Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why should I read or tell old folk stories and fairy tales to children?

Reading to children is very important and there is that attribution to Einstein, about the importance of fairy tales. Research has informed me that Rita McDonald wrote an article: “Children’s Reading in the Space Age,” in Montana Libraries, in July 1958.

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

It is almost like Whispers/Telephone! I heard it from the internet, which states Rita McDonald in Montana Libraries heard it from New Mexico Library Bulletin that Elizabeth Margulis said...
This is the story which led to the saying: “If you want a child to be smart, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be smarter, read them more fairy stories.” If Einstein thinks it is important, I am totally on board! And more about this later.

The idea of reading to children is very important for a couple of reasons, more so if English is a second language, but it applies to all of us. One, is that picture books often contain words which are not normally used on a day-to-day basis. To take examples from four books:

Original sketch for Dragon and the Monkey's Heart, Rob Brookes, copyright 2006
 Puss in Boots, by Philip Pullman (ISBN: 0-375-81354-3) 2000
property, monsieur, fortune, impressive, saluted, meadows, astrologer, villains, hermit, marquis, sleeplessness, onward, dungeon
Merlin and the Dragons, by Jane Yolen (ISBN: 0-525-65214-0) 1995
gazed, knowingly, withdrawing, companionship, troubled, predictions, planetary, revolt, emblazoned, Welshmen, banners, consulted, reported, knowledge, emerged
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman ((ISBN: 0-06-058701-6) 1997
penny whistle, brilliant, swap, splashes, mumf, humf, doorbell, gorilla, escaping, darling, attention, present, caught, butler, whom, ginger beer, tickled, fussed

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
, by Dr. Suess (ISBN: 90129-80527-8) 1990
congratulations, steer, direction, decide, frequently, fliers, sights, slump, unpleasant, magical, scare, hither, creek, prowl, dexterous, deft
These are just a few words taken from part of the books, apart from Dr. Suess' Oh, The Places... which I went all the way through as it is one of my favourites. Now I admit, some of these we do use, but not usually on a daily basis. Seeing these words in books on a regular basis (you know how children love to hear the same story over and over again) puts them in context and makes it easier to spell the words, or recognize them when they see them later. Reading any children’s book will therefore increase vocabulary. 
The other reason to read (or tell a story) is to sit down, turn off the phone and to remove any distractions (like the television). Reading or telling tales to someone provides intimate one-on-one time, creating a strong and lasting bond. Distraction free one-on-one time with children in this day and age is rare indeed. Sharing folk and fairy tales can also provoke meaningful conversations and discussions. When these children grow up, no matter what happens to them, they will have this special bond, and memories of time spent with loved ones. And if you are reading Grimm to anyone, it provides an ample supply of topics on all sorts of subject matter!
Elves and the Shoe Makers
Should you read all of Grimm’s stories to young children? Some of them, yes. Although obviously there are some which are not for young ears. There are some wonderful stories collected by the Grimm Brothers, and most, if not all, end with hope. There isviolence in these stories, and some dreadful things which happen, but nothing a child has not seen on the evening news, or heard on the radio or playground at recess. The thing with these stories, is that there is hope (which is rarely given on the news). And when we are surrounded by doom and gloom, hope is a big thing, not just for a child, but for adults, too. Children who have issues at home, or at school, such as bullying, or abuse, which may feel are insurmountable, can find hope and support in some tales, and will find escapism and laughter in others.
These stories are needed now more than ever. If we were to take Hansel and Gretel, for example, this is a story where the children are abandoned in the woods by their parents, and have to survive the encounter of a predator – the witch - on their own. At the time (in history) of when this story takes place, abandonment was a very real threat if a family was on the brink of starvation. Small children and elders were left in the woods to ‘fend for themselves.’ Although these reasons are no longer valid, children can feel they are being abandoned, no matter how well it is dealt with, when parents get divorced, or have to travel a lot. Sadly there are families where a parent gets imprisoned, or parents are just too busy for their children. Little Red Riding Hood can help young children process events they might hear on the news about predators*. There are many ways tales can help, as well as entertain. 
As tools to understand the world around us, the old stories are as relevant today as when they were first told. And a good majority of the ancient, dark stories should be read to young people, and discussed. Just because a book is for children, does not mean only children should read them! I never stopped buying children’s books or getting them from the library and reading them, and I doubt I will. Read to your children, your grandchildren, your wards, and tell the gritty Grimm stories! They’ll become favourites.
Artwork by Rob Brooks, copyright 2017. For the cover of Under the Oaken Bough
by Simon Brooks, copyright 2017
The above text was taken and modified from parts of my forthcoming collection of retold folk and fairy tales, Under the Oaken Bough. Due out in November 2017
*See my article on LinkedIn – The Old Tales, and Personal Stories
For more of Rob's artwork, or to commission his work, visit his website:

Friday, May 05, 2017

Personal Development and Why an Artist Should Be Paid!

It is Friday.
We have a couple of electricians working on our stove, putting new wiring in, banging and crashing.
I am exhausted.
Some of my equipment at a gig

A few weeks ago I was working all weekend at a conference with the delightful Doug Lipman on sound for the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference of Northeastern Storytelling.
I have set up bands before, in my youth. I have set up sound in rooms for small presentations and story performances, but never done sound for a conference.
First of all, I have to say I was approached to do this as a volunteer, as was Doug. We were pooling equipment to create a soundscape for the presenters and audiences to ensure a great conference. I think we did that. It was a lot of fun.  I present a workshop called 'Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud', so I had better know what I do!

