A Language Older Than Words

by Rachel Nelson

nelsonAs 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.

About Rachel

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.

Contact Rachel

Website: www.bardlive.com


Feeding the Spirit with Sacred Stories and…Jack Tales?!

by Pam Faro

faroYou probably had to be there…

Raising a quizzical eyebrow, she speaks with feigned ignorance and asks the oh-so-pregnant-with-meaning question: “Now, Pam…What are you a Master of?”

I take my cue…spread open my hands, raise eyes upward, and with a voice exuding a beatific awareness of the numinous, I answer in a breathless, awestruck-yet-knowing tone…“Divinity!”

– Always, people chuckle! (Um… ah, well – likely it’s a case of “you had to be there” …oral language, you know…)

This silly-fun little scene is one my storyteller/author friend Cherie Karo Schwartz (Circle Spinning: Jewish Turning and Returning Tales) and I have played out from time to time in the 10 years since I got my MDiv. In the fall of 2000, having been storytelling professionally for 12 years by then, I took a gulp as well as the leap and went to grad school, and got a Master of Divinity degree. I did not seek ordination in my denomination (ELCA Lutheran), however, for I discern no “call” to congregational/pastoral ministry. Rather, my call is to storytelling.

“Where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

– That’s my favorite definition of “call” (from Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC).

I bet a lot of you reading this could actually, if inclined, say that storytelling is your call…

You know the deep gladness of

  • researching / finding
  • creating / developing / preparing
  • working with / playing with / honing, and
  • sharing and telling your stories.

And, you know the world has such deep hunger for

  • story
  • the human-to-human connecting that the act of storytelling creates
  • the stories that we tell – whether they entertain, delight, provoke, move, challenge, empower, comfort, guide, inspire…or all of the above.

I dare to say that storytelling itself is a spiritual endeavor – regardless of any-or-no connection to any faith tradition.

Sharing ghost stories ‘round a campfire? Telling funny trickster-and-other folktales to a gym-full of 500 PreK-5th graders? – Spiritual?!

Yes! Agree or disagree with me? Interested in exploring the notion? Come to my workshop at the National Storytelling Conference and let’s explore together!

“Interfaith Interplay”…

My interest in specifically “interfaith storytelling” – intentionally sharing sacred stories from across different faith traditions – was deepened by a graduate class I took about the fascinating and rich combination of cultures and faiths in medieval Spain. I researched and put together a program of stories from that time and place (“Andalusian Trilogy” – for more on this project, you may wish to see this page on my website, and/or this blog post). I tell these stories to (yes, entertain, and) help create connections and heal brokenness, stories that underscore common lessons and values that different faiths profess – for too many people today only point out the stories that keep faiths disengaged from each other.

Over my years of giving interfaith storytelling programs, responses from people from various faith traditions have been overwhelmingly positive. Two of my favorites:

- After giving the “Interfaith Interplay” program (stories drawn from 4-5 different traditions) at Emory University in Atlanta, a young Muslim student shook my hand and said fervently, “Every single university needs to hear these stories!” (– Yikes, I’m not quite up for that!);

- After performing “Andalusian Trilogy” in Rome’s glorious basilica Sta. Maria del Popolo, a woman came up and, with an enthusiastic smile and wonderment in her eyes, said to me in Italian, “This was probably the first time Hebrew has been sung in this basilica!”

With a bit of trepidation (these aren’t my traditions, after all) I’ve gone ahead and sung in Hebrew (which I’ve studied some) and told Jewish-tradition stories; and I’ve gone ahead and recited Arabic poetry (in English translation) and told stories of the Prophet Muhammed – and have been given whole-hearted appreciation and encouragement by Jewish and Muslim listeners. I’ve told these stories in Christian churches and in public libraries, and similar expressions of “we need more of this!” are always shared with me.

We do need more of this –

We need to share our “sacred” stories with each other, and bridge the gaps between different faith and spiritual traditions. And we need to do our “secular” storytelling – for the storytelling experience itself vitalizes the imagination and feeds the human spirit in real and abiding ways.

Let’s explore together how our spirits are nourished by our deepest myths, our stories of personal challenge and transformation, the sharing of folklore and oral literature, and even by the silliest of Jack tales!

I hope that many of you will be at my workshop at this year’s NSN conference, “Interfaith Interplay: Sharing the Fire and Light of Sacred Stories.”

About Pam

With a degree in music and a Masters in Divinity, Pam Faro has been storytelling professionally since 1988. A single mom, she supported her family through the 1990s with storytelling; in 2000 her nest emptied, she remarried, and started grad school (THAT was a year!). In recent years she has performed internationally (overseas in Italy, Wales, England, Germany and Australia; “overlakes” in Canada), and rejoices in how storytelling creates connections between people. Multicultural and/or musical folktales, bilingual cuentos, biblical storytelling, and the story of her great-uncle who survived the Titanic are among her specialties. She’s a new blogger at www.storycrossings.com.

