"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tales & Tunes: Notes on Music's Power in Storytelling

Thanks goes to Joanna Huffaker, group discussion leader, as well as to the Utah Storytelling Guild Olympus Chapter members for granting permission of the use of their comments/picture from the November 12, 2008 guild meeting. (In the picture, from back row to front and then left to right: Joe Heywood, Suzanne Hudson, Brian J. Fetzer, Nick Allen, Jamie Allen, Joanna Huffaker, Sharee Hughes, Rachel Hedman, Carol Esterreicher, Janine Nishiguchi, and Julie Barnson. Not pictured: Jan C. Smith.)

Long after a story is shared, the music within may linger in the mind. Whether we hum a tune, sing some words, or revel in silence, each of these ways has the possibility to connect us to the message and the mood of the story.

Joanna Huffaker presented questions to the Utah Storytelling Guild Olympus Chapter members and facilitated the following discussion--

Two Main Questions:

1. How can music enhance storytelling?

2. How can music distract from storytelling?

How can music enhance storytelling?

  • Grabs attention of audience
  • Sets mood for one story or for the whole program
  • Frames story at beginning, middle and end
  • Becomes the story itself

Grabs attention of audience—

Several storytellers start their sets with songs. For Ed Stivender, this is a way for the audience and him, who both are strangers to each other in the beginning, to become friends. Participating together as a group through song has a way of uniting hearts. Once pronounced friends, it is easier to keep attention throughout the rest of the program.

Sets mood for one story or for the whole program—

Without words, music can take someone by surprise and experience an array of emotions. Jamie Allen said, “Music communicates on emotional and spiritual levels. Music reaches in a way you couldn’t otherwise.”

Part of music’s gift is of comic relief. Joanna Huffaker remembered when storytellers have used a guitar for silly sound effects or to relieve some children’s fears by having monsters do the “Hokey Pokey”.

Tellers have their way to amplify the mood. Julie Barnson has told ghost stories by first singing a spooky song in the minor chord so that the audience would be prepared to hear the story behind the song. Since Jamie Allen is a mime, he carefully chooses the background music so as to reflect his intended theme.

Frames story at beginning, middle and end—

Whether for a story or for a whole program, I have used songs to act as “bookends” so that it signals to the audience that we are either starting or ending. When the audience hears the song for a second, third, or more time, then sometimes they feel inspired to join in or at least to reflect on the words of the song.

Even if the words are not remembered, the mood or message could be remembered. Joanna Huffaker and Brian J. Fetzer both thought to the musical magic within “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev where each animal or character had a certain theme upon entering the scene. Fetzer remarked, “Music can set the stage for the whole show.”

Becomes the story itself—

Bill Harley and Heather Forest are well known for creating songs where there is little to no narration and yet the story is so engaging that the audience can recall the words weeks, months, or even years later. Songs in story format are easier for our brains than purely poetic structures. Even Disney’s Fantasia has found success in this process.

At one time, Brian J. Fetzer had a song called “My Own Backyard”. Some fans requested that the song be transformed into a children's book. Fetzer is in process of having the song in manuscript form with some mock-up illustrations. Fetzer reflected, “Music can be the story. Music is a language.”

How can music distract from storytelling?

  • Plays too heavy in foreground
  • Takes away suspense of story
  • Positions and re-positions of musical instruments
  • Diminishes the story in theme or essence

Plays too heavy in foreground—

Joanna Huffaker enjoys watching “The Lord of the Ring” movies, though she noticed that the second and third film is so heavy with emotions and pounding with the musical score that she has a harder time concentrating on the storyline.

Brian J. Fetzer agreed that a tract could overload our minds and that the sounds should be planned so to avoid such interfering noise. He said, “Sometimes we think music must be quite loud when it could be quite soft and have more impact.” Usually, when Fetzer records sound effects, he must reduce it to 17% of the original level so the voice could be more forward for the listeners. He suggested, “The voice, with a few composed pieces, could offer a setting to the story.”

