My sons go squirrelly in summer, if they don't keep up a base level of learning. They discovered this about themselves about 3 years ago - after a particularly tragic week of wailing and teeth gnashing, my oldest turned to me and said, "Mommy, I think I'm like this because my brain isn't learning." Agreed. Had I come out and said this, I would have been met with ever-escalating denial. But personal realisation? Pure psychological gold.
Every summer since, I give them a week (early on) where there is nothing - NOTHING - planned. No chores, no camps, no playdates, no reading, no schoolwork, nada. After about two days of running wild and free, it begins...."Mom, he's bugging me"; "Mommy, I have no books" (HA to that); "Mom, can we do more tech?" (this is about 6 hours in, for kids who get a ration of no more than 45 daily); "Mommy, come play with me" (um, no? see that pile? mommy has work); "Mom, there's nothing to doooooooo" (insert stomping and whining); "Mommy, he won't do what I want to do"; "Mommy, we're boooorrrrreeeeddddd." Meanwhile, I'm biding my time (and trying not to drink), while they run the slack out on the rope.
By the end of the week, they're miserable. Surprisingly, I'm not - not after the first few years where the pattern emerged and I decided I could choose - go nuts or get sneaky. If you know me, you know I chose option b) 'get sneaky'.
Continuing in the vein of 'why do you think you feel like this?' self-reflection, I pose them the question....and they've come to recognise by this point that all of it is symptomatic of....drumroll please....'brains turning to mush and leaking out ears'. This is my actual diagnostic term that I use with them (and have since they were toddlers - happily, they were never traumatised by the somewhat zombie-esque imagery).
So, I inform them that 'school will start' next week. Now, 'summer school' in this joint is a gradual and ephemeral beast. This week, for their daily work, they've had 8 equations (which they do until they receive 100% - word to the wise, it's way quicker to get it right the first time ;-), a half-page of writing, group reading (this week is 'Treasure Island), some physical skill (this week, it's swimming), and some arts pursuit (this week, it's reading Shakespeare's tragedies (don't freak - these are the little kid versions!) and discussing what constitutes a tragedy and tragic hero. And yes, I AM that big a nerd. The point is, it's just enough to a) give the accountability and b) give them new ideas for Playmobilia and Legonia, their alternate play universes. For real.
That, plus I'm less likely to have a big transition when the new school year starts - less 'shock and awe' and more 'mildly startle and intrigue'. I like that.
If I had to pick one thing that students, big and old, desire the most in all of their work, it's to be funny. Funny poems, funny stories, funny scenes, funny public speaking topics, funny conversationalist.... In fact, I'd say that the second place - dark and possibly tragic - comes in a distant second. Like, no contest.
I love to laugh; I love to make people laugh; I love to teach people to make other people laugh. I'm no stand-up comedienne (the very thought makes my bowels liquify), but I do get it - I get the need for the rush, and the sheer power that comes from being able to have that effect on people. It's sweet.
But it also places a ridiculous amount of pressure on people who are learning to speak. Being funny is tough. It's equal parts timing, energy, knowing your audience, surprise, confidence, and expressiveness. It's a very elusive combination of elements that cannot be systematized or formulated.
Too many times, though, students will ONLY pick things that they find funny, equating humour with fun. They will avoid pieces or topics that are serious, contemplative, simple or just plain interesting. Why?
There's this moment - this moment where you feel the pulse of the humour. It's that millisecond between this word choice and that word choice, this upwards inflection and that downward inflection, this raised eyebrow and that knowing glance. And frankly, it's a very addictive substance.
When I'm working with students, and they sooooooo want to be funny, I often have to reign them in. Why? Because when we begin to emulate what we think is funny, we become painful to watch. It's the vocal equivalent of *jazz hands* - it's the overdone emphasis, the miming every would-be funny phrase, the excruciatingly long pause (for laughter that never comes), the rushed delivery because it's so darn funny to them, that it's even funnier when it's faster (trust me: it's not).
Being truly funny - and this is the crux of the matter - is about being yourself. And too many people think they have to be someone else in order to be funny. That's probably the most profound thing to learn.
To that end, picking pieces or topics that challenge you to, first and foremost, communicate as yourself, from a wellspring of deeper human feeling, grappling with ideas, words, and stories that ask more of you than timing - that's where the real art lies. Because in that place you will find the ability to connect with others, becoming more than you imagined you could be - the speaking and the person are truly connected.
Then, if we can manage THIS, we can move on to other - frankly, simpler - things. Like being funny.
This is a leap of faith, a wild jump into the unknown - if we take the mask off, become visible, take a risk, what happens? Isn't better to cross that road, before throwing humour into the mix? Humour feels scarier, but it's actually safer.
