"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

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Diversity in Storytelling: Bridge still to be Built

Storyteller Jon Spelman stated, "A lot of people do not get a chance to be heard or to tell their story." While presenting at the 2007 East Tennessee State University Storytelling Institutes, he urged us to be willing to listen to others and to build bridges with other groups.

The Bridge
Sometimes a rushing river of misunderstanding and fear divides racial, social, and religious groups so that nothing can be heard except for shouting stories of anger from one side of the shore to the other side of the shore. Rather than raising our voices with threats and hatred from the places we stand, we could build bridges through the stories we share so that we could meet halfway, look into each other's eyes, observe views on both sides of the river, and finally return home with a new perspective.

We may still hold the same views as when we first stood on the shores without a bridge, though this time we would remember that for every issue or thought there are people, neighbors, and friends involved. You can love people and still disagree with their views.

Perhaps you will hear my story and how being part of a minority group:
1. Influences Current Repertoire
2. Contributes to Repertoire Development
3. Determines Goals for Future Public Performances

As you read my answers, please reflect how these relate to your life and feel free to share them with me.

The following thoughts come at a time when I have been attacked verbally for who I am. My experience is extremely mild compared to what many of my friends have experienced in California where death threats and vandalism is rampant.

What minority group is victim to these hate crimes? Those who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also nicknamed Mormons or LDS.

Persecution is not new to those who are LDS. We have been driven from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah in 1847. The last few decades have been relatively peaceful as the LDS faith has become a worldwide religion with over 13 million and growing members and has contributed much in the way of humanitarian causes from the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia to dozens of hurricane rescue efforts in the United States including Hurricane Katrina to donating over 100,000 wheelchairs to developing nations to shipping 142,000 pounds of medical supplies to Myanmar and countless others.

Though the United States is a land known for freedom of religion, unfortunately this does not prevent hate crimes or people who are unwilling to listen so to understand.

I may have more boldness in my personality than those who find themselves as part of the majority. I was one out of a handful of LDS youth who attended my Wisconsin high school that consisted of over 2,000 students.

Ever since living in Utah where over 69% are LDS, it is strange to be considered part of the majority when most of my life I have been part of the minority. I do not have to explain or defend myself as much except for my online involvement as then I am conversing with people around the world.

I have been asked random questions, sometimes sincere and sometimes mocking, from middle school years to the present like "Do you have horns on your head?" or "Are you forbidden to dance?" or "How many husbands do you have?" The answers: No, No, and One.

Influences Current Repertoire
As a storyteller, I see my role as building the bridge of understanding so that others may see the other side of the shore if they so choose to listen to my stories.

Interestingly, the stories that would add most to building that bridge cannot be shared at one of the storyteller's traditional venues: public schools. Mentioning religion, particularly Christianity, seems taboo these days. This fact encourages me to approach other educational settings such as universities, libraries, and museums that are more tolerant. Diversity is often celebrated at these places.

Even among these more open venues, I am in a constant debate if some of my stories would be appropriate or welcome. One of my signature tales, "Shattered Grapes in One Row Too Many" (can be heard on left side of this blog), does not mention the LDS Church specifically though I do have lines like "It was announced over the pulpit one Sunday that volunteers were needed to help harvest the grapes in the vineyard. These grapes would be dried into over 250 tons of raisins to be shipped around the world for humanitarian causes."

Besides lines that reference my background, I merge many personal and original tales with portions of LDS hymns. Those who happen to be LDS in the audience will recognize them. Usually the hymns introduce comedy to the scene as in my story "Ere I Left" when, as a middle schooler who delivers newspapers, I encounter "the dog" and a song comes to mind that starts, "Ere you left your room this morning did you think to pray?"

At times songs mixed with stroies express views on the profound such as how to deal with the death of a loved one like when my cousin two years my senior died on my birthday while away from family at Girls' Camp. Two hymns "If You Could Hie To Kolob" (traditional or rock version found) and "How Great Thou Art" were sung with the other girls at camp in an attempt to comfort my grief.

Contributes to Repertoire Development
Two years so far I have performed at the Scandinavian Heritage Festival in Ephraim, UT. Perhaps a LDS connection would seem strange until one realizes that most of Ephraim's settlers were Scandinavian LDS pioneers. To fill four 30-minute slots of no-repeat stories, I needed to know at least three hours of folktales. Ever since this repertoire development most of my story sets, outside of this festival, include at least one Scandinavian tale due to the number of stories I know from this culture.

Then in 2006 the Cultural Arts department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent out a call for theatre, music, and visual art submissions that reflect different aspects of the church. Though storytelling was not a category listed, I determined this was a chance to introduce another art. You could say that storytelling is a minority art form.

