A Voice Posted by William Sidney Parker February 27, 2011

One of my sisters sent me a link to the below video and it made me think of the power of having a true voice. She sent it for political reasons, I believe. We are Southern liberals. (Yes. There were, and are, such creatures. In Hollywood we are usually revised into the eccentric friend—think Shirley MacLain—which may be a tender mercy: we can be exasperatingly earnest and make Atticus Finch seem like a rake.)

I think my sister sent me this link because of current political events, but after I forced myself through its six-and-a-half minutes, I realized I’d seen a man awed by a voice—a funny and plodding voice.

Craftsmen and artists concern themselves a great deal with the search for voice—so much so that many will term their entire practice as such. It’s funny, because to those who have never confronted a craft or practice, this metaphor of The Voice (and yes, it often sounds capitalized) sounds esoteric (that’s being kind—it sounds pretentious) when it isn’t.

It’s why we put off a phone call, or why we put off a phone call when we feel in person more appropriate; why some things are not said in a voicemail; why some things written in an e-mail or posted on-line go disastrously awry; why even today we want to put some things in a letter—and dread how to do it. If you’ve ever said, “That’s not what I meant,” you have, in some way, struggled with finding your voice: you explain the recorded message, the e-mail. You quickly give its context and your intention, and your demeanor, you hope, supports the sincerity of your explanation. If you take on the responsibility for the miscommunication (if it is miscommunication and this is not a post-factum cover up) and the damage hasn’t festered into its own conflict, the situation is quickly resolved. You, in person, with your voice, communicate quickly and easily what your message, e-mail, post or letter disastrously did not.

That’s part of what craftsmen and artists mean when they speak of the struggle to find their voice: they can’t follow their work around, explaining what they meant; they have to synchronize what they say with the medium through which they say it. What may be easy, and quick (and fleeting), to say in person, can be fiendishly difficult to write, to paint, to sing.

Those craftsmen and artists who find their voice usually say similar things about the experience: it took a lot of work (and usually a lot of time); it made their previous understanding of their work seem childish or nonsensical, irrelevant or misguided; the voice itself has a disembodied reification to it—like a chalice they’d suddenly stumbled upon; it has tremendous power (which they characterize as not their own or as not owned by them); and the craftsmen and artists are humbled by it.

I think in this video you see the power of such a voice. Mr. Rogers’ voice is, in fact, comical. To this day, my first reaction is: is this guy for real? It’s as though he took baby talk, flattened the range and lowered its timbre and pitch back to a semblance of adult speech (like a reverse chipmunks effect), but the lively mouth with elongated vowels and gentle consonants remain. A reverse chipmunks effect—too much actually, because while the pitch and timbre are now normal, someone forgot to adjust the rate, forgot to de-metronome it: it is too slow, too regular. My God, Mr. Rogers doesn’t just speak slowly, he makes you know, instantly, he will never, ever, speak faster. At first blush, you may think, as I do, he’s condescending, but you quickly realize his voice is something about clarity and sincerity, and it ain’t going nowhere.

In this video, Mr. Rogers is testifying before the Senate against a proposal to halve the budget for PBS. He starts off with a move that, since it’s Mr. Rogers, you don’t realize for a few beats is stunning and audacious: he compares the Senator to a child and explains he will trust the Senator to read his prepared statement, because it is important to teach trust by trusting, and instead use his live testimony time to speak to other matters.

It takes the Senator a few beats to feel the blow as well. He belatedly interjects a response, but listen closely to it: it’s manly, almost condescending, and practically admits he hadn’t planned on reading it, begs to be absolved of the trust (and work) to do so.

Mr. Rogers carefully, and politely, leaves the responsibility with the Senator.

Now you can just watch. It’s not easy. I loved his show, but Mr. Rogers’ Senate Testimony sounds like a late-night comedy sketch idea (a bad one), but that voice, plodding and funny, is powerful. And watching this testimony is a rare opportunity to see what craftsmen and artists mean when they speak of finding their voice: it can awe.

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