Monday, July 18, 2011

Sound scapes for storytellers

One of my favorite sound effects for storytelling is the Irish Bodhran.
(pronounced in Gaelic, Bough-ron) It is a versatile frame drum with a
variety of pitches and sounds that can be made.

A few years ago my wife and I had our first experiences making sound
effects and music for other storytellers. It seemed to me that the Bodhran
helped express a number of moods and narrative sound effects. Many African
cultures use storyteller drums for their art, and I began to see what a
good idea it was. That doesn’t mean that a storyteller can’t make perfect
use of mouth sounds to convey something in a story. I still do plenty of
that, (The boat in bath tub stage, I suppose.) But the drum lent itself to
many ideas. One was a simple knock on the doors of the King’s Hall or a
R-r-r-umble sound as the giant picked up the castle and turned it so a
window in the castle would have a more favorable view. A jig rhythm played
on the drum gave a sense of drama to traveling or of approaching danger. A
Dragon’s footsteps could be played using deep center struck beats upon the
drum. An open handed slap, or a rim shot with the drumstick (or Tipper as
it’s called) can give a completely different effect. Slip your left hand
(if your right handed or vice a versa if not.)behind the cross piece in
the back of the drum, by putting pressure on the drum head from behind you
can raise or lower the pitch. Hold the Tipper or drum stick like a pencil
and curl your hand in until your finger nails face the surface of the
drum. The up and down with the Tipper to single the beat with just one
head of the two headed stick.

You really don’t need to be trained as a musician to a play an instrument
like a frame drum. If you can clap out a simple beat you can learn most of
what you need. One way to start is to buy music CD’s and play along with
them. Learn the different rhythms and experiment with different sound
techniques. If you sing, learn a song while playing the Bodhran, there are
many great stories in old ballads. You could even write a story around the

When buying a Bodhran you should get one that has the ability to tune the
drum head. You should also get a round case for transporting with a pocket
for a spray bottle, a tube of pure lanolin and a cloth to rub down the
water or lanolin. By treating the Goat or Sheepskin with the spray bottle
and or the lanolin regularly, you can tune the drum head to the pitch you
prefer no matter what humidity or season. Otherwise it will end up too
tight in the dry desert air of Utah.

Other instruments that make wonderful sound effects for stories are:
Tambourines for Gypsies, Egyptian Priestesses, Revival Tent Preachers, or
Wild Cossacks. There are many fine instruction books and different methods
from different cultures to chose from. Playing, listening to and experimenting will help the most.

Spoons, Bones and Triangles have different abilities to illustrate actions
in the story. I use spoons to play a rhythm that imitates the hammer blows
of a fairy Tinker as he makes items quickly by magic.

My favorite sound scape while storytelling is the Harp. My wife plays a Celtic style Harp and uses tunes that emotionally fit the mood of the story. It has an almost magical effect like a glissando raising a curtain or conjuring a scene. The Celtic Harp must have been the hallmark of Bards and Shanachie when they would play music and tell stories in front of the great hall of the patrons they visited and stayed with. It is also the best thing to go with the vocals or flute. (continuo)

One festival my wife and I performed at, had a children’s storyteller that
called herself Mother Goose. She had a large Goose puppet in a wicker
basket and told stories from the book of Mother Goose’s Nursery rhymes,
and gave out medals to children that participated in the activities. She
also had a small Lute backed Guitar she sang with and had a limber jack toy
she pulled out of her basket. She would sing “Dance to your Daddy” while
bouncing the paddle of the limber jack man to make him dance with the
music. The children were all mesmerized and it was wonderful. She was much in
demand around the west coast and had a busy touring schedule.

We also saw an unusually good Punch and Judy show, performed by a husband
and wife team. They had a small proscenium with the husband inside working
the puppets, and the wife outside as the “Bottler”. She wore an
interesting costume and carried a Bass Drum with a Cowbell on it, and in a
harmonica neck brace she had duck calls, siren whistles, kazoo, etc. The
husband used a traditional device used by Puppeteers that fit into the
roof of the mouth that allowed him to talk in an unbelievably high voice
for Punch. Wow! The sound effects were perfectly timed with the dialogue
and action on the stage. They had some wonderful ideas for storytellers.

Those are just a few ideas thrown out quickly. I still make mouth noises
mixed in with everything else in the story. One idea is a raspberry sound
while I pantomime a Troll sticking a piece of sausage on a fork. The fun
is really in the discovery and the possibilities are endless.

David S. Sharp
DBA Idlewild (aka Glastonbury)
Member of the Olympus Chapter of the
Utah Storytelling Guild

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