I wish I could lay claim to the above quote, but I can't. Those are the closing words of Erika Engelhaupt's 2006 NPR article . In it she discusses, albeit rather briefly, the idea that changing your voice can change your image. Research does seem to show that lower voices (in men) are deemed 'sexier', which ultimately means 'more appealing', and contrary to popular opinion, higher voices (in females) are not necessarily thought to be more attractive (for 'those of certain age', like me - think Victoria Jackson, and you'll get the idea). If anything, that higher pitch can be culturally associated with being less intelligent (though I don't think there's a direct correlation...or is there?? *wink*). It's even more entertaining to think of the example of David Beckham, the über-footballer: nice to look at, even aspire to, but then...then....he talks. And it's game-over.
Carmen Chai (http://globalnews.ca/news/910567/women-are-attracted-to-men-with-deep-voices-but-only-for-a-fling-study/) makes an interesting point around a McMasters Study on voices and attractiveness, vis-á-vis males: women can also register deep male voices with unfaithfulness. Sure, a fling is ok (we're thinking in terms of genetic-swapping here), but a long-term, raise the offspring arrangement, is less likely.
All of this, from your voice??
So, if your voice is power, your voice is perception (and you fully accept that while that perception may make you SEEM like a stud muffin, it will do nothing for your muffin top), then the real question becomes: how can I make the most of what I've got?
It comes down to one word: VARIETY.
Here, let's try an acronym:
OK, ok. So I just made that like up. It's a work in progress (no scooping it - it's copyrighted!), but I think you get the idea. Sure, we're gunning for voice that is easily and safely produced, from a body that is aligned and relaxed, with proper breath support. That's like the triumvirate of Spoken Arts voice work, undoubtedly. And it's an excellent starting point. But even if you manage to achieve this, you are still faced with the possibility that you are dead boring to listen to. Why?
Easy: because there is no difference. After a very short while, we become bored - high-pitched monotone or low-pitched monotone is still monotone, right? We NEED that variety to a) help us understand and b) stay engaged. It's not like we need vast changes regularly - we're not talking the Drop of Doom here - but we also aren't aiming for the Merry-Go-Round. A mid-size rollercoaster is more the idea.
Don't waste your time on Wiki-How's "12 steps to a deeper voice". That's not really the issue (ok, you may be pitched too high, but that's not the biggest issue, trust me). The issue is making the most of what you have, and making it desirable to your listeners. It's like fashion, only for your voice.
Last week, I watched my son's group Filmmaking summer camp final project, along with another twelve or so groups. These kids (ages about 7-13) were charged with writing and acting a script (or stop-motion filming figurines), editing, doing voice-overs and other 'tricks', like slo-mo), creating websites, credits, movie posters, etc., in anticipation of this red carpet event.
You know what struck me? The repetition of what these kids are seeing in mainstream movies. And do you know what they're seeing in mainstream movies? Fight sequences and action heroes. Or school-based popularity dramas. So all of their storytelling models - when asked to create their own - default to these depictions. And it doesn't make for very deep, entertaining, thought-provoking or - frankly - intelligent - stories.
Yes, yes, I get that they're kids. But that's actually my point: if what they're exposed to is primarily this type of filmic storytelling, then where is the opportunity for growth? Like my previous posts about how our brains react and connect with speaking and storytelling, and how storytelling is immersive in nature, my observations about these film projects also reflect this pattern. It's kind of like nutrition. Who doesn't like chocolate or chips or candy or ice cream or soda? BUT NOT FOR EVERY MEAL.
Film is a (potentially) VERY powerful medium for storytelling. I'm no purist here - interesting stories, well told, are welcome at my table any day of the week. The problem arises when what is served at the table is junk food, posing as a home-cooked meal. What these kids showed me (and what I guess I knew, anyways) is that kids are being fed junk food, so when they're asked to do the cooking, they make junk food, too.
There was one film, however, that really exploded paradigms, and it was by far the most enjoyable. Much like Monty Python did for sketch in the late 60s/early 70s, this group took what the norm was, spun it, flipped it, and then made fun of it. And it was brilliant.
My hope is that, having seen what can be done in peer-group filmic storytelling, these budding auteurs will re-imagine the possible in the future. But it also begs the question (and the responsibility) we have (as the would-be grown-ups) for exposing kids to diverse forms of storytelling on film - not everything is Marvel or Disney. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. Just like with printed stories, we should care about the images, themes, messages, and the like, that we expose our kids to.
I am far, far from telling anyone that film should be banned - I admire its storytelling capacity, and I encourage us to engage in storytelling in all its myriad forms. I would no more reject film than I would food, in a general sense. And I understand that film (and other story-forms) are potentially (and happily, in many cases) escapist. But are our kids escaping to the same place every time? Just a thought.
Think about this: all those stats about our overuse of media - TV, gaming, the internet - are presented to us as indicators of our laziness, our complacency, our obsession with all-things-Kardashian (or Game of Thrones, or World of Warcraft, or CNN political coverage, or, or, or...), right? But what if - WHAT IF - we were to reframe this, and see it rather more as our addiction to STORIES.
