Watching Peggy Seeger’s singing, I hear the voice of the many older women who I am lucky to have in my life. I have been running creative writing workshops for Davenham Theatre and through Stitch. It really strikes me that the majority of participants are women who are over the age of 55. These workshops are open to anyone to come and yet we see these women loyally attend. They are grateful and positive and tell me that they get so much from the sessions.
But here is something that I think these women would struggle to accept from me. They have amazing insight, they care so deeply about the world they inhabit and their stories are beautifully compelling. It is a gift to spend a couple of hours with these women and listen to their thoughts. I have this amazing tribe that are now my friends.
One of the challenges that many writers face is the fear that anyone will find their work interesting or relevant, it is certainly something I feel at times. However this feeling is rife in this community of women and I think when you listen to Peggy Seeger singing, you can understand why.
My own mum told me that as she has got older, her visibility has dropped. That people pass her by without even seeing her. During the Covid Pandemic, we have all been locked away from each other, unable to meet up in public spaces. Those shielding even more so. We have collectively lost sight of many who are not in our immediate circles. The Invisible turned into memory.
As we emerge from this lockdown and Britain reopens its doors, let’s make sure we have room for everyone at the table. If you are an older woman who is feeling invisible, please tell your story. We need the grandmother’s wisdom now more than ever. If you are not an older woman, pull up a seat and look at ways to ask and listen. Let their stories inspire your story. You’ll feel richer as a result.
Taking down evil in storytelling is quite often presented as an individualistic action. A hero will defeat a villain. These characters are binary. The hero is good and the villain is bad. This narrative has been served up to us time and time and time again. Even when we get told stories about a group of people battling another, this is quite often reduced down to leaders.
However banishing the monsters of this world is a collective effort. For so long, we have been living in a story of a pyramid. We have been consumed by the notion of the ‘One’.
The one who rules us. The one who stole our heart. The one who cast dark magic. The one that got away with it. The one that saves us. The one that had roast beef. The one that had none.
It is an isolating view of the world and it stops us diversifying what we know, who we know and how we learn. It comes with an enormous pressure. For those that are the one and for those who are not.
When we look at the moments when there was a pivot in society, we would see that those moments are built on ‘We’ and ‘Us’. Not ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter. These were built by grass root collectives.
Good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Martin Luther King Jnr
So let’s start telling stories where people come together to ask for a better life. Let’s hear stories which aren’t about ‘the one’ but are about ‘Us’. We will discover other ideas and other people and we may even find ourselves sat in their stories in ways that surprise and delight us.
This afternoon, I entered into a Zoom meeting with composer and musician Tayo Akinbode, hosted by Z-Arts. Being a storyteller, can be a lonely process and we are living in a lonely time, so it was great to hear about how Tayo creates music to tell a story.
One of the thoughts that regularly swills around my head is around the difference and similarities between working with children or adults. It’s a question I get asked regularly moving between these different groups that I work with. It leaves me a bit stumped as other then a slight modification of language, there is no difference. Children laugh and so do adults. Adults struggle crossing the creative threshold and so do children. Both children and adults want to hear and tell stories. So it is a relief to hear someone as experienced as Tayo say ‘I wouldn’t dumb down music for children.’
I have finished writing the story of my family ancestors. A project I was inspired to start after working with Emily O’Shea company, On The Border. I am now in the process of editing the story into an audio experience and it is a relief to be piecing the story together. The writing process has been difficult. The vision I sat down with was to create a piece of audio storytelling about my great-grandparents. They were performers at the turn on the 20th century who went on to manage some of the first variety cinema’s in the country (a mixture between Music Hall and Cinema). Before I sat down to research, this part of my family had mythical qualities. I wanted to use Music Hall numbers in order to help tell their story. I wanted this to be a piece for family audiences. Something that could be enjoyed with everyone – an intergenerational activity. That you could listen at a distance together with your elderly granny who is shielding and your 8 year old nephew who is home schooling. That it would open up conversations about family stories in a way that I could not have with my own grandparents. I was going to use this idea to develop my creative practice, to experiment and play.