Then last weekend I went to the Northlands Confabulation. I am just recovering!

So often in the arts, people ask one to work for free. It rarely, if ever, is asked of a contractor, or lawyer, but artists get asked all the time to work gratis. I think some of it is that people assume you never went to college. Or that you don't have bills! But all professional artists have bills and on-going expenses. When my computer breaks down, I don't hand it over to my IT person - I don't have one! Well, it's me and I can only do a certain amount. When I need a new publicity campaign, I don't wander the hall to the PR department. Wait! That's me again and I pay for the paper, ink and mailing costs for all that stuff. And training and on-going professional development has to be organized and booked by me.

I just spent this past weekend (29th and 30th of April, 2017) at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I was presenting a workshop on microphones, PA systems and how to use and set them up to get the best sound for someone that presents stories. There are a few technophobes in my profession, although I love tech stuff, especially sound. Although I got a stipend to be at the conference and deliver my workshop (Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud), I had to get myself there, pay for the hotel, and registration fee. The advantage is that the stipend off-set some of the costs of driving the 2,096 miles there and back and I got to attend other workshops.

Ready to present Be Loud... at Nothlands, 2017
After watching some storytellers perform on Friday night I made my mind up whose workshops I wanted to attend, where I wasn't sure before. I went to Ingird Nixon''s workshop on 'Story Evolution By Way of Creative Selection.' The title alone had intrigued me but when I saw her perform, I knew I would learn from her.

Some of the things we did, were reminders of what I used to do and worked well. We get into habits, get out of others, so reminders are very important, and prevent our work getting stale. She introduced me to some techniques I had not tried which sparked some great ideas for stories I am working on right now. It was very well timed.

Another presenter I had to see was Susan O'Halloran, presenting 'Storytelling and the Culturally Relevant Classroom.' I recently saw Susan presenting at Sharing the Fire, the North Eastern Storytelling Conference where I was doing sound with Doug Lipman. There is a lot of misunderstanding about culture and how it effects what we do. My wife told about a training her workplace had on culture in the workplace. This was my own version! Susan does a fabulous job.

On Sunday I went to Antonio Rocha's workshop - 'A Conversation with Antonio.' It is always interesting to see how other storytellers work, and find out what makes them tick. Antonio is a remarkable storyteller who uses mime in his work. I do too, but not to the extent that Antonio does. He is a trained mime, and to watch him tell stories is like watching a human being being poured into different the invisible containers of his characters. What he does is pure magic and to learn from him is a gift.

When you think about asking an artist to work for free, please see the value in what they do as their art, and realize they are also their own IT department, PR company, booking agent, trainer, and office manager and pay them for what they do, just as you would an electrician, real estate agent, or doctor. After all, you don't see too many artists with multiple homes, a few cars and a boat, wearing Prada, or Rolex watches.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rumi and Storytelling

If you have been to one of my 'grown-up' gigs, or even one of my family gigs, you might know I am a fan of Rumi. Rumi is a poet, and came from Persia, originally from the Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan. He lived in the 1200's.
Rumi once said to his soul brother, Shams of Tahris: "stories are reshaped in the light of the tellers own concerns." Stories change.
Often we talk about the original source when we are asked where we got the story from from. Or we say the 'oldest source we can find'. But in my brief life span, I know stories shift and change. Who can know what the original source is, and how different it is from how that story was first heard? When I teach the art of storytelling, I mention that when we tell a story we part of ourselves into it. Something in our life resonates with the story, and it might put a spin on how we tell it. Something in the story becomes more important than another part, so we emphasis it.
We can read all the stories we want, we can read all the self-help books, but we need to put ourselves into the story, and into life.
Rumi taught the texts as his father before him did. He would read from them to his students. Shams took the sacred books and through them into the pool of a fountain. Shams told Rumi to live the words he was teaching. He asked Rumi to "surrender the literature" for living.
To me, storytelling is just that. It has to be to be able to ride the elusive dragon. I want to surrender myself to the story, not the words, and be that conduit for the story. And I also hope to live life that way.

Words and photo copyright Simon Brooks, © 2017

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Stories, and more stories - Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and Patakin by Nina Jaffe

 Fact - I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. Fact - I am a huge fan of the Norse myths. So when Neil came out with his retelling, I was thrilled, excited and pre-ordered his book, Norse Mythology. I waited months, and months, and months. And it arrived in February. I dove into the book with great abandon. And I was a little surprised.

 You KNOW Neil Gaiman knows his myths. Not just the Norse myths, but also the Greek myths, Japanese myths, the list could go on forever. You can see it in the layers of his graphic novels The Sandman. You can feel it in Neverwhere, and taste the Norse myths in Odd and the Frost Giants. Neil Gaiman is one of the most talented writers out there. His characters are deep, the mood is intense, even in some of his picture books (Wolves in the Walls). There is humour in his writing, great style, and knowledge.

