Spoken word existed long before the written word, but its roots as a contemporary performance art lie in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) and emerged in the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King, J F Kennedy and Malcolm X. Black artists declared war on racism though their art, spreading messages of black unity, power and nationalism via mobile units of performance poets and spoken word collectives that gathered on street corners and in community parks. As a performance, spoken word, whether poetry or prose, tends to exhibit a heavy use of rhythm and word play compared to traditional writing.
Spoken word can be in the form of poetry, prose monologues, jazz poetry, comedy routines or hip hop. Melbourne has a vibrant spoken word scene and you can go and listen to, or participate in, poetry and prose gigs on most night of the week in pubs and cafe’s and old courthouses across the city and out in the suburbs.
Since the 1980’s, the town where I live has hosted a two day festival each year that kicks off with a two hour road closure for the street parade with fabulous floats that promenade to the beat of a brass band from one end of town to the other. The weekend unfolds with a film night, an art show, a battle of the bands, pet parades, a giant water slide, canoe and camel rides, billy cart races, gold mine tours, a duck race and a beer brewing competition. One of the concluding events of the festival, commonly known as the cherry on top of the fabulous cake, is The Grand Read, a night of poetry and prose at the pub.
The Grand Read hosts a selection of local writers and poets, and one ‘outsider’ guest. Previous guests have included: poet and psychiatrist, Jennifer Harrison; author and human rights advocate, Arnold Zable; senior lecturer at RMIT and founder of the journal RABBIT, Jessica Wilkinson; and poet and author Kevin Brophy. This years guest is poet, playwright and actor Felix Nobis and I have been invited as one of seven local writers to deliver a seven minute reading.
The piece I will read is a tongue in cheek flash fiction piece about another local event, the potery expo. It will be my first time performing at a spoken word event, so I have been doing some research to help my preparation. Here is a summary of the advice I have gleaned…
Breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing is the type of deep breathing done by contracting the diaphragm, such as in yoga practices. You can practice it by lying on the floor and breathing in a way that fills up your belly. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing produces a better sound, and has a calming effect because it slows down your heart rate and reduces nerves and stress.
Practice, practice, practice: Performance is a physical activity and rehearsal creates muscle memory in your diaphragm, lungs and tongue, not just your memory. Knowing your piece will improve your performance. Read it out loud walking around the house or to the bathroom mirror until you know it well. Practice until you can lift your eyes off the page and look at the audience and add pause for impact where needed. Don’t be afraid of the quiet between sentences.
Project from your diaphragm: The people in the back of the room have to hear you, so fill up the room with your voice – this doesn’t mean shouting. Most people don’t fully engage their diaphragm, they rely too much on their throats, which not only strains your vocal chords over time, but produces a weaker sound, instead of the round, full sound spoken word poets are known for. To engage the full support of your breath, inhale, allowing your stomach to expand with air, and speak during exhale. The result will be a fuller, projected sound that won’t strain your vocal chords.
Enunciation: Exaggerate the shape of your mouth so you don’t mumble or run your words together. It might feel funny but it’ll force you to slow down and helps your audience understand you. Practice reading with the bottom of a pen or your fingers in your mouth. It helps you learn to shape your mouth the right way and forces you to over-enunciate. Err on the side of exaggeration.
Tempo and speed: It’s harder to slow down than it is to speed up—especially when you’re performing and adrenaline kicks in. Practice slowing down your speech to an uncomfortable, unnatural level so that you can play with pacing in your performance. Emphasize important moments and change pacing in order to help keep your audience captivated. If you feel like you’re speaking too slowly, you’re probably just right.
Create tension and release: Consider pacing, sound, and intonation to better tell your story. Anticipate the emotional reaction you would like to inspire in the audience, and prepare the performance accordingly by slowing down in places, giving certain words extra space for emphasis, and altering your tone or volume. Identify places within your story where you can pause or add an extra emotional component through performance (you can mark these sections and highlight important words to create a roadmap). How can your voice emphasize the meaning behind the words? Which parts do you want people to remember? What’s the most important phrase or word? Take time to think about these questions and practice different delivery methods.
Be aware of your body: Spoken word is a full body art form – is there anything you can you do with your body that will add to your work? Use natural movement. Standing up straight while speaking is important to get the sound out. It’s especially important to elongate the spine in your neck so as not to constrict the breath in your throat. Lift your chin slightly and imagine a string is pulling the top of you head up. Plus when you stand up straight and assume a strong, confident stance, your audience will be able to hear it in your voice.
Create a warm up routine: Vocal coaches consistently suggest staying hydrated and soothing the throat with warm tea, lemon, and honey. Warming up the mouth and vocal chords is also a a good idea. Try humming your favorite tune to warm up vocal chords, massaging the muscles on the sides of your jaw to release tension, or rolling your tongue and blowing air through relaxed lips to warm up your mouth.
Give the microphone room: Keep the microphone about three inches away from your mouth to produce the best sound.
Know that no one likes the sound of their own voice and the audience wants you to do well: When we hear ourselves speak in real time, we pick up on the internal vibrations, as well as the external sounds. But when we hear our voices in a recording, it sounds foreign because we’re not picking up the internal vibrations. We dislike our recorded voice because we rarely hear it as others do and therefore find it unfamiliar, but only you hate the sound of your voice. No one else is cringing and the audience is on your side – they want to have an enjoyable evening.
And lastly…be your authentic self, and eat a banana – it can help you relax…oh, and have fun.