But the doubts creep in. Will children get this? Is the music too bawdy? Am I just inventing truths that I cannot find? Is this material appropriate for family audiences? Nothing kills playtime like doubt and nothing makes experimentation more pointless then isolation. So thanks to Z-Arts for providing connection and thanks to Tayo for grounding me and reminding me that children are no different from the rest of us, which in my wobbly, lonely, creative moments I forget.
I grew up in Reading and we had family down in Bath. When we drove down to see them in Bath, my Dad would play Peter Gabriel’s albums. We loved the track, Solsbury Hill. We used to drive past Solsbury Hill on the route to see our family. We used to climb up it (when you could). We loved that song. We’d ask for more Peter Gabriel. We’d listen Red Rain, Don’t Give Up and Games without Frontiers. We did not hear the loaded political meaning in these songs. We didn’t here the meanings that I as an adult now hear. Tayo told us today ‘Children like Music.’ Its a simple statement, but it is an easy one to make. No matter how much I see my children request Michael Jackson (their Dad’s favourite) or sing along to Fleetwood Mac (Rumours is my go to Album), in my artistic process my lived knowledge gets crowded out by my doubts over how to execute an idea. I managed to create children into something ‘other.’
That is why I love working creatively with children. They remind me that we are all not that different from each other. I’m looking forward to Z- Arts opening their doors again so I can be reminded of this by the real child experts, the children themselves. Until then, I will keep going. Clumsily put one foot in front of the other.
After all music is music to be made, all stories are stories waiting to be told and all humans are humans waiting to be heard, no matter their size.
This project am I am working on has bee made possible by funding from the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund. The funding has allowed me time to develop my skills, conduct research and connect to other artists. My thanks go to Z-Arts for providing free access to these conversations and understanding that these conversations are needed.
This time, more then ever we need stories. Many famous and more intelligent thinkers and writers than me say that after shelter, food and air we need stories. We need stories to listen to and we need stories to tell. But after numerous conversations with friends, peers, fellow artists and family I see a similar trait in behaviour and it’s linked to the way we tell stories.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
― Philip Pullman
‘I know how lucky I am compared to others…’ is a mantra that is rolled off the tongue repeatedly. I hear it so often, as often as tales begin with “Once upon a time…”. However where “Once upon a time” leads to a story, “I know how lucky I am compared to others” is the completion of a story that hasn’t even been uttered. Now don’t get me wrong, of course we are lucky compared to others and during this difficult time, we need to count our good fortunes and appreciate what we do have. Gratitude is important. Good fortune can keep us healthy and secure. There are plenty of tales of characters losing everything through a lack of appreciation – like this one.
“I know how lucky I am” has become a sneaky silencer of our conflicts and our stories. But it doesn’t need to be. Your stories matter. Hearing the stories of our friends, colleagues and family (the good, the bad and the ugly) will combat the other dominant force in our lives currently – Loneliness. By denying the stories that you need to tell, you are denying your humanity. Many of us would be horrified to find out that we had been silencing the voice of others, and yet we think nothing of silencing ourselves.
I am currently, furiously, painfully trying to tell the story of my great grandparents. They died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. This has involved a lot of connecting dots through research using ancestry websites and it has been a background project for about 8 months. I have discovered so many wonderful things about them, things that none of us knew. But I have to guess at what they think and feel.
I would have loved to have found letters and diary entries that they had written, I would have loved to have stories told down through time, so much so that the way the stories were told is a story in themselves. But I do not. For many reasons this is not available.
So I want you to imagine, that 100 years from now, your great grandchild is trying to understand how you felt about the time you live in. What would you want them to know? And if you’re not sure where to begin, what questions would you ask your ancestors who lived 100 years ago?
You could write these questions down and you could answer for your time. You could or you could not. Or you could tell your story to the audience that you currently have, the audience who are invested in you now. Your friends, your colleagues, your family.
So instead of using “I know how lucky I am compared with others”, try “Today, I felt…” because we want to, need to hear your stories, even if your voice shakes.