Takes away suspense of story—

A storyteller knows how to use dramatic pauses, and sometimes, as Sharee Hughes shared, “music can take away from the suspense.” At the same time, if there is too much of a pause where it becomes awkward, then it may be a sign that the story was not practiced enough. More than five or six seconds tends to be a “long” time. Brian J. Fetzer said, “Unless it’s a dramatic pause, then it would be considered a ‘technical malfunction’.”

When Julie Barnson and her family watched a certain movie, the music and sound was so harsh that Julie exclaimed, “We had to turn the sound off and watch the movie that way!” Brian agreed, “The ear is extremely sensitive. If you rub your fingers together by your ears, then you pick up the sounds.”

With all the talk of sounds, Jamie Allen reminded, “Silence is also music.” He continued, “We respond to rhythms and beats. The way we speak is to rhythms and beats. The way we move is to rhythms and beats.” Then the audience watches the movements, gestures, and facial expressions. Allen stated that the goal is for “the audience puts in their own music and beat.” With Allen’s professional training as a mime, silence takes even more importance than the average storyteller.

Positions and re-positions of musical instruments—

There was a time when Suzanne Hudson watched another storyteller take on and off their guitar throughout the program and even within the course of telling one story. It got to the point that Suzanne Hudson wanted to cry, “Leave the guitar alone!” She does not remember the stories told to this day.

For this reason, Julie Barnson is worried that she would be that kind of storyteller taking her guitar on and off. She avoids it by not bringing her guitar to storytelling engagements. To overcome Julie’s fear, the members of the Olympus Chapter agreed that observing Bill Harley or Heather Forest would teach some tricks. For example, Jan Smith noticed that Heather Forest sometimes shifts the guitar strap so that the instrument hangs towards her back when focusing on the narration rather than taking the instrument completely off.

Diminishes the story in theme or essence—

“Some storytellers have zeal and want to put music in, to force it,” said Carol Esterreicher. She saw it as an “intrusion” that could lead to something inappropriate. Joe Heywood remembered reading Doug Lipman’s book “Improving Your Storytelling” and learning about the “Most Important Thing” and everything should support it in some way rather than having other themes or sounds interfere.

Fiddler on the Roof", the first play that Jamie Allen acted in, was by accident as the director watched as Jamie danced about with feeling. Though Jamie did not know how to play the fiddle, he learned. So whenever he watches “Fiddler on the Roof”, he pays special attention to whoever is cast as the fiddler, the one who symbolizes tradition.

In spring of 2008, Jamie Allen watched one particular showing of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. He deemed it “the worst play I ever saw.” The fiddler concentrated so hard on playing that he did not make eye contact nor did he dance with Tevye, the main character. Jamie warned, “When you lose yourself in the music, you can lose the whole story.”

Jamie did not have the perfect skill at playing the fiddle, though he had the emotions that were necessary to connect with the audience. To this, Carol Esterreicher stated that she was thankful that to have music within storytelling, that it was not necessary to be a good singer. Janine Nishiguchi pointed out that sometimes people can chat or “talk” the music as Rex Harrison did in the musical “My Fair Lady”.

As you ponder the amount of music to use within your stories, keep in mind that you do not have to be perfect. Being connected to your story and to your audience is the goal.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former Co-Chair and Current Member of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller

1 comment:

TV Mc Arthur said...

Jamie makes a good point that the spirit and enthusiasm behind the music can be important than the skill and artistry.

Another point is that changes in music can bring new layers to a story. I am currently working on a Russianized version of Pete Seeger's "Abiyoyo." After seeing Godfrey Coppinger perform the story with a Native American drum and a Plains-style chant, I realized that the story does not have to be frozen into one form. The little boy in my version has a balalaika (a triangular Russian lute) and plays the "Song of the Volga Boatmen" (A-bi-Yooo-yo--HUH!)
It's a simple tune that I can play, and that makes the story more usable to me.
Keep telling the good ones!
Terrance V. Mc Arthur