 I was sorely disappointed in Norse Mythology. At times the writing is geared to young readers, but in the next moment it seems aimed at an older readership. He talks about poop, then says piss.The writing is choppy, in the way Oscar Wilde can be choppy - Neil Gaiman is not choppy!
Having said all this, the book is a fairly good retelling of the Norse myths, but it is not Gaiman's best writing. I ask myself if this book was edited, and if so does the editor still have a job?
Would I recommend it? Sort of. Not the hardcover. Get the paperback. If you are a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, maybe. If you have young readers or listeners who want to know more about the Norse gods, probably. Otherwise I highly recommend one of my favourite books of the Norse stories - Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths. It has everything the Gaiman book does and more. It might not be as cute as Gaiman's, but the Norse stories are not meant to be cute. Funny in places? Yes. Cute? No. Crossley-Holland's might be a little more dry, but they are myths and the book is well written.

Another book I finished this year was originally published 2001 and written by storyteller, folklorist, and drummer Nina Jaffe: Patakin, World Tales of Drums and Drummers. (Pronounced pah-tah-KEEN, the sound of hand hitting a drum.) As a drummer this book was of great interest to me and was recommended by Tim Van Egmond for a bodhrán tale it contained. Although most of these wonderful stories are traditional I discovered the bodhrán tale from Ireland was not a traditional tale, but one created 'for the drum' by Nina and features the legendary drummer Stevie Mac! The edition I got included a CD of some of the tales (not all ten). The introduction, five tales and epilogue are well told by the author and are augmented by the percussion featured in the story, and flute and vocals. The amount of research that obviously went into this book must have been great. You know there is more that was not included, and I for one, would be interested in seeing all the notes and research that went into this wonderful little book. Drums and their stories hail from Ghana, Fiji, Korea, India, Ireland, Haiti,Venezuela, Mexico and include a tale from te Inuit people and a Jewish story. With explanatory notes, a glossary, bibliography, discography, recommended resources and publications and further reading, if you like drums and folk tales, this is a must have book! If you are, or know a music teacher who love their drums, compliment their collection of books by adding this one! A well researched, nicely illustrated collection of tales indeed.

Both of these book reviews were unsolicited.
© 2017 Simon Brooks

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Here's To 2017, and a book review - Gossip From the Forest

The book I am going to review, is a must have for anyone who loves forests, fairy tales, and/or storytelling. But first...

Last year was pretty amazing. We got a dog - oh wait. That was late 2015. I performed at 100 venues. Some of these venues were multiple performances. I presented again at the National Storytelling Network Conference and met some truly wonderful people there. I have seen some very talented storytellers from all over the USA.

I moved my studio out of my office, to a more sound tight location. I got to see, with some friends, David Francey perform in New Hampshire and got to visit family back in the UK.

I fell in love with the Ramayana, read Stephen Mitchell's free translation of Gilgamesh along with a slew of other great (and not so great) books. And I started on my own book which we are hoping will be out in September.

One book I have not quite finished yet, which I am greatly enjoying, is Gossip from the Forest: the tangled roots of our forests and fairy tales, by Sara Maitland. I have not read anything else by her yet, and her writing is superb. I think I can it is mouth watering. The book is about forests in the UK and Grimm fairy tales. Starting in March, Maitland visits a different forest each month (per chapter) and talks about its ecology and/or culture and how (European) fairy tales are of the forest. At the end of each chapter, she retells one of the Grimm fairy tales. Sometimes the stories are a simple retelling with a new riff, but others are very different. Fans of Angela Carter will notice an echo, but these retellings are all Maitland. Those who are not fans of Carter, you may well like these.

Last night I finished Chapter 9: November - Kielder Forest, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. The Keilder Forest is in the very north of England, on the border of Scotland. Kielder is a heavily managed forest, Maitland talks about how the Forestry Commission, established in 1919 after World War One, has changed their mandate over the years and have not done a terribly good job up until recently. She talks about clear cutting, or clear felling, and it's pros and cons in these British forests. She writes how the forests are managed and how recently the way they are looked after is similar, in a way, to how forests were managed in the Middle Ages, only with very modern technology.
Burley in the New Forest, 1991, © Simon Brooks, 2017
Sara Maitland seemed to have a slight fear of forests, which she puts down, in some respect, to the love of the old fairy tales. She shows how we were once very connected to the woods, and the woods themselves are not to be feared. Indeed not all the animals and people there are to be feared either. Often there are helpers, it is a place to escape to. There is no need for panic on entering a forest, but there are things in the woods to be fearful of.

Maitland discusses how people are still deeply connected to some forests in their work, and how communities still use them. The work Maitland has done in research is thorough. The things I have learned from this book has been and will be useful to my work as a storyteller and writer. The history in this book is far from dry. Being born and raised in the UK I have spent a great deal of time in three of these forests - the Forest of Dean, the New Forest and Epping Forest. I know these woods and their vibe, if you will. It was wonderful to revisit them through Maitland's words.

If you like woods and fairy tales, then this is a must-have book. Sara Maitland's writing is, as I have said, superb and her reasoning and research is impeccable. The retellings of the stories (Thumbling, The White Snake, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Goosegirl, The Seven Swan's Sister, The Seven Dwarves, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, The Four Comrades, Dancing Shoes, and The Dreams of Sleeping Beauty) are creative and powerful. These alone will have you look at folk and fairy tales in a new light and might inspire you to retell stories in a new way. Her points of view and how they can be used to make a tale come to life, should inspire you to give a different spin on a story or go deeper with it.