I have been thinking over this last month about listening. It goes without saying that if we all want to have greater connection to the world around us, we have to be attentive listeners. I have previously blogged about the things you can do with your body to help you listen more comfortably. I am aware that we all understand that we should be better listeners, but its easy to forget about that when Facebook prompts us with ‘What’s on your mind?’ or Twitter’s decision to double the number of characters late last year. We are told to tell all, but are we listening?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of a single story in her powerful TED talk. We have to challenge that one story we know about a certain person or country. This single story limits us and stops us listening. At the extreme, this is what the far-right have always used to justify actions of hate and discrimination. However, at the milder end, we are all missing out on opening our minds to the people and possibilities that surround us.
I am currently reading Keith Johnstone’s ‘Improv for Storytellers’. He writes that instead of telling his students to be ‘Good Listeners’, he encourages them to ‘Be altered by what was said.’ I can’t think of a more apt way for explaining the effect that listening should have on us. So whether we are trying to tune into a conversation in a board room, our children telling us about their day or trying to listen to ourselves with greater integrity, all these moments could lead to alterations about the way we perceive the world. It’s time to let our minds be changed, influenced, informed or moved by what we hear in the world around us.
Little Red Riding is a shocking tale. It’s more than the simplified children’s tale of doing what your told (Sticking to the path) and not talking to strangers (the Big, Bad Wolf). We think of all of the Grimm tales and their counterparts as being for children.
The original name of the Collection was Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales.) We as modern audience focus on the side of the tales that are for children, but what about the ‘Household’ part of the collection?
When I get asked, as a Storyteller, what content I would perform for adults, I see a lot of nose wrinkling when I say traditional tales like you would find within the collections of Grimm Brother’s, Charles Perrault, Giambattista Basile.
Many of these collectors and writers including Hans Christians Anderson, had not purposely written or recorded their work for audiences made up solely of children. If you read the Juniper Tree from Brother’s Grimm, you are faced with a tale of murder, deceit, cannibalism and children being horribly manipulated alongside a magic tree, a bartering bird, and a little girl. These traditional tales can be (and should be) adjusted to the audience that are listening to them. Often though the tales are heavily diluted into sweet bedtime tales and a patronising delivery of “And the moral of the story is….”
Storytelling is a gateway into literacy (more on this is another blog), if we cheapen the tales in this way, it is no wonder no one can be bothered to sit down and orally share tales. We all love telling anecdotes, we are all storytellers, so why not take these tales and use them as a tool to unpick our modern life.
Cinderella is a tale of slavery. Worldwide, it’s estimated that there are 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking. Beauty and the Beast a tale of imprisoning a young woman. The Beast can be found in the likes of Ariel Castro and Josef Fritzl. The Elves and the shoemaker tells a story if helping those most in need. We need these stories to help us connect into the world we live in.
These stories could be serving as much now, as when they were originally bought into the public consciousness, as they have throughout the whole history of humankind.
I stumbled across the above quote, and it resonates incredibly powerfully. Early on this summer I completed a course called The Performer’s Playgroundwith ClownLab. It was a 12 week exploration of playfulness. We had a lot of conversation about finding the joy or the fun in something and enjoying being beautiful even if we were playing something ugly. How do we create fun or channel playfulness?
On reflection, I think the things that inhibit me are the parameters that I have either set myself or the the ones that I have allowed others to set for me – ‘the table of do’s and don’ts‘ as Pullman calls it. There are a list of things I can do and a list of things I can’t do. I wrote a while back about Growth Mindset, the idea that through a shift in personal attitude can alter our potential. How do we know that our personal attitude needs to shift? How do we believe that our potential is unlimited?
Neil Gaiman wrote in Coraline “Fairy tales are more then true; Not because they tell us the Dragons exist, but because they tell us that Dragons can be beaten”.
Stories allow us to see that we can do, or be anything. Some of our favourite characters in our most loved tales and stories have the hardest start; they are orphans. Harry Potter to Cinderella; Superman to Peter Pan; Mowgli to Sophie in the BFG. Their world has been disrupted in a way that no one would want for a child. Yet, these characters go on amazing adventures, and overcome huge obstacles and show a resourcefulness and resilience to find their way through. Peter Pan has no ‘list of right or wrongs’ just a love of play and make believe. His game playing allows him survive and outwit his enemies.
