Tuesday, 1 March 2016


Although my run of school visits has shrunk over the last few years, some have suddenly (and thankfully) slid into my diary. Yes, it’s the World Book Day fortnight or more - which means that, at the time of writing, I am dealing with several preparation anxieties. 

Do I have enough clothes to see me through the run? Surely I had more than one jacket with good pockets once upon a time? Is the discordance between my publicity photo and the current physical self still believable? And is it too late to go in for yoga stretches to ward off the sheer effort of carting so much stuff around early in the morning?

Note: The sessions themselves I am happy about and I’m fairly lucky as the range of my “content” can stretch from Nursery through to Year Six. The downside of working this wide age range is that the school won’t want to book me for another seven years. Makes sense, sort of . . .

However, there's one thing does need attention, and it’s one so easy to forget: my VOICE.  For the last few months - like most writers, I suspect - my large- audience voice hasn’t been much in demand. I have been out, of course. I’ve been to films or shows, but I’ve already paid to hear others speak there, not the bleat of my own voice. I’ve been to poetry and book group meetings where the rule is that one takes informal turns to speak. I’ve enjoyed pubs and suchlike, but then there’s drinking and eating involved so the mouth is often full, and my semi-solitary life means that I love to listen to other people telling interesting stories and talking about other things.

Now, I don't FEEL quiet. I feel as if I'm talking constantly but, in truth, the talk has only been to myself, just words in my own head. Although the space inside there gets quite noisy, I’m not using my vocal chords OUT LOUD. In other words, for a lot of the time, I’ve been almost SILENT.

However - and for sure - those Author Visits will require this weedy, under-used voice of mine to speak in a range of volumes, registers and for far longer than usual. It will demand physical skills not used since my last school visits, half a year ago. So I will add some good throat sweets to my personal “Visit Bag” and will have plenty of drinks while I am there, facing the different audiences. I may even remember to take my own mug as a practical defence against the dreaded school throat bugs and worse. I've been a teacher - I know about school mugs!

But before then I will doing this:


Yes, singing. Have a go yourself! It doesn’t matter what – any old favourites, as hammy as possible, as emotional and varied as you can. Sing softly, loudly, subtly, wildly, whichever style you fancy. I choose songs where I know most of the words as the words emphasises my pronunciation and makes me use my mouth muscles. Humming all the time just doesn't do that. This is one of those times when the solitary times help. I will sing around the house, in the bathroom, to music in the car, wherever I can. It will be loud. It won’t be totally pleasant. It may well be very annoying for anyone nearby – but it will be necessary as a way of helping my voice last through those World Book day sessions.

And I'll also be doing this:

I’ll use a particular verse of Tennyson’s poetry. It was once recommended to me by a wonderful storyteller, Shonaleigh Cumbers. She said that this particular poem made the speaker practice most of the essential consonants. Since then, the verse has become something I recite over and over again before and during pre-WBD days. The words make a fine mantra and is warmly memorable - and if you’re magnificently keen, Tennyson did write more verses.
Are you ready? Here it is, Shonaleigh's gift to me. I find the glorious lines and images - and a bit of imagination in the head - give the voice a kind of happy confidence.  
So, altogether now, off we go - and SPEAKING ALOUD not in your head!

“The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story
The long light shakes across the lakes
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle: answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.”

By the way, I don’t recall the “bugles” refrain being essential, though the couplet makes a good place for trying to sustain or vary a sound.

Good wishes for a very happy World Book Day celebration, everyone, and don’t worry - I do let the children talk too!

Penny Dolan


Lynne Benton said...

Penny, fear not! I have heard you talk to a group of children and you were fantastic - they were all rapt, and hung on your every word. Have a wonderful Book Day/Week/Fortnight, and then rest your voice for a bit afterwards. Love the verse, though - I remember learning it at school, but hadn't realised quite how good it is for consonant training. Good luck!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks,Lynne. Your comment is a real boost to the confidence. However, it's not the one session that puts the strain in the voice, but a day with several sessions of story-telling and reading aloud and writer-talk, all followed by another day. I'll be glad of the weekend gap when it comes. Have a good week yourself!

Ann Evans said...

Great post, Penny. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sings on the way to doing an event where I have to talk to a large amount of people. My song is Doh a Deer! I sing this at the top of my voice when alone in the car and driving to the venue. I tend to shut up when I'm in a queue of traffic though!!
Good luck - and enjoy your school visits.

Emma Barnes said...

I know how you feel, Penny - have just done two days of visits and I am croaking! Off to find those throat sweets.

Joan Lennon said...

Good advice - thanks!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, everyone. Ann, I think my songs are more The Commitments but yes, the habit does get you odd looks at traffic lights!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Voice strain has become one of my biggest worries too. If I ask the hall full of Y9s to talk to their neighbour and then come up with a question for me, I have to ask one of the teachers to get them quiet again - there's no way I can call over their noise anymore. *sigh* Lovely post as always Penny.