Contact Pam

Website: www.storycrossings.com
Email: pamfaro@gmail.com



Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching

By Regina Ress

ressI learned how to tell stories while substitute teaching in the New York City public schools. Talk about boot camp! I was often working with “at risk” children, many of whom were…shall we say…deeply disengaged from the classroom activities. When I began to bring in stories… not read them, but tell them…my ability to engage the students and my relationship to the students and their relationship to me shifted radically. I used to joke that before I told the story, the kids were throwing the chairs out the window and as soon as I finished, they continued; but during the storytelling, all eyes and minds were with me. A bit of hyperbole, but essentially what I experienced. There was something going on between us during the telling that radically changed the behavior of these children and atmosphere in those classrooms.

As well, of course, there was a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized quite quickly how much information was being transmitted effortlessly while I told and they listened to those stories. Being a trained teacher, I began to note the cognitive skills along with some basic social/emotional skills that were embedded both in the stories themselves and equally in the experience of listening to stories. And, of course, once they began to fashion their own stories and tell them, a world opened up for these young, often marginalized, New Yorkers.

Great teaching, like great storytelling, is about communication. It is about contextualizing information, creating Aha! Moments, journeying into new territory to find hidden treasure, sharing a passion and meaning making. Sound heavy? Not at all. Teaching can be fun, as much fun as telling a good tale.

We know that storytelling has been used throughout human history not only to entertain, but to transmit information, explain cultural codes, and problem solve (to name just a few of the applications/uses.) We now know it also enhances interpersonal and cross-cultural awareness and encourages personal expression. It engages participants of all age and all levels seamlessly and deeply in the subject at hand. It’s a natural teaching tool and I have used it from pre-schools to University Master’s Programs, in after school offerings for children living in homeless shelters, as an English language teacher for adult immigrants and with incarcerated women, both on the east coast and currently in New Mexico. And, of course, I’ve taught teachers … both for professional development workshops in the schools and, for the past 10 years, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre and the TESOL/Foreign Language Program. I know the power of storytelling to fire up a classroom.

I’m bringing some stories and some terrific activities to the National Storytelling Conference in Arizona this summer. We will easily and with great fun experience the power and efficacy of storytelling in the classroom and beyond. The workshop is called Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching. Come help me heat up that room in Mesa!

About Regina

Regina Ress, storyteller, actor, writer and teacher, has performed and taught across the US and abroad    for over 40 years. Her recent CD, New York and Me: We’re in a Long Term Relationship ( available on    her website and the conference), won a 2014 Storytelling World Honor award. She will be back for her 22nd year in the Hans Christian Andersen storytelling series in Central Park in September and is delighted to host her long running series Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. A current project is working with incarcerated women in the Santa Fe County jail.

Contact Regina

Website: www.ReginaRess.com
email: regina@ReginaRess.com


Out of the Tunnel and Into the Light of Peace

by Liz Weir

LizWeirI have lived in Northern Ireland all my life. The first 18 years or so were uneventful. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where stories were told. Many were about my family’s adventures in India during the late 1930’s when my father was a career soldier and of course I heard lots of true stories of the Second World War. Going to an all Protestant state school where we learned mostly British history I had no sense of my “Irishness”.

In 1969 everything changed, not just for me, but for all the people in my country. I started university in Belfast and that autumn saw the start of the Civil Rights Movement and then, sadly, a cycle of violence, of bombs, shootings and mayhem that was to last for the next 30 years. Living in Belfast I saw first-hand the results of carnage and when I became Children’s Librarian for the city I ventured into places most people in my town only heard about in news headlines. I met people of all shades of political opinion and learnt that blood is the same color on both sides of the religious divide. I met widows and bereaved children who wept the same tears. I told stories in jail to men whom some hailed as heroic freedom fighters and others regarded as terrorists and murderers.

Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the stage for set for a peaceful resolution to “The Troubles”. Those political prisoners were released no matter what their crimes,and in fact many have since gone into politics here and hold important positions. But all of this has left a legacy. Within our community there are ordinary people who still carry hurt, secrets and pain. For them there is no moving on and there can be no justice or peace as long as the killers of their relatives go free, whether those are civilians or members of the security forces.

So, how can stories help? If people take the time to listen to another’s story they are paying them respect. Even if the other person holds views which are diametrically opposed to our own, the very act of listening to their stories is important. It acknowledges them as members of a shared society. In post-conflict Northern Ireland other prejudices are emerging – racism, homophobia. There is still much work to be done to build a new future for our children but to do so we have to acknowledge what went on in the past. History cannot just be air-brushed.

