by Rachel Nelson
As the fates would allow, I was born into a family that gave me an old-fashioned apprenticeship in the profession of music.
While still a baby, I rested on one of two pianos in a studio where my parents were rehearsing a 2-piano version of Rachmoninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. As a toddler, I’d crawl under the piano while my mother practiced her opera and art songs. These early experiences taught me how to shape a musical phrase.
I thought all families were like ours: on camping trips, we’d sing car songs together in harmony. Family members had a habit of dropping sung quotations from songs or musicals into everyday conversation: “She kept asking ME questions!” was my eternal sibling excuse, which I stole from Amahl and the Night Visitors. My sister and I would sing portions of that opera together we learned from hanging around Mom’s rehearsals; later we went every Saturday to my father’s European-style choir school.
I guess I didn’t have a chance. “I swore I’d never be a musician,” I told a fiddle student last week. “Yeah,” she nodded. “See how that worked out.”
My first artistic job (after street busking) was as theater musician for feminist theater At the Foot of the Mountain’s production JUNKIE! My role was to use music as intermediary between the audience and the action on stage. I loved that job.
So I took other jobs as theater musician/composer, researching ways to tell the emotional underbelly of stories with music. I discovered ways to entrain and pull in audiences with repeated beats or musical phrases.
When I began telling stories myself, it was natural for me to use music. I became my own theater musician. If you’re curious about the power of music in story, try turning the volume off and watch an action or love scene from a movie you’ve just seen. Notice how much of the story, and its pacing, came from the music.
Thinking back now, I realize that although there may have been more music in my family than most, there is a way that music was everyone’s first language. The cadence of a parent’s voice as they croon us off to sleep – this kind of speaking is like a song, and we learned early to understand it. We understood tones of voice long before we mastered words. The very first sound each of us heard was our mother’s heartbeat, while we were still in the womb.
Because we all had this kind of introduction, all storytellers use musical concepts as we sculpt our stories: the melody of vocal cadence rising and falling, dynamic changes from soft to loud, rhythms of speech, and the power of the “almighty pause” (making listeners hang on the edge of their chair for whatever comes next). Our speaking becomes a sort of song.
How fun, having this groundwork, to get together with other storytellers at the NSN conference to experiment with adding bits of music or rhythm to our stories. In my Saturday workshop USING MUSIC WITH STORYTELLING, quick examples will catapult us into pair work, allowing you to switch off between listener and teller as you research ways to use pulse, melody, refrain, or musical audience participation to enhance your stories. We’ll see how repeated motifs can entrain our audience, bringing them together. Some of our research will use tandem telling, with one partner providing the music while the other tells. The last part of the workshop will provide time for fishbowl coaching for those who wish to share a work-in-progress.
In 2012 at the Northlands Storytelling Conference, those of us who began our conference weekend with this workshop found ourselves greeting each other like old friends all weekend. Music does that – what storytelling does: it makes connections, breaks down barriers. Not surprising for that language older than words.
P. S. As the fates would allow, my fringe musical memoir THE URBAN HERMIT was drawn in this year’s NSN fringe lottery. My Thursday evening show is an opportunity to see how I use music, rhythm, and song to enhance a longer story. The music does some heavy lifting in this tale, using songs, fiddle, guitar, Tibetan bowl, hand broom, hand drum, and washtub bass to illuminate character. Come visit the streets of Minneapolis as a young misanthrope finds connection through street busking.
Rachel Nelson is a fiddling fool. Since learning to tell stories, she finally knows how to keep the attention of audiences prone to nodding off during fiddle tunes. Years as a theater musician and songwriter led to her present career as storyteller/songwriter – 2 sides of the same coin. Rachel has studied physical acting with Kari Margolis, and now enjoys mixing up story, spoken word, music, and movement in her stories and fringe musicals. She loves teaching storytelling and story-to-song school residencies. She performed LIVING THE QUESTIONS at the 2008 NSN conference. Look for her 3rd CD this fall.