Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monotone: One Tone, No Meaning

I heard the pastor of Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church speak at an event the other night. He used his voice over a wide pitch range–over an octave, from low to high, in one of his phrases. I commented to someone afterward how his vocal range gave a depth of meaning to what he was saying that might otherwise not be there.

Vocal range is not given much attention in public speaking training in this country. There may be a statement that it’s an ideal, but no information about how or why.

As I was thinking about the relationship between a varied speaking pitch and meaning, I remembered John, a middle-school teacher who had been sent to me by his principal.

John spoke with a limited pitch range and, when reading aloud, read in a flat monotone. His entire body was somewhat rigid, and he was in danger of losing control of his class because the persona he was using there was rigid and fearful.

We found several issues that had inhibited not only his voice, but his entire body. A key discovery was how he had been taught to read. He had carried over into adulthood a focus on one word at a time. “Because it was important that I get each word right,” he said. In the beginning the instruction makes some sense–there’s little loss of meaning when we read “Dick” and “and” and “Jane” as separate words, and we have the picture of Dick and Jane there to help us understand who we’re reading about.

But, after we become more adept at deciphering single words, we read in phrases, our eyes see “Dick and Jane,” then “Dick and Jane ran fast.” The wider our eye focus, the more words our eyes see at one time, the more meaning the words have for us. A word like “past,” for example, can be a noun, as in “the past,” or an adjective, as in “the past mistakes.” John was still reading “the” and “past” and “mistakes” without any meaningful connection between the words, and “mistakes” can become a slight surprise after the mind has settled on “past” as a noun.

When I “allowed” him to see more than one word at a time, he found meaning in the words he was reading. Not only did his monotone disappear, but his body and persona loosened, and he discovered that he could use a hitherto repressed sense of humor in the classroom.

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