Teaching Words to Sing

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Some years ago, I had a chance to address all the students taking the first-year humanities class at the University of California at Irvine. I had been asked to speak to the students on matters of style in writing, which thrilled me, though as I entered the packed auditorium, I got a little weak in the knees wondering if I could find a way to speak directly to these students and their concerns.

I had some wonderful examples of memorable openings and closings (all written by students) and some examples of very short and very long sentences that demonstrated stylistic verve and came from a very diverse group of writers. So things went fairly well, to my huge relief. In the Q and A session, students asked a number of tough questions, but the one I remember the most came from a tall, athletic looking student, who looked like he night have been a member of a football team. I remember his seeming to rise up forever. Then he took the mic and said “I really like those sentences you showed us. I want to know how to make sentences sing.”

Wow. How about that for a great question?! We spent the next five minutes or so thinking about just how to get sentences singing, focusing on various ways to get rhythm working. I can remember heads shaking and the occasional “ahhhh” as someone caught on. It was a moment to remember, and I think of it often as I am plodding along: come on, Andrea, stop and think: how can I make this sentence sing?

You can imagine my interest was definitely aroused, then, when I stumbled on Daniel Tammet’s Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing. Tammet, who grew up with autism, is also a synesthete extraordinaire, one of a rare few for whom the senses are intermingled in intriguing and startling days.


Daniel TammetDaniel Tammet


Tammet says he was born on a blue day, because for him, Wednesdays are always blue, just as numbers have shapes and colors—and even attitude. “Eleven,” he says, “is friendly,” while “five is loud” and four, his favorite number, is shy and quiet.” In an essay called “Finding My Voice,” Tammet describes being invited to give a public reading at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. He decided his reading would be not of a book but of a number, pi. To prepare, he assimilated “its unstinting digits by the hundreds of numbers, until I knew the first 22,514, a European record’s worth, by heart.”

On the fourteenth of March [2004] I narrated this most beautiful of epic poems, an Odyssey or an Iliad composed of numbers, in a performance spanning five hours, to the hall. For the first time in my life, I spoke aloud in my numerical language, at length, passionately, fluently. ... As I gathered momentum, acquired rhythm, I sensed the men and women lean forward, alert and rapt. With each pronounced digit their concentration redoubled and silenced competing thoughts. Mediative smiles broadened faces. Some in the audience were even moved to tears. I had found the words [numbers] to express my deepest emotions.

Those words were the birds he was teaching to sing, and through them he found his voice.

I’m wondering how many of our students might relate to Tammet’s experience, not directly as synesthetes exactly, but as those who have struggled in various ways to find their voices. What helped them to do so? How would they describe their own truest voices, the ones that allowed them to “express deepest emotions”? These are questions I hope we give students a chance to respond to, and we could do worse than to get them thinking about them by sharing some of Tammet’s amazing essays. Take a look—and then share his voice with your students. And ask them how they make their words—and their sentences—sing.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.