My copy came from the UK and was first published in 2012. My 2013 paperback has the ISBN number 978-184708-430-9 and can be found at Amazon
Start the year off with a great book!


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An alternate look at the story of Troy (Circa Homer)

Please tell me the Iliad is a satire! Please. I have just read (and finished),  for the first time, the epic by Homer. What follows is an alternative look at the story of the Iliad and the fall of Troy, with some of the poem's backstory. Those Greek gods! I tell you.

Those gods are, to paraphrase the villain at the end of Scooby Doo, meddling, to put it bluntly! Agamemnon is a total arse. And what kind of stuck up, stubborn prima donna is Achille's? I know that honor is the biggest deal with warriors past and present. And I understand that Agamemnon insulted Achilles in the biggest way possible. Believe me, I would be pissed too! But to stand off from the fighting for all that time while his comrades and countrymen are out there battling, losing their lives, being maimed, writhing in pain?

Let's jump sideways a bit.
First of all, I suppose the biggest losers here are Helen (if she eloped and was not abducted which to me seems most likely) and Paris. If, IF Helen was abducted, then I can see why Menelaus would set a war in motion to get his bride back. To get a thousand ships to get bring back ones true love is a pretty impressive feat (pact or no pact). But a ten year war with the body count rising - is it about love, honour, what? Also it has me wonder how many of those soldiers on those thousand ships died a day?

Let's look at the numbers. Ten years = 3,650 days. Let's take out all the weekends (I am not going to count public/bank holidays) in case they had weekends off. This leaves 2,610 days of fighting. From what Homer says, there were between 50 - 120 men on each ship. Taking an average, that is about 100,000 men on those thousand ships. If these Spartans and their allies were all killed, that would be about 38 bodies a day. Double that for the opposition - supposing the equal number were killed in the 10 year war - that is a total 76 soldiers killed a day. Seems a little low to me. Just saying!

I grew up in Britain where there were a lot of battles in our history. I have read about the Battle of Hastings (1066), and The Battle of Worcester (1651), among others, and 76 bodies a day is a little low for a kill count. The Battle of Worcester, a one day battle on the 3rd September, 1651, had between two to four thousand men killed - on the side of the Royalists alone. Hmm. Maybe the Greeks took lunch breaks, time off for texting, washing wounds and hanging with the gods. I know a few soldiers were whipped away from their imminent death by the gods, but still.

Okay let's put that aside. I know that times have changed, and all this happened a long time ago. Believe me, I read a great deal of old stories and understand the ethos of the olden days. I understand that our ethics, morals, treatment of people on the whole, has changed since Homer's day! So even with this as a consideration, let's move on and take all this at face value. Helen's face, I suppose.

Oh, Achilles. The etymology of Achilles' name means, if I have this correctly, 'grief of the people'. Too bloody right - if you pardon the pun. The grief of the soldiers, their families, in Achilles letting so many die before he beats Hector back to the walls of Troy - definitely 'grief of the people'. He is a sulky bully. A great warrior, no doubt, but very sulky. Seems to have had a pretty good childhood. His father adopted the very young Patroclus (who grew to be a very wise man) when Achilles was knee high to a grass hopper. Patroclus and Achilles were the best of friends. But Achilles let's Patroclus go in Achilles' own armor to fight the Trojans who are jonesing to kill the great runner. He does tell Patroclus to return and not get killed. Well, he does his best, but, well - spoiler alert - Patroclus is killed by Hector. This is what it takes to get Achilles to fight, and fight he does! Possessed? A little. This does not happen until book 19 and Achilles has just been given the bad news. "Yeah, Atrides. Let's bury the hatchet and kill the Trojans!" And all over a girl. Silly us! That scene is almost as ridiculous as the movie Batman Vs Superman when Batman is beating the living snot out of Superman who is muttering "Martha, Martha." Batman stops and asks Clark why he is mentioning Batman's mothers name. It turns out that it is Superman's mum's name too. "No kidding? Really? What are we fighting for? We have mother with the same name! Let's be BFFs from now on!" And then later Achilles says of Helen, "If only Artemis had shot her with one quick shaft..." Really? It's Helen's fault and Artemis should have ended it? Blaming Helen and Artemis for poor choices. Nice. Well Achilles gets his. "Courage-shattering Death engulfed the corpse." Nice.

Priam seems a complete wuss, and a failure as a ruler when it comes to this war. Not only allowing his son Paris to keep Helen as his (second) wife, but failing to listen to the most sound minds around him. A few advisers told Priam to have Paris give Helen up, but he thinks it okay for his son to have a stolen wife and treats Helen as his own daughter. Well, more fool Priam - he loses all his 'warrior' sons because of this, as well as how many thousand others dead? Paris is not one of the 'warrior sons.'

Menelaus seems to send his brother Agamemnon to do a lot of his work for him. First to woo Helen, or at least negotiate the marriage, and then to fight for her return after she was taken by/left with Paris. Kings in those days, actually any man in those days would choose who their daughters would marry. Women were vessels for producing heirs, or children to work for the roof over their heads. Helen is betrothed to Menelaus because he picked the lucky straw. More on that in a moment.

