Audio Memoir

Dan Harris, “Grapefruits, Dipsticking, and Teddy”

Link to Transcript

Teacher helping struggling student.

Male student struggling to read the book in front of him. Female teacher has her arm around the student, trying to help him read the book.

This audio memoir resulted from my failure to execute my first idea for this project. Initially, I wanted to create an audio narrative about my grandfather comprised of family memories and stories. However, I struggled with the logistics of accomplishing that goal. Living 30 minutes away from my parents and trying to get my mother to complete the audio on her own proved to be too much of a hurdle for me to overcome. While taking a break from  the assignment, I did some reading for my other graduate class, English Methods. I came across a picture of a boy writing while a teacher leans over his shoulder, presumably helping him. The young man is a student of color, and the teacher is White. This stereotypical image of the “struggling Black student” conjured up a memory of my first year teaching and the district’s mandated teacher training course. I began to think about the underbelly of teaching: the time spent “professionalizing” to supposedly enhance one’s pedagogy, but the result is usually anything but helpful. With that I mind, my new project goal became to reveal these experiences to an audience unfamiliar with this aspect of teaching and perhaps give some insight into why education in this country is a bit fractured.

In this piece, I transformed a written memoir into an audio memoir. Considering the genre of memoir and its intimate nature, the expressiveness of my voice became a paramount concern during the composing process. As Heidi McKee (2006) wrote, “meaning is carried not solely by the verbal content [of speech] but, as oral performers and oral readers continually show, also by the vocal qualities” (p. 340). I paid close attention to the tonal shifts in the written memoir in an effort to determine where to change the inflection and speed of my voice in the audio project. My choice to transform the mode of my piece and manipulate my own voice helped, I believe, in achieving my goal of telling a funny, yet frustrating anecdote about my first year teaching.

My piece has two narrators: one who narrates the experience of participating in professional development, and another who reflects on what happened and how it shaped him as a teacher. Taking heed of Theo van Leewen’s (1999) discussion of vocal qualities, I altered my voice’s intensity to create particular rhetorical effects in the audio memoir. van Leeuwen explained the differences between a tense and lax voice and their impact on an audience. If one tenses the throat muscles, said van Leeuwen, the pitch of sound becomes higher, the sound sharper, brighter, and tenser, “expressing emotions such as ‘fright’, ‘anguish’, ‘scorn’ and ‘sarcasm’” (p. 131). In contrast, if the muscles remain relaxed, the sound itself is relaxed, creating a more casual, informal feeling. With this in mind, I adjusted the intensity of my voice when the tone of the piece shifted. For example, when I told the brief anecdote of the three guest speakers, I kept my voice tight and varied its intensity to create sarcasm. However, when I came to the end of that segment, I allowed the muscles to relax, shifting the audience from narration of the event to how I felt looking back. This shift in tone provided a moment of reflection and understanding as well as a break from the insanity of the training. My intention was to have the piece move similarly from the climax of the “Smelly Teddy” story to its significance in the lives of the teachers who witnessed it.

Transforming this work from an alphabetic text to an audio composition afforded me the opportunity to shift and create divergent tones and ultimately a more nuanced piece. Written language does not allow for the “voice’s potential for deliberate performance and play” (Anderson, 2014). By composing this piece as an audio memoir, I had the ability to perform and play with the story and create a new experience for my audience. In some ways, this transformation reflects the genre of memoir and its intimacy a bit more because of voice’s “unique status as a sound produced by and emitted from the human body” (Anderson, 2014). Now that this story has become a more embodied performance through my voice, it may indeed create a more intimate experience for the audience than a written memoir.

After recording the speaking track, I struggled with how to incorporate music. Acting on the advice of my peers, I decided to use music to reflect the mood of the training session and change the music accordingly. For the introduction to CBJ, the professional development leader, I chose ragtime music to play with my voice. To me, the music felt antiquated, kitschy, and reflected an older time when everything might have been simpler. The sense of antiquity produced by the music reminded me of her, her attitude, and the ridiculous activities she made us do. I wanted the music here to evoke the absurdity and almost carnival-like mood that permeated the session. However, as the memoir moved from my narration of the session activities to my reflection on them, I wanted my voice to stand alone. Once again, I had to make sure my voice had a different tonality. My decision to stop the music and slow the pace of the memoir worked to create a more distinct feeling of reflection.

Similarly, when I got to the story about Teddy, the climax of the memoir, I wanted the music to create a clichéd mood. Since this story is fictional and represents well the trite (albeit regular) propaganda circulated in the teaching field, the music had to reflect its nature. Once again, I used a slower, piano-based sound that built up as the story did. I organized and trimmed the music to work with the story beats. As Teddy moves on through middle school, high school, and into college, different instruments, in particular a cello, enter, evoking a feeling of grandness and sentimentality. Initially, I had the music cut out all together when the story ended. However, the comedic effect was a bit lost. Instead, I made it fade with the lines, “CBJ called him an inspiration. We called him Smelly Teddy.” I chose not to include music in the second line to emphasize its humorous nature. I found, though, that suddenly halting the music felt too abrupt, so I faded it out to make for a smoother transition. In addition to the music, I tried to make my voice more relaxed and calming as I told the story of Teddy, adding to my desired effect of representing this experience as absurd.

Toward the end of the project, I recognized that I needed more ambient sounds to ground the piece as well as a stronger connection between the beginning and end. Funnily enough, it was at school that I found the perfect way to make the connection–the school bell. My audio memoir, just like class, would begin and end with a bell. The bell would rhetorically function, as McKee (2006) claimed, as a way to “provide information about a scene” (p. 346), bringing the listener into the school environment. However, when I included just the school bell, the piece still seemed incomplete. It did not feel authentic, and I saw no reason to keep the effect if it did not feel that way. I then came up with the idea of adding the school children in the halls to really set the scene and evoke the environment. This sound effect grounded the story and brought coherence to the piece.

The process of constructing this audio memoir taught me quite a bit about the choices one is forced to make while creating an audio composition. The immediacy of hearing the project forces the composer to be quite meticulous about their construction, as the slightest misstep in timing, vocality, or music choice can completely alter the intended response. And unlike alphabetic text, the sonic mode is less forgiving. A misplaced comma or perhaps a bad choice in diction can be overlooked or even missed, but a badly timed transition is much more noticeable. I struggled with my own sense of perfection, and perhaps my comfort with alphabetic text is partially to blame. However, I do think the performative aspects of audio composition make it hard not to want to produce something that represents the composer in the best possible light. Now, regardless of the mode, I have a much better appreciation for the choices demanded of us as composers.

Audio Assets

Joplin, Scott. (1902). Ragtime dance [Audio file]. Free Music Archive. Retrieved from

Kyoto Connection. (2013, May 27). Hachiko (the faithful dog) [Audio file]. Free Music Archive. Retrieved from

Pitstop100. (2009, February 5). GL hallway 2 [Audio file]. Free Sound. Retrieved from

reecord2. (2009, December 7). conference chatter 3 [Audio file]. Free Sound. Retrieved from

sbyandiji. (2014, February 5). Short alarm bell in school hall (some clock ticks etc) [Audio file]. Free Sound. Retrieved from

spookymodern. (2014, September 25) Dripping water [Audio file]. Free Sound. Retrieved from

Image Asset

Struggling student [Photograph]. (2012). Minds in Motion. Retrieved from