Conjuring stories with the sound of the human voice is ages old. Oral storytelling is perhaps the earliest form of providing education and entertainment for both children and adults. Over the generations, stories have provided enriching guideposts to learning through the emotive reverberation of the human voice along with embellishing facial and body gestures to add visual expression to spoken words and silences.
“Storytelling is important for children because it opens doors and opens windows into other worlds and situations. It stimulates their imagination, can spark creativity and enhance memory,” said Gale Nemec, a Fairfax area storyteller and member of the Creative Arts Program of the Arts Council of Fairfax County.
Gary Lloyd, another Fairfax area storyteller and member of the Creative Arts Program, said that “storytelling exposes children to the oral tradition that mankind has used to pass knowledge down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Simply put, our children hunger for stories well told.”
The Creative Arts Program is an effort to link young audiences with quality professional arts programs “to enrich the lives of our young people,” according to the Arts Council. There are over 130 elementary schools in Fairfax County, and over 20 library branches and hundreds of places of worship and nonprofit organizations at which storytellers can unfold their magic. Storytellers use a broad array of fairy tales, folk tales, mythology, legends and fables, and perhaps even somewhat “fractured” historical tales to paint their word pictures. And they all can help a child make sense and meaning of the big world.
Both Nemec and Lloyd indicated that good storytelling means giving characters animated, vibrant personalities and emotions. They use the sound and rhythm and repetition of words to resonate and inspire. The characters and stories and life lessons can become alive to the listener. In recent interviews, both suggested character development is especially important, as storytelling is like a one-person show before a very observant audience.
Nemec began her storytelling career as a teacher reading to children. She “had such fun and excitement with her students interacting with them” that over time she became a full-time storyteller. “Watching the thrill I got from seeing the enthralled faces of the children before me was tremendous,” she said. Later, Nemec was an artist-in-residence at Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center working with teachers on how to incorporate the performing arts into their curricula.
Lloyd mused about his life after a federal career with the Army Corps of Engineers. “If you had told me back then that I would be telling stories to hundreds of elementary students sitting on a gym floor daring me to entertain them, I would quite simply have laughed you out of my office. I love what I do now.” Lloyd is now vice president of the Virginia Storytelling Alliance and a member of a storytellers guild called Voices in the Glen.
For Nemec, it became clear that storytelling was almost “a subversive way to teach educational lessons to young children by weaving and teaching instruction through stories.” Children could learn how to count or how to rhyme by listening and interacting with the storyteller, Nemec said.
According to Lloyd, “Tales are laden with facts tucked in the crevices — before, during and after — so the students learn as we go along without it being intrusive.” He also spoke of stories as a learning tool. “We remember stories like we remember poems and songs. What better vehicle to awaken student interest in a subject, to get them to want to read more about a period of history or a person, than to excite them with a ripping good tale.”
Both Lloyd and Nemec spoke of the importance for parents to tell stories with their children, and both mentioned that parental listening also is a key. When telling a story, the story takes place in a child’s head and imagination and they are part of it, not just watching passively; and listening to parents tell stories helps children learn how to make up their own stories and to pretend to be or do anything.
“The parent listens to the child and the child listens to the parent. Naturally, the exception is when parent and child are both so excited in making up a new story that the child’s and parent’s words tumble over each other.” A storytelling parent might use a funny or different voice even when telling children to brush their teeth or put on their seat belt.
Both Lloyd and Nemec have a wide repertoire of stories. They can be tall tales from America’s past that capture the heart of America, to old Grimm favorites such as “Hansel and Gretel,” all told with different voices to enthrall, amuse and help children to learn.