The art of oral storytelling transcends age, ethnicity, education, borders and gender whilst also recording and reflecting our difference in those things. This kind of storytelling is a shared act between teller and listener. Jane B. Wilson tells us in her book The Story Experience, “Those who tell tales are both speakers and listeners. They have heard and remember”.
We are all storytellers and we are all listeners, if we allow ourselves the possibility to listen. We can all believe that we can do more, be more then we think we are. If we see others have defeated the bad guys, maybe we can too.
“The listener is caught and whirled into a talk, living for a single moment in the good, the great, the naughty, the lost. The tellers voice awakes dreams and spins stuff for thought; incites to contemplation.”
Sound is a wonderful thing. It fills me up, takes me away, gets my body moving and connects me to others. The spoken voice has the same effect and I love the act of sharing sound. It could stories about your Granny, songs for you children, sounds as you try to loosen your voice and set it free. It could be the first dance at your wedding, the way that you mother said your name when you were caught doing something you shouldn’t or the way that a whole room will start dancing to Whigfield’s Saturday Night.
It could be on the words from your midwife saying ‘it’s a girl!’ or the sound your child makes when saying hello, like a sample it sticks in your head on loop. Sound can be the turn of the key in a lock, in an egnition, in a front door. It could be the smashing of glass, the churning of the washing machine. It could be sssshhs and aaaahhss and ohs and ows and wows. Sound whether I hear it or make it, I feel its vibrations deep in my stomach warming up my body and trickling through me like an outstanding chocolate soufflé.
Sound can swamp us, divide us and conquer us. It can leave us alone and aching for noise to filter through our ears. It can build us up, reach out to love ones and strangers and alert others to dangers. It can be comfort. The sound of the oven timer, bread being lifted out of the oven and turned out onto a cooling rack.
Sound can be the voice of someone telling others what is right and wrong, who is right or wrong or where is right is wrong. Sound can be the sound of water lapping on the side of a rubber dingy as you make your way to a new life. Sound can be the shuffle of papers as you wait nervously for someone to tell you you are allowed to stay. It can be the call to arms, the call to hate, the call of love and propaganda and bird song and waterfalls and the purr of you cat. It can be the slam on your brakes, letting that pheasant quickly escape. Sound can be, can be, can be….
The sounds we make and hear have specific memories attached to them. Some of my clients and quite often surprised by the emotional challenges that voice work brings to the surface. I’m not a counsellor, but I am a willing listener and an open ear. I have to be to be a good teacher. Whether you come in the door, looking for accent reduction, better breath support or increased authenticity in the way you speak, a safe and open environment will greet you. Something which is vital for the vulnerability that is often exposed in the lessons.
Today is a new day and we don’t know what sounds await in the future. If you write, keep writing. If you sing, keep singing. Keep dancing, creating and sharing. It can feel so unbelievably futile but it is where we can be vulnerable and share our thoughts. Keep practicing vulnerability and trust that the sounds that come with that as just as valuable and beautiful as anything else.
Felicity is a Voice Teacher, Playologist and Story Teller based in South Manchester, UK. To find out more about her work, please visit http://www.felicitygoodman.co.uk
A big factor in improving outgoing communication skills, is improving in coming communication skills. You will be a more effective speaker if you are a better listener. When I talk about listening, I’m talking about more than the ability to receive words from the mouth of others. I’m talking about our ability to read a situation, and hear more then the words that are being spoken. Take some time and reflect on some of the following areas, and ask yourself ‘Am I really listening?’
How are you stood? Are you stood or sat in a way that is receptive to information? Are you huddled over? Are you arms or legs crossed? Where are you looking? The ground, the ceiling? At the person speaking? How aware of your body are you? Take the time to reflect on these things at various points during the day. It doesn’t take long. Just check in with yourself.
