality, and has percussive capacity. By subtly shifting the pitch or rhythm of words in a sentence, a storyteller can dramatically change the communication and convey multilevel nuances. For example, try saying, "I said I would go" as if you are surprised, then, as if you are defiant, then, as if you are confessing a crime. As you speak, listen to your voice and notice how the "music" of the sentence changes. Say the same sentence five times and, each time, emphasize or rhythmically accent a different word. Listen to how the communication changes when the "music" is altered.
The same instrument, the vocal chords, produces the sound of both speaking and singing. These two tiny muscles allow us to whisper, speak, sing, and scream. I have always wondered why some people insist that they can whisper, speak and scream, but can't sing. Perhaps someone unfortunately traumatized them in youth by telling them to only mouth the words in chorus. It is true that we are not all opera singers, but it is not fair to deny anyone the pleasure of recognizing and appreciating all the tones and textures that can be produced by their own distinct voice.
If we redefine song as simply an intentional pattern of rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tonality, then spoken words can be described as having qualities similar to words that are sung. Singing, as we recognize it, is just one color on the wide spectrum of what the natural voice can do. I am not speaking here of opera singing, but of humming or simply expressing melody.
Moving from Speech to Song
It is an interesting exploration to vocally play with the subtle edge between speech and song. To create, for example, a melody for a line of spoken text in a story, first, carefully listen to yourself express the narrow range of actual pitches made when the line is expressively spoken. Move those pitches toward a slightly different, "smoother" tonality and use those "notes" to create the melody. Listen carefully to the rhythm of a sentence until you could actually clap the pattern. Merging the suggested melody and rhythm and then pushing them into the tonality of song is a short leap. By taking a small pitch step into melody, one need not take an unsteady giant leap into an operatic voice to consider oneself "singing" a passage. Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo said that he did not "make" the sculpture but rather "liberated it" from the stone. Often I feel that I am not composing a melody but rather finding the melody that is already suggested by the speech pattern. This is especially useful in finding simple melodies for repeated refrains in stories for very young listeners. A tune does not have to be complicated or have a wide pitch range. A song could have just one or two notes sung in a rhythm. Listen to birdsongs for inspiration!
Using Song in Story
When it serves the story, I enjoy weaving song in and out of spoken tales. I might move the story along by singing the narration. A musical theme or sound that represents a particular character might be heard whenever that character enters the tale. A song could be used as an introduction to the story, or it could be embedded in the tale as a repeated refrain for young children to sing along with. The song could happen after the story, as a comment or a closing.
Listening is the key to creating a pleasing tonality in both speech and song. Our own ear can shape the sound of our instrument. Ironically, one of the most powerful elements of vocal music is silence. It is the silence between the sounds that creates rhythmic pattern and emotional suspense. It is the silence in the form of a pause that creates effective comic timing. Listen to the silence as well as the sound.
Taking Care of Your Instrument
The vocal chords produce the voice. These two, very small muscles at the base of the throat vibrate and create sound when controlled breath passes through them. There is only a tiny space between the two chords. The smallest irritation and swelling of the surface of the vocal chords can cause the sound produced to change. If the sound you hear is slightly hoarse or raspy, then the vocal chords are slightly swollen. If no sound can be produced, i.e. you have laryngitis, then the vocal chords are so swollen that they cannot vibrate and thus produce no sound. The cure for laryngitis is total voice rest. Silence for a few days is a small price to pay for protecting an instrument that must last an artist a lifetime.
Sound reinforcement, or using a microphone when addressing a large group, is also a way to protect your instrument. Developing strong stomach muscles to support the sound is another protective tool. Jogging and singing at the same time is a challenging way to build breath control and stamina.
To improve your tone, listen to yourself as you speak and sing. Play with the pitches. Sing in the shower, in cars, and alone to the trees in the meadow. Exercise your vocal muscles. Have fun. Carefully observe the sounds you make to gain better control. The more delight you take in your own natural instrument and instinctive musicality, the more delight listeners will have in hearing you.
Copyright © 1997 Heather Forest
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