Menelaus is shot in the gut during the battle, normally a fatal and unbelievably painful wound, but he later fights in the sack of Troy, dropping from the wooden horse, slaying many (well, less than 76) as he does so. When he finds Helen he vows to kill her for all the trouble she caused. Here, matters get a little sticky. Depending on the source, either:
a: as he raises his sword Helen begins to cry, causing Menelaus to have a change of heart and takes her back as his wife
b: same as 'a' but this time she renders her clothes in sorrow for her acts, bearing herself before him. Menelaus looking at her beauty decides to spare her
c: on seeing Helen again and gazing on her beauty, Menelaus drops his sword and says he will punish her back in Sparta (but not told how! Time out? A jolly good spanking? No parties for a month? We don't find out.)
or d: Menelaus says his men can stone her to death but she rips her clothes open, and the warriors drop the stones and stare at her. Oh, that Helen!

And what about Helen? Her story is a little mixed. Her birth a little unorthodox to us now, but somewhat common in Greece at the time. Helen's mother was the princess Leda, who 'protected' Zeus (disguised as a swan). Leda fell in love with said swan, mated with said swan and gave birth to Helen.  That's one story, anyway. Another is that her mother was Nemisis, which given the trouble Helen causes (inadvertently or otherwise) makes sense! Leda's worldly husband who helped raised Helen (may the gods forgive Zeus for leaving the parenting to Lena and her step-father) was Tyndareus.

Like all 'history' Helen's depends on what side you fall, or what camp you are in! Paris, if indeed he did abduct Helen, was not the first to do so. It seems Theseus snagged her first, thinking, as son of an immortal, he needed a semi-divine wife. Some accounts have her as a very young girl, when this happens. Other accounts state she was learning the arts of war with her (mortal) brothers. Somewhere, somehow, she makes it back to her mother and step-dad for 'proper' marrying age, and Tyndareus has to deal with other suitors. Let's face it, she is pursued by many, some records count 45 men, so something is going on for her.

At some point during the war Helen sees Paris for what he is - a sad little man - and she then begins a friendship with Hector. As we all know, Paris ends up dead and this time the Trojans decide on who Helen marries next - another of Priam's sons, Deiphobus. It's not surprising that Menelaus is a little upset when he finds Helen. So really, is Helen at fault here? She is treated, like most if not all women of the time, like a sack of flour and passed from one baker to another. If she did in fact go willingly with Paris (because after all she was a warrior in her own right, and hated the way she was pawned off), then discovers Paris is a whelp, and finds herself in deep doo-doos, who can blame her? Well, the Trojans I suppose. And the Spartans. And their allies. Anyway, let's move on.

Tyndareus, Helen's step-dad. What of Tyndareus? He offers the suitors of Helen straws to pick to win her hand in marriage. The king is too gutless to pick one of the suitors himself, thinking the rejected men would kill him, or at least invade and ruin his country. He thought the straw idea was a safe bet. What a way to be wooed and wed. To placate the suitors who 'lost', an agreement was made that they would all come to Helen's aid it were ever needed. This pact, the Oath of Tyndareus, was thought up by Odysseus, one of the said suitors. This is the pact that causes a thousand ships to be launched, never mind the face. Menelaus is not some young hero either. An older man, shall we say. Maybe that's why she went (willingly or otherwise) with Paris. It is a little ambiguous as to whether she went of her own accord, or left with Pairs and eloped, but I tend to think she willingly buggered of with the not-so-smart Pairs and had to lay in the bed she made herself.

Paris was a complete troublemaker. But again, we have not lived in his shoes. Is he a complete numpty, or is he just a coward trying all along to get the best for himself without thinking of others? Or just a coward saving his own skin? Whichever way you look, he is a looser and troublemaker. Paris is a moral. There is nothing special about him. When he is asked by Zeus to judge the most beautiful goddess he agrees. What an idiot - right off the bat for taking on the task. But which would one prefer: the wrath of Zeus or two of the three goddesses? Even Zeus who is asked by the goddesses to judge knows it is a bad idea. I suppose to Paris, fed up of looking after sheep, being able to check out three goddesses in the buff seems like a good idea at the time. Even standing before Paris naked, the lad can't decide which of the three is the most beauteous. Aphrodite bribes Paris to vote for her by offering him the most beautiful woman in the world. According to the goddess, this is Helen. Paris, is offered other gifts from the other goddesses, but of course chooses a woman already wed despite being wed himself. (Hera's offer of the ownership of Europe and Asia would probably come with its own hefty cost too.) I can see Paris sitting there gazing on Hera, Aphrodite and Athena with his chin on his hand saying: "I just don't know. Can turn to the left? Shake your hair about a little.  Could you turn all the way around? No, it's too hard! You are all beautiful. Hang on a moment. No, you are all gorgeous. I just cannot make my mind up!" Maybe he was playing for time, hoping they would give up on the notion of who was the most beatific. Funny how no one thought to look at the inside, at the personality of each. If they had, maybe none and that apple thrown to the goddesses would be left uneaten. These Greek gods and goddesses, so entitled. Oh my gosh (hair flick).