Try standing feet hip width apart, feet parallel, going directly ahead of you. Knees soft, not bent or locked. A sense of widening across your hips and shoulders. Spine lengthening up to the ceiling and shoulders dropping down your back. Arms gentle dropping dow your sides. Let’s call this position neutral. It may feel a little uncomfortable, if it does, its a sign that you don’t stand like this habitually which most of us don’t. In this position, however, you are ready. To speak, to move, to respond and to listen. You will be able to hear what’s going on with a much greater understanding. This position allows your breath to flow with greater fluidity making it easier for those messages to reach your brain. Try the opposite. Try standing feet together, knees locked, buttocks clenched, shoulders hunched, hands making tight fists and head stuck forward. Bring you attention to your breath? How does it feel? Shallow? Tight? Restricted?
Now soften all these things and find that neutral position. Check your breath now. It should feel softer and easier.
The Mechanics of Breathing
What do you actually know about breathing? More specifically what do you know about the way you breath? The above exercise should enlighten you as to the way a constricted body stops us breathing effectively. Bring you attention to your breath. If it helps, lie down on the floor. See the image below.
You may what to put a yoga mat beneath you, but ideally you are lying on a solid surface such as the floor. Your head needs to be slightly raised in order to have alignment through your spine and neck. A book or a yoga block are useful. Your feet should be flat on the floor, knees hip width apart and pointing up the ceiling. This position flattens your back into the floor. Your hands can rest on your stomach or by your sides.
Bring you attention to the centre of your torso, How much can you feel the air travelling in and out? Are you sucking, or dragging or pulling big gulps of air or are you taking very small breaths? Take a look at this picture below.
How much can you feel you abdomen expanding as your breath in? What is the quality of this movement? Is sharp and forceful? is subtle and soft? Take your attention to the out breath. Are you pushing out powerfully, or is it quite weak? Imagine your diaphragm within your body? Imagine it like a jelly fish, floating on the tide. It contracts downwards as your breath in and relaxes upwards as your breath out. Try not to change it or alter it, find this gentle rhythm.
We have two groups of muscles that we use when we breath. Primary muscles (essential for full breathing) and Secondary muscles. The primary muscles sit lower in the torso and do most of the bulk of the work. These muscles are generally large and strong as they must work over 22,000 times each day. The diaphragm is in this group of muscles and like the heart, works relentlessly without fatigue. The secondary muscles are higher in the body and act as auxiliary helpers. They give us adaptability in the way that we breath. These muscles are smaller and more delicate. They can act powerfully for short periods of time, such as catching your breath after running fast. They tire easily and quickly.
With modern living and work conditions we quite often neglect to keep these primary muscles in good shape in order to maintain good breath support. There are those, who do actively work the abdominal muscles when it comes to exercises, but their is preference in society for men and women to have toned flat stomachs and stomach crunches are quite oftened practiced to achieve this. The problem with working the muscle group in that way, is that it is actually restricting the muscles. We need strength and flexibility, which is why yoga or pilates is a much better exercise to practice for improved flexibility, strength and breath support.
Good breath support will enable you to receive information better as well as speak with greater clarity.
Take your Time
A huge factor that effects our ability to receive information, is the fast paced cycles of living that we are placed in. Our minds are a huge vat of soup, with all sorts of ingredients floating through them. Deadlines, childcare, loved ones, meetings, emails, appointments and people. In her opening chapter of her book Presence, Patsy Rodenburg (Voice coach, Theatre Director and Writer) tells us how anthropologists research shows us that we really only capable on connecting with 400 people in our lifetime. If you apply this to modern, urban living, it is clear that we could easily come into contact with 400 people in a day. Then there are online platforms in which we receive information about others. Social Media is a wonderful things but we know that while we have increased connectivity, our appetites from human contact and communication are possibly not fulfilled. We increasingly feel removed and lonely.
It is not always possible to reduce the amount of people you come into contact with in a day. However, it is possible to switch off. Turn off your phone for an hour everyday and do something you love. It could be reading, or writing or crocheting a new hat. When meeting friends, place you phone on silent and keep it in your pocket or bag. When it comes to eating, leave you phone in another room. While it may not reduce the people you are coming into contact with, or the pressures of your time, it will make you feel more present. Part of the process in slowing things down is allowing yourself to take your time.
Felicity Goodman is a Voice Teacher and Storyteller based in South Manchester. to find out more about her work, please visit www.felicitygoodman.co.uk.