The theatre category seemed best to pursue and rather than submitting a solo piece, I approached two other LDS storytellers, Suzanne Hudson and David Bullock, as well as two youth tellers to combine for the "Growing up Mormon" storytelling program. Part of the inspiration came from storyteller Ed Stivender as he is known for "Raised Catholic (Can You Tell?)", though he is not alone in creating those kinds of programs. Catholics, Methodists, Jews, and many other religions already have storytelling programs that express their lifestyles; people of all faiths enjoy these stories.

Though we did not become finalists with the "Growing up Mormon" program, it did open thoughts as to how my LDS background may become a more prevalent part to which I am known for in the storytelling world.

Many storytellers tell stories based on the Bible. As LDS storytellers also believe in the Bible, then these stories are possible to add to the repertoire. However, I am unaware of any stories based on the Book of Mormon that is out on the public storytelling circuit. Perhaps part of the reason is that whether or not someone is Christian, most people are aware of certain Bible stories about Noah, Moses, David and Goliath, and others. Yet, if someone is not LDS, then most likely the Book of Mormon stories with Nephi, Lehi, Ammon, and Alma the Younger are completely new. This may affect comedic, tragic, or dramatic moments if the audience receives the stories out of context.

A good storyteller could develop the stories so there would be understanding for the audience regardless of how much they know about the LDS faith.

At the annual 2006 Utah Storytelling Guild StoryFest, there was a discussion on why more LDS-related stories were not shared. It was not because there was a lack of time to develop the pieces nor in finding the venues. The most common answer: fear. More specifically: fear of sounding preachy; fear of how to delicately approach the stories in a respectful manner; fear of being blacklisted as a teller. No one voiced the following fear though I expect it was at the back of many minds: fear of being persecuted.

Other tellers who tell stories from other religious backgrounds may have these same fears, though they are strong enough to pursue the stage and letting the stories be heard.

Everyone at that StoryFest meeting agreed that more stories, that reflected our way of living, needed to be shared. Since that discussion I have not seen any results. There are many LDS storytellers inside and outside of Utah. In addition, the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, one of the most successful and largest storytelling events in the United States, is predominately organized and attended by LDS people. We are not as scarce as some people think in the storytelling community. We only tend remain quiet when there is the chance to accidentally offend others or cause people to be uncomfortable. . .except when a driving force moves us forward.

Determines Goals for Future Public Performances
So what motivates us enough to step onto the stage and share our stories? What motivates you?

In times of fear or uncertainty, I turn to others for support. My husband is my greatest support while I also have my mother, father, brother and sister to cheer me on. I even conducted a one-question survey with fellow East Tennessee State University classmates if they would like to hear stories that connect with the Book of Mormon or everyday living of a Latter-day Saint. The people I approached seemed eager to hear some of these types of stories though I did not feel ready to share any at that time. There was curiosity and the possibility of having more diversity on the stage.

Storyteller David Novak advised me that rather than have programs that focus purely on LDS stories, that it may be smoother to find stories from other cultures that incorporate our values mixed with one or two that are LDS.

This may have guided me in the structure of a narrative production that I will premiere on February 9, 2009 called "Family Famine: Hunger for Love". Though I expect portions of LDS songs may be included in the program as that is part of my style, the focus will be on multicultural tales outside of my tradition. Healthy family relationships can be found in all cultures. A country in chaos sometimes is thought to not have the same levels of love amongst family members. Usually the corruption lies mainly with leadership of the land rather than what is found in the home.

Throughout story development, I will contemplate upon "The Family: A Proclamation to the World", a document presented by the LDS Church in 1995. It is my source of inspiration for "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" and not something I plan to quote or distribute to those who attend the premiere or any future performances. That would be overbearing, inappropriate and harmful to me as a teller and would abuse storytelling as an art form.

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis warns of the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Any storytelling experience could be a spiritual experience no matter what faith is mentioned, if at all. Sometimes values expressed in everyday tales provide communion.

I hope to create a safe environment for my audience so they can trust that I will not push my views from the stage and that I allow them to take what they will from the performance. In fact, I expect the "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" to be such a program that even public schools would see no issues in having it presented to their students.

My LDS background will always influence, create, and develop repertoire that will reach the stage. The goal is that I will become fearless in presenting the stories that few have heard while creating a safe environment so that people realize that I love and respect all cultures and traditions.

Perhaps one day a LDS program will be as common as the other religion-based storytelling programs out there.

May we build the bridges from one group to another and be willing to step across the rushing river of misunderstanding and fear so to see from both sides.

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