Over the years since 1969 I have listened to thousands of stories, stories which have helped me develop more fully as a person able to understand those whose beliefs are very different from my own. In my workshop in Phoenix I hope to explore practical ways in which the sharing of difficult stories can be encouraged and supported.

We in Northern Ireland are indeed emerging, blinking, into the sunlight of peace.

About Liz Weir

Liz Weir is a storyteller and writer from Northern Ireland who has told her stories to children and adults on all five continents. She has appeared at major international festivals including the National Storytelling Festival and the Australian National Storytelling Festival. Liz Weir was the first winner of the International Storybridge Award from the National Storytelling Network which cited her “exemplary work promoting the art of storytelling within Ireland and between other countries.

Contact Liz

Website: www.lizweir.net / www.ballyeamonbarn.com
Email: liz@lizweir.net
Phone: + 44 7703 440558


Planning your First Storytelling Residency

By Katie Knutson

Katie KnutsonAre you ready to dive into the world of school residencies? If so, here are a few tips that will make the walk to the diving board and the plunge a little less shocking.

There are two major models for residencies that I use: the pre-packaged residency and the co-created residency. They each have benefits and drawbacks.

The pre-packaged residency has a set curriculum that you can bring from one classroom to another without changing it. You write the lesson plans and learning objectives and create any necessary handouts beforehand. Since you can focus on one specific strength of yours, it is often easier to start with this kind of residency. The range of topics could vary greatly, from Historical Fiction to Bullying. These residencies make life really easy for teachers and administrators because they don’t necessarily need to be involved in the planning process.

The co-created residency is one that you create directly with the teachers. It requires more planning time and will be customized for each classroom. One teacher might want to create a play based on Cinderella, while another wants to teach Science vocabulary. These residencies include embedded professional development for both the teachers and teaching artist. Co-created residencies also have a better chance of being repeated by the teacher in the future, as the teacher will be viewing herself as a learner and be personally invested in the residency and its success. This process requires a substantial knowledge of appropriate activities and stories to teach a variety of subjects.


Make sure to allow sufficient planning and evaluation time with the teachers. I prefer to have two meetings before the residency begins. In the pre-planning meeting, we iron out logistics, I share what I do, and we begin brainstorming. In the second, we set goals for the residency, scaffold what each session might look like, and create a detailed lesson plan for the first class. Ideally, I schedule one planning session for each class I teach. This is not always possible or necessary, but it is good to get it in the calendar early.

Evaluation includes the assessment of three things: each classroom session you have taught, the students’ learning, and your performance as a teaching artist. In each planning meeting, I spend the first few minutes getting feedback on the previous class and troubleshooting any problems before planning for the next session. In order to know what the students have learned, it is necessary to assess them before and after the residency. This does not necessarily mean a written test. You can look at work samples before and after, comparing growth in specific areas such as character development or the use of details. You could ask students to use their bodies to make things, like the main character of a story you just told or an organism you are about to study, and count how many can do it. Talk to the teachers about other creative ideas for assessments. Ideally, most residencies will end with some kind of a final performance or product.

Every residency is different, and no residency will go exactly as planned. Remember to have fun and love those kids, and you’ll do just fine. Please share your success stories and failures, as well as any tips you have for first-time residencies in the comment section below.

Here are some additional resources:

Artful Teaching and Learning Handbook: you can download it for free or order a printed copy for $30

Teaching Artist Handbook, Volume 1: Tools, Techniques, and Ideas to Help Any Artist Teach by Nick Jaffe, Becca Barniskis, & Barbara Hackett Cox

Books that include Stories and Lesson Plans or Discussion Ideas:

  • Beyond the Beanstalk: Interdisciplinary Learning Through Storytelling by Lynn Rubright
  • Literacy Development in the Storytelling Classroom by Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson, and Diane Williams.
  • The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development by Bobby and Sherry Norfolk
  • Once Upon a Time: Storytelling to Teach Character and Prevent Bullying by Elisa Davy Pearmain
  • Social Studies in the Storytelling Classroom: Exploring Our Cultural Voices and Perspectives by Jane Stenson and Sherry Norfolk
  • Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children by Jack Zipes
  • The Storytelling Classroom: Applications Across the Curriculum by Sherry Norfolk, Jane Stenson, and Diane Williams.
  • Storytelling and QAR Strategies by Phyllis Hostmeyer and Marilyn Adele Kinsella
  • Tales with Tails: Storytelling the Wonders of the Natural World by Kevin Strauss
  • Write Right!: Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques by Kendall Haven


About Katie

Katie Knutson is a Storyteller and Teaching Artist based in Minneapolis. In addition to writing or curating this column, she performs regularly, leads workshops for storytellers and teachers, and spends time with her kindergartner. She is the Storyteller-in-Residence/Arts Integration Specialist at Folwell K-8 School. More at www.ripplingstories.com.