So Paris, making a few wrong choices, goes after Helen. But wait! Is he a great warrior, worthy of a Queen? Not really. He uses a bow and arrow, which despite being a kick-ass weapon, is not seen by the Ancient Greeks as being a particularly noble weapon. You don't have to get into the thick of the action and therefore don't get scars to prove your worth. You sit in the safety of the outskirts of battle and shoot people without the risk of getting hurt yourself. Hector is not thrilled with his brother, nor his father - although presumably the latter was fine with all this in the first place. Before the great battle gets too bloody, Paris offers to duel with Helen's true husband, but when the lad is almost killed, Aphrodite spirits Paris back to the safety of clean sheets and a bed back home. Aphrodite, although presumably trying to keep her end of the bargain, just makes things worse by doing this. Paris is to die at the hand of Philoctettes. Helen runs off to the nymph Oenone, Paris' first wife knowing that the nymph can save Paris. Oenone could heal him, but she is pissed at Paris and effectively says, let the bugger die. Although Oenone then throws herself on his funeral pyre. Aphrodite has a lot to answer for.

Then there is the fighting. I have to say Homer can write a really good battle scene. I have added up (I was halfway through the book when I started this) the number of different ways he describes being killed. There are at least 19 wonderful phrases he uses and none of them are: snuffed it,kicked the bucket, was left pushing up daisies! Death, funnily, is mentioned a lot. "Death's dark cloud closed down around the corpse." Wow. I have to say, I loved this stuff. There are many metaphors like: "...chopped down with an axe, it's leaves running with sap." This is poetry at its best. Forget the characters, the poem is one of the best. "Life fell from his limbs." There is a lot of blood too! And it is described going everywhere in the most gory of ways. For those with gentle dispositions I will not give examples, but know, this book (this fine translation was by Robert Fagles) holds Nothing Back!

At one point, Zeus says to the other gods, 'Go on then! Have some fun.' So they break up into teams, and get in with the fighting. When Poseidon gets going, Hades wakes up and wonders what is going on. Athena starts yelling: "Stretch the Trojans out in the dust with all their sons and wives." This was to Apollo. What did the kids and wives do? Apollo sulks off and his sister calls him a coward, for not killing the wives and children. The gods and goddesses are like children in a playground at a bad school. It's like Match of the Day has ended, they didn't like results, so in they go to sort it out themselves.

As I said before Agamemnon is a complete arse.  He kind of reminds me of Trump. Lots of bluster, lots of threats. "Your fired!" Except Agamemnon fires people (the Trojans) with spears. After getting here, and getting a lot of people killed out Aggie wants to flee. "Come on. Let's sneak off. No one will know." Odysseus says: "You are a disaster! Would you rule cowards? Bid farewell to Troy, kiss her streets goodbye after all the grief our men have suffered the cost of our comrades?" Too right. Let's keep this battle going, get into the city and sack it. Forget Helen!

So the war goes on. Hector is killed - to me the one of the smartest men on and off the field - the truest, in my mind, of all the warriors. Priam is devastated. Some of Priam's family call him mad, because he rides into the Argive camp to speak with Achilles and ask for Hector's body back. Hector's corpse has been run all over the camp, but the gods have anointed his body so no mark is left on him. Achilles agrees and allows Priam to have twelve days to bury his greatest son. After which the war continues, but not in the Iliad.

UPDATE: A colleague of mine, Nick Smith has told me what a "...lousy reputation the Greeks had for doing siege warfare properly. Apparently in those days a siege pretty much meant standing around outside the walls of a city and starving the folks inside, or bribing someone to open the gate, if it was a strong fortress. If the walls were too tall for siege ladders, and the gates too thick for a battering ram, the attackers were pretty much out of ideas.
"In the case of Troy, apparently they couldn’t completely surround it and couldn’t climb the walls or break down the gate, and no one inside was stupid enough to accept a bribe, so there wouldn’t have been any way to bring things to a quick conclusion. Still, the body count would have been relatively low. That’s because except on days when Trojans came out to fight, for the honor and glory of the thing, then mostly everyone would have been standing out of bowshot of each other, making rude faces."

The rest of the Trojan War is found elsewhere - such as the Roman Aenid by Virgil, Euripedes' Hecabe, Apollodorus' Epitome etc., etc..

I have to say that Robert Fagles' translation is thorough and makes for a fabulous read. The story itself and the characters can be a pain, but the poetry of Homer is sublime to read. It might be a while before I hit the Aenid and the Odyssey (I have two translations - one by Robert Fitzgerald and the other by E. V. Rieu) and get through the real Greek stories, but I did enjoy the Iliad.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Recording Your Stories At Home - 4 What the Dang Does a DAW Do, and other tips!

So let's start at the beginning of this so you can do the best job you can. And please remember this is a blog and there are things YOU need to do to gain the skills you want! Hate to say to it, but I can't make you great.

You have your space - you cannot hear furnaces, clocks, screaming kids and all that, right?
You have your equipment. Let's put it together in the room.

If you are going to record on a desk, have some material around which you can lie over the hard surfaces to keep sound reflection to a minimum. If you are standing to record, that is not going to be an issue.

The microphone needs to be a fair distance from the back wall for the same reasons, unless you have something to absorb the sound behind the microphone. This could be packing foam found in computer boxes (or used to be), egg crate foam from a craft store, or a thick towel pinned or hanging up (a tea towel won't cut it- sorry), or something like sE's Reflexion Filter but this will cost you $200 or so. You could get a large crate, or a laundry basket, set it up on your desk and fill it and cover it with towels. A much cheaper option!

