The voice of a storyteller

By Limor Shiponi

“…once upon a time…” can you hear it even if no one speaks a word? Can you imagine those words’ effect like a tiny inner innocent shine joined by a sense of horror? I just love it. If I could live on listening to storytellers for my entire life, I would.

Sometimes the world gives you signs you can’t ignore. This is how I came to write this post.

Several months ago I stopped a series I started. It was about the nine main female figures populating Arthurian Legends, the Ladies of the Lake. I managed to perform the story about Igerna, the one about Guinevere but several days before I reached Morgana my inner voice said ‘no’. I cancelled the performance and didn’t return to perform those stories, yet.

I realized something happened to my voice, its full resonance and flexibility were harmed and I was tired. For a storyteller, this can be an alarming situation but somehow I knew it was right. Anyway, Morgana needed more of my voice than I could give and she was not in for a compromise. I wouldn’t dare to argue with Morgana unless we would meet face to face.

Later on I learned from two other storytellers this has happened to them too – life as it was crept into their vocal capacity to tell them they needed a rest. Then I had this interview (not the one I did with Brother Wolf) where the person interviewing me got to realize that I was saying something about the storyteller creating a place, a physical space for things to happen between reality and what most people would call imagination and that voice had a lot to do with it.

A short while ago Gregg Morris and I started a long conversation and we got there too – me claiming that

Storytellers in a way master the use of time through patterns and they express this “sculpturing” with their use of the vocal narrative.

And then Clare Murphy wrote a comment to my interview with Brother Wolf saying

Mastery is magic, as you say. The way in which an entire room full of people are simply held inside brilliant craft and mastery of presence allow for truly magical things to occur. I also think that this explains a lot about magic being referred to in old stories when a man or a woman can make a castle disappear etc…but that is another story.

“Brilliant craft and mastery of presence” can you hear that? “When a man or a woman can make a castle disappear…” my desire to write something about voice was already on the loose. Then another surprising sign arrived – three days ago someone popped into the Israeli storytelling web-forum saying he heard one storyteller called Limor Shiponi about a year and such ago and he wanted to know all about storytelling if possible (not knowing the same person he mentioned is the forum’s admin…)

By the way he phrased his questions I could tell he is a young person and I could hear the same sense of wonder I feel in front of this phenomena. He too mentioned the spellbinding power of the storyteller’s voice presence. So by now I was all ready to write but then yesterday… I went to visit my partner for what was supposed to be a romantic afternoon. When I got there the TV was on. I sat on the sofa and the screen magnetized me in seconds. I still managed to hear “I thought you would like this movie” and I was gone for the rest of the hour. “Inkheart” is a fantasy about a guy called Mo who has a “silver tongue” – he’s a really good reader and you won’t get more out of me about this movie. See it, nothing to lose but the idea is there.

So this morning writing the post became official. I opened a word document, wrote the headline, the first paragraph and then suddenly a tweet arrived from Shawn Callahan about a post by Sandra Baigel. See what I mean? Signs.

The voice of a storyteller and magic

The connection between the two feels obvious to us. Just go ‘abracadabra‘ and you’ll get it. Spells are casted with voice. You can use a fancy wand or a wavy hand gesture but voice always exists in the making. Kids see the connection clearly. When my eldest daughter was very young she used to come with me to concerts and someone asked her ‘what does your mommy do?’ she immediately replied ‘she waves her wand and a song comes out’.

Her answer is the perfect place to start going deeper into the issue of voice and magic although we have not defined magic. I think reading through the Wikipedia page including the dispute presented there is good enough, since in any case different people will have different opinions. Mine is closer to the thought that magic is mastery of skills to create a new phenomenon.

So what does mommy do with the conductor’s baton? She stirs movement. In this case, she stirs movement in a world full of patterned movement codes known to everyone who takes part in the act. She is just trying to stir it the way she wants it to be… according to her perception of the piece which again, is all about movement. Sound is movement, playing instruments is movement, breathing is movement, listening is movement too (not the same as hearing).

The skill of the person who holds the baton is to bring everything together to the same place in such accuracy and spirit that the music will leave the page and live as a being. It’s not the same as listening to a recording – something about the live real-time act requires even closer attention since so many parameters are in a dynamic state including the audience. It’s also not only about accuracy – there needs to be some breath in there, new movement kindling the flame.

When this happens – and it doesn’t always happen – you can feel it. Suddenly a new substance appears like in those stories where you have a “wooosh” going through the room and disappearing. Something does that and it’s not the accumulation of forces, its synergy. Something lives.

I remember a concert where I could feel the build-up to this moment of take-off and when it happened I saw the orchestra’s leading player looking up into the air above – as if he was sure he would see something. When he saw I noticed that look, he smiled – we both knew what he was looking for. Just to make sure I asked him later and he approved that he had the feeling something was there, he was sure is was something he could see if he just looked a split second earlier. That’s magic.

I’d be surprised if no other storyteller would think the same, if no other storyteller had this experience ever. Some say they can suddenly hear the story from outside themselves like an outer body experience. Some say they can suddenly feel they are pushing substance with their voice. I’ve heard a variety of expressions, not always understood by those who told them, describing the same thing – there is something there, a living substance, something a storyteller can mould and move around.

