Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

What does ‘reading well’ mean?

3 Comments

I just got (if I understood it correctly) an excellent question from Shelley at this post (which talked about the new Voice Alpha poetry reading advice column). Shelley asked what the Voice Alpha criteria are for deciding if a poem is read well. I responded: We have been mulling over the different elements that would ideally go into a good reading, but don’t yet have a single formal coordinated Voice Alpha position on criteria.

We’ve talked a lot at Voice Alpha about the logistics & mechanics of reading (how to organize a reading, what to bring, how to use a mike & accessories, whether to read your own or others’ poems etc). We have also talked quite a bit about the separate elements of reading itself. I was imagining that a coordinated Voice Alpha position on criteria would naturally develop itself during back-channel conversations about readings people sent in.

Since no-one has yet sent in a recording, however, (hint!) this may be a conversation we could usefully have on Voice Alpha while we are waiting for the first brave person to do so (we will be kind, remember! and we don’t have to use your name in posting if you’d rather we didn’t!).

For purposes of this exercise, I’m referring only to audio. The visual aspect of things is important at live poetry readings but doesn’t play where people just send in MP3 recordings (which is I think what we are mainly expecting).

So, what does ‘reading well’ mean? This is my personal list of elements of a good reading at the moment. (They are actually real questions I ask myself about and fret over for every single Whale Sound reading I do myself, but they are transferable, I think.)

Volume – can you comfortably hear the reader? Is she too loud? Too soft?

Enunciation – Does the reader pronounce words clearly and understandably? Does he mumble? Or does he over-enunciate, thus slowing down and undermining the emotional/narrative pace of the poem?

Pace – Is she going too fast or too slow for the content of the poem?

Breath control – Is the reader able to pace his breath so that his breathing works with the poem content and is quiet and unobtrusive? Or does he run out of breath in mid-sentence and have to breathe obviously and inopportunely in random places?

Tone/inflection – Do the reader’s tone & inflection choices match and/or enhance the poem content? Do they vary in accordance with the emotional journey contained in the poem? Does the reader use a ‘poetry voice’!? (see no. 5 here).

Engagement – is the reader reading to you from inside the poem, or is he reading at you from outside the poem?

Additional important note to self: In fairness to both the reader and the poetry, be sure to identify and clearly separate out your reaction (whether positive or negative) to factors beyond the reader’s control, such as regional accent, the sound of the reader’s voice, and any speech impediments she may have.

So what are your ‘reading well’ criteria?

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Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

3 thoughts on “What does ‘reading well’ mean?

  1. Thanks for great the reading tips! By way of sharing, I invite you to visit my poetry blog and the section I created for oral poetry readings.

    http://adelekenny.blogspot.com/p/tips-for-reading-poetry-aloud.html

  2. Love that post, Adele – thanks for sharing! This in particular is interesting:

    Work on making your voice interesting. Timbre (resonance, the quality of a sound independent of its pitch and volume) is important. Try using a fuller range than you would in normal conversation. Raise and lower your voice appropriately. But don’t go overboard and look foolish by emoting “all over the place.” Don’t declaim. Don’t preach. Be as natural as possible – be real.

    Think in terms of pace and power. Try to alter the speed at which you read the poem. If you want to sound angry or excited speed up a little and raise the pitch of your voice. When you want to sound more serious lower the pitch and slow down. A higher pitched voice can also be used when talking about things that are high up (stars, the sky, angels, tall buildings, etc.) and a lower pitch for lower things (soil, graves, underwater, etc.).

    Very helpful – thanks again, Nic

  3. Pingback: Bees’ Knees Special Editions: Nic Sebastian of Whale Sound « The Bees Knees Blog

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