Sound Effects for Storytellers

By Rivka Willick, Sharing the Fire Intensive Presenter

A couple of years ago I was invited to be part of a live radio theatre group.  Truth is, my husband and daughter loved the acting element, and I came along for the fun of it.  I’m a storyteller and I’m not drawn to traditional acting, but this was a local group supporting our park and it looked like fun.  Once we all gathered together, Catherine, the co-leader of this crazy collective, looked at me and then pointed to the table in the corner; the sound effects table. Suddenly everything got a lot more fun.

When I first began storytelling, about 15 years ago, I was a purist. Just focus on the story; nothing else is needed.  Then I went to a workshop where the presenter emphasized the idea of pure telling: no costumes, no character voices, no puppets, and no props!  Just the story!  Then she got up and danced as she told her story.  I approached her after the workshop and asked why she danced as she told. She said, “it’s OK to dance, I’m a dancer.”

She is a dancer and I love to play, so over the years I’ve given myself permission to infuse playfulness and fun into my performing.  When I saw that table filled with sound effects during that first live radio drama performance I discovered a whole new territory to explore!

Sound effects are not new to tellers; we all probably use them, just don’t realize it.  We make many sounds using our body that embellish our performance.  When we clap our hands, stamp our feet, slap our cheek or thigh we are doing sound effects. We might also use objects we find on stage to make sounds such as thumping or dragging a chair, knocking and pounding a podium, or, if we’re adventurous, we might try weird microphone tricks.

Although our little performing company used many pre-recorded sounds when we did the live old time radio performances, the audience enjoyed watching us make the sounds with real props.  A crash box, old shoes in a gravel box, or a dropped bag became part of the experience.  We can learn from those old-time sound-effects wizards and add fun to a story or show.  This is also a great way to invite audience members up to be part of a story. Most sound effects are simple to do, and let’s face it — it’s fun to make noise.  If you work with an ensemble, theatrical sounds add excitement during a long show and allow the entire group to work together.

Let’s not forget traditional instruments in our arsenal of sounds. Drums and percussives can add rhythm and excitement throughout a story or at specific points.  Certain instruments, like rain sticks and wave drums, create realistic environmental sounds.  Kids’ instruments are also great fun.

I’ll be presenting Story-Rhythm-Drums & Sound, one of the intensive workshops at the Sharing the Fire Storytelling Conference on Friday, March 24th from 1-5pm.  The workshop focuses on the rhythms we live, speak, and tell.  At the end of the workshop we will play with sound effects and explore more ways to incorporate them into performances.

Since the workshop is a couple of months away, let’s get started a little early.  Here are instructions on making your own rainstick.  Traditional rainsticks were originally created by indigenous people in Chile, Panama, Ecuador, Mexico, and Australia from elements in their natural environment.  We’ll create ours with stuff around the house.

To make your own Rainstick you will need:

  1.                Long, wide cardboard tube (maybe you’ll still have some from holiday gift wrap.  A poster tube is another good choice.)  Just make sure the opening is big enough for the slinky.
  2.                Metal or plastic slinky
  3.                Beans or rice (I like dry mixed beans-they offer you a variety of sounds)
  4.                Heavy duty plastic bag (a thick plastic grocery bag will also work)
  5.                Duct Tape (everything is better with duct tape)

Step 1:  Tie a string to one end of the slinky.

Step 2:  Stretch the other end of the slinky out a little and attach it securely to one end of the tube with duct tape.  Completely cover the end with piece of heavy plastic. Tape end with duct tape.

Step 3:  Pull the slinky through the tube. The string should help you.  If the slinky is too big feel free to cut it.  Try to have the slinky swirls evenly distributed in tube.  Secure end of slinky to tube.

Step 4: Pour beans into tube. The amount will depend on the size of the tube. Cover the open end with your hand to try out the sound.  Increase or decrease the beans until it sounds right. Cover second end with heavy plastic and secure with duct tape.

Step 5: Decorate the outside.  I use colorful duct tape.

(NOTE: this can also be done as a project for children with a paper towel tube and rice. It won’t have the same sound quality as the one describe above, but the kids will enjoy making it.)

If you make a rainstick or try other sound effects, please find me and let me know during Sharing the Fire 2017.

Want to explore drumming and sound effects with Rivka? Take her intensive, Story-Rhythm-Drums & Sound, (Friday, March 24 from 1:00 – 5:00pm) at Sharing the Fire 2017. Visit the STF Conference Details page to register for the conference.

Want to share your own ideas about sound effects? Leave a comment.

Rivka Willick at STF 2017Rivka Willick is a professional storyteller, story-coach, drum circle facilitator and writer. She orally composes and tells healing, personal, historical, Jewish, and fantasy tales to Adult, Teen, and Family, and young audiences.  She coaches people around the world in a wide range of applications in the art of the story.


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