This post could be subtitled “Words of Wisdom from Bruce Coville (with embellishments by Beth).” I first encountered Bruce Coville, author of middle grade fantasy novels and other such wondrous things, at the Summer 2011 conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Los Angeles, SCBWI LA ’11. Not only did he give a wonderful keynote address to begin the conference, but I also took a three-hour intensive course on writing fantasy novels from him, and it was definitely one of the high notes of the conference for me.
One thing I particularly remember from that intensive was the way he shared the first two chapters of his fantasy novel Into the Land of the Unicorns. He didn’t merely stand in front of us and read to us from the book. He performed the two chapters as a dramatic monologue. The action came alive. We felt, heard, almost saw what was happening, through Bruce’s animated recitation.
About a week ago, I read a post on the blog “Stories are Good Medicine” about a recent speech Bruce gave at a writer’s conference. In the speech, Bruce suggested 13 top things a writer should do. I heard him give a similar listing in his keynote address at SCBWI LA ’11. Two of the items on his list might surprise many people. #2: Take Acting or Storytelling Lessons and #3: Take Singing or Voice Lessons. Those are the two items that stood out for me in his speech in August 2011, and they resonated with me again when I read that blog post.
These suggestions can benefit writers in many ways. They can also be very beneficial to non-writers. Have you ever had to speak in front of a group, whether in a meeting, in front of a crowd such as in church, or at a school visit? Have you felt that you’d rather do practically anything rather than that? Click the magic words to find out how singing or acting could help with that…
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting (and I’m quite sure Bruce isn’t suggesting) that everyone needs to try to become a great singer, the toast of Broadway or the Opera; nor do you need to aspire to award-winning acting.
Singing/voice lessons, and acting lessons, help a person learn how to use their voice without straining it, to project the voice so it is more easily heard, to work with breath control and voice production to make one’s voice pleasant to the ear. One also learns relaxation techniques that will help with pre-speech nervousness, ways to engage one’s listeners with what one is saying, ways to connect with the audience, to get out of the printed page of notes and make eye contact comfortably. As an added benefit for writers, acting lessons can help you learn how to dig deeply into a character, and this can greatly enhance your writing.
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of singing lessons in helping with both the voice and its use, as well as with one’s comfort in front of a group of people. I was doubly blessed — long before I studied voice formally, I had a mother who sang and who taught me good techniques, and ways of coping with audiences, from my earliest years. I learned more from my voice teachers, and from the many wonderful choir directors I worked with over the years.
Other people find joining a group such as Toastmasters helpful for learning how to speak easily to an audience. From my personal experience, the preaching classes I took when I was training to become a minister (a career path that took a sharp turn) and the occasional preaching I have done over the years have done wonders for my comfort with public speaking, but that isn’t a route many want to take.
Another related skill which is helpful to develop (and this is one of my personal “hobbyhorses” here) is the proper use of microphones. I have heard many people say, “I have a loud voice, I don’t need a microphone.” What may be a loud voice in an ordinary home or small group setting still may not carry nor be intelligible in a large room or auditorium. If there is a microphone, use it. If your message is important enough to get you up in front of that group, it’s important enough to take the steps to ensure that the group hears you.
If you know you’re going to be speaking somewhere where there’s a microphone, if you have the opportunity, arrive a little early so that you can practice with it. Otherwise, ensure that you are speaking directly into it, not turning your head away, nor standing too far away (nor too close). If it’s a standing mic or a table mic that you can remove from its stand, hold it in your hand. It’s much easier, and more comfortable to hold the mic at the right distance from your mouth than to lean over it or stretch up to it. If you’re sharing the mic with someone else at a table, pass it back and forth so that you can each get your message heard.
If you live in or near a city, even a small one, it should be quite easy to find a voice teacher, or an acting class — the professional theatre where I live offers a “recreational” acting class for adults that sounds perfect. If you’re in a smaller center, possibly you can become involved with a community choir, or a community drama group, even just for a season. You may find you like it so much that you keep going back!
You have something worth saying! Let your voice and your ideas ring out!
Singing and acting lessons also form a good foundation for a mouse who aspires to a Broadway career. I hope you’ll come back to By Word of Beth on Wednesday as I tell more about the book The Great American Mousical, which has been adapted for the stage and will be produced at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT in November.