Most of us have heard the the tales of our ancestors sitting around the campfire, pioneers around candlelight, Victorians by gas lamp, all listening to (or telling) stories (and later reading) - ostensibly because there was nothing else to do at the end of a hard day of (typically) manual labour. Oh sure, a few games of cards might have been played, and even some needlepoint, but stories have long been were it's at. Elizabethans going to the Globe, lyres being carted by troubadours across the Continent, we are not new to story-obsession. The form of story conveyance might change, but the desire - one might even argue, the need - for stories has long been with us.
In this day and age, we frequently relegate the idea of stories and storytelling to children - bedtime stories, storybooks, going to watch a storyteller, these are all the province of children, right? Or is it more, as Jonathan Gottschall suggests in his 2014 TED talk, that we're handing over our deep and abiding need to tell and be told stories to others, primarily in the form of digitalized stories. He suggests we, as adults, don't ever grow out of our need for stories, don't ever really leave Neverland....we just migrate to the Provinces of Neverland (which may be Vine or Netflix, take your pick).
Like Uri Hassan discusses in his talk on neural entrainment (see my tweet on that, on the main page), our brains start to mirror the (effective) communications of others, but the research also shows that our neural reactions to stories show a pattern that is not spectator in form, but rather participant. It is like we're in the story with Harry, or Frodo, or (god forbid) Kim Kardashian (never thought you'd see all those names in one sentence together, did you?).
Gottschall furthers points out that research shows that consistent watching/participation in a story with a particular worldview moves us in the direction of that worldview. I haven't seen the research, but I'm willing to bet that this holds true no matter the medium, as long as the storytelling is good. The rest may feed our addiction for stories, but it never fulfils us as really good stories and storytellers do.
Gottschall has a moment when he speaks of "Storyteller * Wizard * Conductor", and I don't think I've ever heard a more apt description of a truly gifted storyteller. A storyteller wields enormous power - and historically, the only way to do so was with expressive hands, face and voice. While the modern incarnations of storyteller offer great promise (and power) to those that use them effectively, we also risk a great deal turning over the power of the storyteller to those that would abuse that power - and, frankly, abuse can be as basic as just really bad stories or storytelling (I'm sure you can name a few straight off the top of your head).
Further, if we, as Gottschall says, "helplessly need stories, in the best times and the worst times", hadn't we better make sure that we can tell the difference between the good and the bad - story and storyteller - alike?
After all, most of us were raised with the "Say No to Drugs" campaign "This is your brain on drugs" - what if we simply change it to "This is your brain...on stories."
I think a lot about what makes a compelling story. Why do people listen? Why do people engage? I know the science, sure (see my tweet on Uri Hassan's TED talk) - but how can something like Norway's NRK (basically, the Norwegian Broadcasting Service) multi-day LIVE broadcast of the Hurtigruten - Bergen to Kirkenes - journey (about 3000 km) along the Norwegian coast constitute engaging storytelling? If people are so enraptured (and they were), then perhaps "boring" is better.
But is that really what happened here? No, I don't think so. Sure, there wasn't a lot going on most of the time (it was a lot like taking the trip from your couch), but there was something deeply compelling about the footage - especially when you take into account the number of people watching (in-person and online) and those that took to social media about it. Those were fellow humans out there, and they - indeed, we - were a part of something that was bigger than us all. That is the first thing I thing makes it engaging, and memorable.
The second thing that makes this "slow tv" mode of storytelling particularly powerful is something that the producer, Thomas Hellum, refers only briefly to at the end of his TEDtalk. In his words:
So you have to let the viewers make the stories themselves, and I'll give you an example of that. This is from last summer, and as a TV producer, it's a nice picture, but now you can cut to the next one. But this is Slow TV, so you have to keep this picture until it really starts hurting your stomach, and then you keep it a little bit longer, and when you keep it that long, I'm sure some of you now have noticed the cow. Some of you have seen the flag. Some of you start wondering, is the farmer at home? Has he left? Is he watching the cow? And where is that cow going? So my point is, the longer you keep a picture like this,and we kept it for 10 minutes, you start making the stories in your own head.(http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_hellum_the_world_s_most_boring_television_and_why_it_s_hilariously_addictive/transcript - found at 16:39)
Inadvertently, then, this type of programming does EXACTLY what daydreaming or reading a good book does - it forces us to engage our minds, to become a part of the creation of the story, and in doing so, makes us into storytellers. We're not bored - we're participating. I like that.
Hello! My name is Donna, and I'm a home-educator (10+years) of two gifted boys (now grades 9/10 and 6/7). My PhD is in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning), and I'm a Certified Professional Coach (CPC). I own two companies - Raconteur Spoken Arts Studio and The Eloquence Equation (website being revamped as we speak!). Check out my 'About' page for more dirt! ~cheers~ donna
Raconteur Spoken Arts Studio. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.