Adding Punctuation

This month I am recording the audiobook version of The Happiest Musician. I know how to read, and I know how to talk, and I know this book intimately, but still I doubt myself. What does it mean to perform an audiobook? How much personality do I add? What does a professional quality narration sound like, and how is it different from me reading to my kid?

I asked my producer, an experienced narrator, what to DO with some of the words on the page. What about some of the “air” quotes? Do I have to say “quote unquote”?  Do I say “in quotes”?  What do I do to acknowledge elements of the text that a listener cannot see? 

To my absolute delight, she told me to just MAKE THE AIR QUOTE SIGN with my hands as I read, and my voice as I do this will project exactly what I mean. 

Incredible! But also, maybe not so surprising, right? As musicians, we are accustomed to subtleties, to thinking in metaphor, to the infinitesimal difference between “correct” and “magical”.

I talk about tricks like this all the time with my oboists, too. We talk about commas versus periods, we talk about paragraphs made up of phrases. Sometimes I’ll suggest putting a note or a phrase in parentheses.  The expressiveness of speech, the thing we all know how to do already to communicate with the world, is exactly transferable to the instrument. Parentheses don’t mean anything on the page, anything official in musical notation, but this metaphor is COMPLETELY meaningful to the performer and to the listener. We know how to do that, we know what it means.

In a rehearsal last week, the conductor asked for an intense eight measure crescendo from the violins, and one suggested that an “invisible diminuendo” halfway through might help them all to bring out the intensity. It makes perfect sense – you only have so many decibels to play with, and if you reset midway you can add a LOT more in a shorter time which gives you tons of exaggeration. It’s a musician trick we all use. But to say it out loud – an INVISIBLE DIMINUENDO – makes the trick visible, and allows everyone to get on board with the subtlety, and of course makes ME so happy! I love musicians.

These metaphors are subtle, and beautiful. Performance is communication, whether in the highly abstract world of instrumental music or in transcending the medium of written words, or in using our voice to acknowledge unseen punctuation. Punctuation can BE the difference between correctness and magic!

As you practice today, or as you speak – pay attention to your invisible punctuation! How could you express yourself ever more clearly? And how could you transfer that expressiveness to your other written, spoken, or musical communications?

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