No pop screen here! The mic was very unresponsive. Hear:

The microphone needs to be pretty close to your mouth, but not too close. You will want to play around with the mic to see which position gives you the best tone. It might be upright, leaning forward or back a tad. The distance from you and the microphone (with the pop screen between you) should be about 8 inches.This way the mic does not have be cranked to pick you up (and picking up any other sounds too). Pop screen? You should have a pop screen to stop the plosives. Those are the breathy air noises, those pops you get when you say 'B', and 'P' etc. These are found at all sorts of prices but one could make a fairly good screen from coat hanger wires and ladies hose! Imagine a table tennis bat with stockings instead of wood in the middle! This needs to be in front of the mic between you and it. Keep you back straight. The diaphragm of the mic should be level with your mouth if you are using a diaphragm mic. If you don't know where that is, move the mic up and down until you get the most signal (volume) from it. If you are using a dynamic mic, then the top needs to be pointing directly at your mouth.
Plug the mic into the computer, or the USB box you have and make sure that is hooked up to the computer. Ensure, if there is a built-in mic on your computer and it is close to the speakers, it is off otherwise you might experience some crazy feedback. You can also plug in headphones, although this might not work as well as you think!

Open your DAW! Open a new song. Create a track. You cannot record without a track. Make sure all the effects are off. Add those later. If you record with them on, you cannot take them off later. You have more control later, IF you want to add any. Make sure it is mono. Unless you plan on exasperating voice through left and right channels, you will need stereo, but almost all the time, a straight vocal recording is done in mono. You are ready to roll. Or record at least.
Check the levels of the microphone on the DAW by hitting record. Make sure when you talk into it, the top and bottom of the signal you should see - that wiggly band in the middle - does not hit the outer edges of the track and red warning lights light up! That is peaking and will sound bad - very distorted and scratchy, and not be able to be edited out later! Also, you do not want a narrow band in the middle, as that will be too quiet. The center of the band is 0 - zero. You want to get the level to something around -6. This is only a guide. As long as nothing hits the red, you should be good. Plug in your head phones. Turn the volume down low, so you can barely hear yourself. If it is too loud, you might stumble over what you are saying. It takes a while to get used to!
Go back and record your story.

Some programs - all the ones that usually cost something, (although the free version of Studio One 3 has it!) have a wonderful little widget called roll back, or pre-roll. If you can master this, your life will be made so much easier.  (Audacity, which I just downloaded to see, does not have this as far as I can tell.) Usually, without this technique, if you make a mistake, you will have to start recording over and cut the bad bit, the mistake out and then drag the right hand segment to join the remaining left hand segment! Sometimes when you restart, the cut does not work and you have to rerecord a whole lot more than you thought. This can make a job last forever. Or feel like that.
With pre-roll what happens is that you stop when you make a mistake, go back to the last good bit - find the clear end of a sentence or paragraph, if you will - and mark that spot. Mentally if no other way. If you have pre-roll engaged, the cursor will go back a pre-set time (usually three seconds but many programs allow you to choose how long), when you hit record. You will hear in your cans, your headphones, the last bit of the clean work, the end of that sentence or paragraph and THEN it starts to record. You jump right in with the following sentence.  This means you are editing on the go. There are not segments to pull together - yet!
Once you have recorded the story, you will want to listen to it all the way through. If you are reading from a script, something I do not when telling stories, but do do when recording audio books, obviously, there is a good chance that you misread a word, or fumbled a word. Sometimes a pause might last forever. The 'standard' is that you should never leave a silence longer than 3 seconds. People think it is over after 3 seconds. Don't ask me why - it just is!
When you mark up the spot you want to leave, enlarge the section/segment as much as you can and get the cursor as close to the end of the 'signal' as possible. This will make sure any breaths you might have taken are cut out. It sound weird when you make an edit and listen back and there is a part breath between words, or sentences! A little gasp!
So another thing you will need to listen for are mouth pops. These not the plosives we talked about earlier. These are the noises your mouth makes when saliva pops on the corner of your mouth or at the back of your throat. If it is bad, it sounds disgusting. Keeping hydrated helps alleviate this. Eating sweets and candy make it worse! You will need to cut those little buggers out! OR, OR!
If you use Audition by Adobe, then you will have this - a spectral frequency display! If you are not paying $20 a month for the rest of your recording life and are using something else,then I will save you searchingfor one, as I found a spectral frequency display plug-in. And it is only fifty bucks! It is called - Spectro from Stillwell Audio and can be found here:
I love this little gem. It makes my life easier and that makes me happy!
Basically you drag the plugin onto the track, or activate it with the track depending on the DAW, and you will see all sorts of orange and yellow appear in the programs screen as you play the track. Listening you will hear those mouth noises, and to remove them, you will drag a box over the frequencies and hit M for mute, and it's gone. Obviously there is some finesse in doing this so it sounds good, but you can use this to remove other sounds that also pop through. Obviously, the more you are using this (bigger boxes), the more likely the sound will degrade- if you take out too much. Find what needs to go, and only that and you are set. I found that there have been a couple of times I have still got a plosive when I record. I might have moved a tad closer to the mic. But Spectro has helped me get rid of those too. I was thrilled. They will be at the very bottom of the screen as a small bright yellow ball or box. Make the smallest box you can, and pop it over the pop and the pop is gone! Again, as with all of this, you should play with it and find what works and what doesn't. Go overboard just to hear what it sounds like, go underboard too! There will be times when even this does not work, and you will have to rerecord, But I love Spectro! This is for us PC users and Mac users. I cannot thank Stillwell enough for this product. It is a life saver. You can download it for free and test it out. If you are only using it for fun, and not making tracks to sell, it costs $25 (or if you are using Reaper), but if you do what I do and sell your stories and/or music, and/or audiobooks where you can, then be honorable and pay the full fee. It is so worth it. And they have friendly, helpful email tech support.

