Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Lectors Might Learn from Good Storytellers

In combing through a stack of books today, I happened to come across these paragraphs in an essay on attributes needed by a good storyteller. Immediately I thought one could change the word "storyteller" to "lector," as in one who reads the Scriptures in church, with great benefit. I enjoy lectoring almost as much as I enjoy cantoring (to sing the Psalms in church), and I have been told I do it well. I completely attribute that to reading aloud to my children for hours on end over the last 13 years.

The text from which I quote is the 1947 edition of Children and Books by May Hill Arbuthnot, pages 242-243. I will edit out some sections that do not carry over to my purpose.


The successful [lector] must have two types of equipment for his art. First, he must possess those outward and visible evidences of fitness for the task -- good voice, clear diction, adequate vocabulary, and pleasant appearance. Second, he must achieve a certain elusive inner and spiritual grace made up of complete sincerity, delight in his [text], self-forgetfulness, and a respect for his audience and for his... art. The first equipment can be attained through patient practice. the second must grow from living and from loving both [Scripture] and people.

An agreeable voice and clear, pure diction are perhaps the first requisites for the [lector] to consider. Needless to say, there should not be a special voice reserved for [lectoring]... You should take stock of your own vocal equipment. Ask others to evaluate your voice honestly. Record it if possible, so that you can listen to it yourself. If your voice is nasal, harsh, or monotonous, try to improve it for everyday use to the point where it is agreeable and lovely for special use. Women tend to pitch their voices higher and shriller than they should. Try  your speaking voice at the piano and see where it falls in relation to middle C. Most of us can profitably pitch our everyday speaking voices a key or so lower than we have been doing, and both we and [those who hear us] will be more peaceful as a result. Go to the theater or turn on the radio, and deliberately listen to and compare voices. Be critical of oversweet voices of some radio personalities, both male and female. Try to discover the voices of Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Maurice Evans, and Paul Robeson so moving and satisfying. Put on Lynn Fotanne's recording of "The White Cliffs of Dover" and notice the range and variety in that high, sweet voice. Lessons with an expert in voice placement and production will help you, but by cultivating a listening ear you can do much for yourself.

A good voice is invariably supported by deep and controlled breathing. Breath must come from down in the diaphragm, not from the upper chest. Read aloud sustained passages from the Psalms or from Shakespeare. Put on Maurice Evans' recording of the lines from Richard II and read them with him.You can then tell when you run out of breath and he does not. Breathe deeper, and not only will you be able to sustain those long sonorous passages, but your voice will grow in richness and resonance. Shallow breathing makes thin, tired voices, which are apt to become shrill and sharp. Deep controlled breathing gives to the voice both a sense of support and increased range and color.

When you read Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX and phrase it correctly without running out of breath, then you have good breath control, which will make your voice grow in depth and power as you use it. Notice that this sonnet has only the final period and only two semicolons to break the sequential phrases. Try lines 2, 3, and 4 on one breath, and, of course, lines 11 and 12.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 

Now, after having huffed and puffed self-consciously as you worked for breath control, read the sonnet for enjoyment.

 Clear articulation of words is as essential as an agreeable voice. Of course, nothing is worse than an artificial, overprecise enunciation, except perhaps an attempt to imitate the speech of another district that is quite foreign to us. If we are New England, Southern, Midwestern, or Western, let's not try for Oxford English or any other accent unnatural to us. Instead, let's eradicate the impurities of our own particular region (every region has them), and try to speak the purest, most vigorous pattern of English that obtains in our section of the country. [Lectoring] is ruined if it sounds artificial or pretentious....


Even though little else carries directly over, I love how these thoughts of the section called "Living the Story" fit nicely:

"Of course, if you have not the emotional capacity to be deeply moved by these stories, then do not try to tell them, for there must be warmth and a loving appreciation for every word of a story if it is to reach an audience...

"To love a story in this way means that the teller has not only learned the story mechanically and lived with it for some time but  has learned it with her heart, brooding over it and fussing with the phraseology until words and voice convey precisely what she feels. She does not rattle through it merely to get the words but re-creates it imaginatively. She tells it slowly and thoughtfully to the darkness after she has gone to bed or she thinks it through, scene by scene, on the streetcar until finally it is her story. Such solitary telling is a process of disciplining herself until she can give an honest interpretation of the way the story makes her feel."

It's called prayer, of course. Meditation and rumination on Scripture in general is necessary so that when we proclaim it, we are proclaiming it as ours -- my own, and our shared experience and record of God's revelation. This type of proclamation draws the hearers in to claim the Word for themselves.

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