Maybe that’s why they say you should be careful using spells – they have power and should not be used without intention or by a person who is unaware of what might become. It is not for nothing that Kabbalah is not meant to be studied under a certain age or by anyone, if you are willing to put aside the thought that this prohibition presents a patriarchal attempt to hold on to power while depriving others from it. Although you can study Kabbalah freely today I’m not sure they will teach you how to create the Golem of Prague.

The voice of a storyteller and false magic

False magic is like buying a fairy made of porcelain – it’s sweet, it can elicit some magical thought and feelings but it’s just not the real thing. Real magic is about commitment and can be very frightening at times – even for the storyteller. It’s a strong experience that unveils and skins anything which is not really committed to the bone and leaves you with who you really are, a story to tell and a person waiting to be your partner in telling – the listener.

False magic can be easily heard in storytelling – when the voice is not charged by the effect of an event in the story but comes from somewhere else – narcissistic observance of your own lovely voice, dramatic whispers and ‘magical’ aspiration, eyeballs jumping out of your face with the desire to communicate creating at the same time an over friendly smile and a really stupid sound – to name just a few. On the other side of the scale you’ll find what I call the ‘convenience mask voice’ with a dash of cynicism, worn so elegantly by professional speakers and professionals in the work-place. That’s false magic.

The voice of a storyteller – how to start creating movement

I would start with awareness. Our daily lives often take us  away from knowing our voice and what it can really do. Voice is made out a lot of elements so don’t be surprised if not all the exercises you’ll find here are about sound alone. You are welcome to share some voice ideas of your own.

To real magic…

5 thoughts on “The voice of a storyteller”

  1. Clare Muireann Murphy

    Dearest Limor

    Your words brighten up this rainy Irish afternoon. I must expand on the theory a little.

    We speak about the intangible magic that occurs when the teller “bring[s] everything together to the same place in such accuracy and spirit that the music will leave the page and live as a being”.

    Magic is a word that is frequently thrown about. Used so often in movies and everyday speak. In Ireland we even use it as a compliment “You’re magic” or “it was magic” if we think someone or something is brilliant. (this says something interesting about our culture but I’ll try to stay on tack here)

    The idea of mastery and magic tied together makes perfect sense to me. The stories of the Tuatha de Danann, the ancient godlike race of people that rule our mythology are filled with different kinds of magic. A magic I didn’t really understand until I began my journey with stories. They can shapeshift, control weather, cast spells, curses people, curse the land, ride the air, weave war into the hearts of men, steal away someone else’s love, trick people into seeing fires and monsters, and so on.

    Upon first reading you might shrug and say, ah what a good story. But it tumbled in my brain, these skills. Because as we all know at the centre of every story there is some form of truth. so where oh where are these ideas stemming from?

    If someone was versed enough in knowledge of nature, how to read moss, follow the behaviour of animals, read the language of the birds and the way flowers blossom late or early, they would be able to predict weather, the coming of a bad winter, a glorious summer or unexpected ice. To the untrained eye this would appear to be magic. With me so far?
    Dig deeper.

    Haven’t we all experienced that feeling when in the presence of a great musician, the music leaps into our blood, fills our minds with images and moves us to cry, or laugh, or sing or grow angry? (Moonlight Sonata, War chants, tribal songs for unity etc) The power of music to bewitch us is evident, there is a whole science exploding behind it (ethnomusicology I believe). This explains how these ancient beings could make a whole court go from leaping to crying to fighting to dancing in the space of one evening. Mastery of music.

    Still with me?
    Now to the mastery of the word.
    Where magic can move mountains.
    One of the great gifts in Irish is called the Gift of the Tongue (I must find the actual phrase in Irish), it is one of three gifts you can possess. To truly have this gift means you have the power of the tongue to change the minds of men, to shapeshift, to cajole, to woo, to climb inside the minds of the listener and paint a new canvas.

    (with this mastery comes great responsibility of course, but that is another conversation)

    So mastery of the tongue, the master tellers they live this magic on stage. They dance among the epics, they embody the myths and the listener undergoes a transformation. That perhaps is the simplest explanation of knowing something magic has entered the room. We are transformed. The teller, the audience; transformed. The mastery comes from living in the word and with the story inside you, and as you say bringing all these elements together in a singular space, a moment.

    But the magic that is manifested has the power to transform reality, to make rooms disappear, to make castles unfold inside libraries, to turn the teller into a wolf or a one eyed monster, to convince someone to love another…it goes on and on.

    So my point, if I managed to make it, is that these magics that seem like something out of fairy tales can be viewed as real when one takes into account this type of magic…mastery and magic.

    I look forward to hearing more!

    in word and deed
    Clare Muireann Murphy

    1. What an amazing comment to have on my blog. Really, this is storyteller’s language. I’m with you all the time Clare, everything you wrote is totally sensible and charming to me, without doubt. Doubt has no place in magic if… and here comes another thought, important to look at. I promise to go back to magic soon, but first I want to try something. I’m going to initiate another post and see what happens, then I’ll come back here and continue. The next post might surprise you in an awkward way and if it feels uncomfortable I lay my plea for forgiveness in advance.

      Coming to Beyond the Border?

  2. Pingback: Storytelling To Persuade Your Affluent Client-business

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