A note on headphones. As with speakers and microphones, headphones have coloured sound - a bias to the top, middle, or low end of the sound spectrum. You might love listening to the heavy bass beat when driving, or shopping, blocking out the whole world, but when recording you want the most balanced and clean sound you can get. Otherwise, when you edit and play with the EQ, you will pull up the treble because it sounds all muffled, but when it is played in a car, or on a stereo, or on a device once downloaded, etc., it will sound as tinny as the Tin Man might sound! I have a pair of Presonus HD7's which came with the kit I bought that are good. I love AKG K240's which fit really nicely on me and have a wonderful balanced sound. Neither are closed headphones. This means they have open bits to them, so other outside sound can be heard when working with them. I will be getting some of the Sony MDR 7506 closed headphones at some point. Closed headphones might make your ears sweat a little, but it will keep out all, or most, other sounds. I have tried earbuds, but they do not give the fullness of sound you want to be able to hear. As with the mics and with speakers Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Tascam, and many others make great headphones. Stay with the well-known names and you should be good. Do not buy cheap, but buy economically. Better still go and try some out and find cans which are comfortable to wear. If you are sitting for an afternoon wearing headphones, you want to be comfortable. Places like Guitar Centers have headphones. See if you can find a local recording studio and pop in for a look around. Try their headphones on for size!

So you have recorded. You have edited. Now there is the 'make it sound pretty' bit!
Hopefully the DAW you are using has a number of different EQs you can use and try out. The free version of Studio One 3,does not! The artist edition might, but you should check first, before you buy! Audacity has a few pre-made EQs you can play with. Personally I never found one (admittedly in the past) which worked for me. Here is the Key Thing I learned about EQ. If it does not sound bassy enough, do NOT up the bass. Drop the treble. If you sound too muddy, do not up the treble, drop the bass. This is the opposite of what some folks do in their car. They turn the treble and bass to full. Don't do that. It sounds like a bad radio station. EQ is not something that can be taught over a blog. It takes years to grow and get your ears tuned to master a track well. My suggestion is that if you cannot make it sound good, ask someone who can. If you value your products make sure you do it well, or don't do it. Find the pro who can help you. If you can play with the frequencies, which the  better DAWs allow, then make it sound really bad and work backwards making it sound better until you hit it on the head. The only way you will learn how to do this is like anything else - use it, play with it, make deliberate mistakes and fix them. And repeat. At some point, hopefully, you will get it.
Sound effects. This is something personal. I personally cannot stand any sort of echo or reverb on my voice for spoken audio work. I like it clean and crisp so when folks are listening to the track, it seems you are right next them and not in the catacomb which sounds cool, but far away in another place altogether. You can add those sorts of things to places and pieces that work, although that can be distracting too. Someone might have dialogue in a crypt (it is getting close to Halloween as I write this!) and it might work, add to what you are trying to do. Or it might sound awful and fake. Try these sorts of things out. It is fun, but make sure you really want something there and get feedback from others as to whether it works or not.
Once you have done all that, mix it down to an MP3 - the lowest quality, and listen to it on a device and on a good stereo. Play your track next to other tracks - like music CDs. Is your track too quiet? This is when you go back to the DAW and raised the mater level a little. Does it clip? Go in the red? Most likely there is part of your story which is a little louder than the rest. Find that or those spots and drop those places down a little, but then raise the overall level. There are other ways to do this,such as compression. But for voice, I am not a fan of it. Compression can easily destroy what you have done. This is something I do leave to the pros, but mostly I cut the levels of the loud bits and raise the master gain up a little at a time. If it is too noisy overall, I lower the gain but still look for those peaks. Play the track in a car. If you find yourself reaching over to turn the volume down or up, then have someone with you to mark those times. Go back and revise what you did. There are some story CDs I cannot listen to in the car because the volume goes all over the place. Not only is that not so great to listen to, but it means I am always reaching for the volume,distracting my driving. Not a fan of that sort of thing.

After this, hand the track, or tracks to an HONEST friend or three who you trust. Ask them what they think and demand HONEST answers. Listen to them and try and follow what they said. If one person says it, is might be true. If two people say it, it will be true. If three people say the same thing and you don't listen to them, go get professional help! Or don't expect to sell much of what you have made!

Setting the bar high is the professional thing to do. To say; 'well, it will do' will not encourage people to buy the next recording, or even listen to it. Or the next. When you have the finished product, make a WAV or AIFF file. Next to FLAC these are the highest quality files you can make. Don't mess with FLAC unless you have to! Then put it out there!

Well, I hope some of this helps, or gives you something to think about. I welcome comments and additions to what I have written. The laundry basket came from a colleague of mine's comment on a previous blog about recording! Listen and act! This is not a course in recording, merely four blogs to help you get started and to give you an idea

Good luck! Have fun. If you don't you wasted a lot of time and money which could have gone to other things. And if you have money to spare, throw it this way! I am happy to help out!

Now I need to fetch my daughter from school!