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“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” ~Winston Churchill


Still Loving It -- Recording for Learning Ally

Jim smiling and facing the camera

by Jim McCullough

 

When I was a student in high school, I came across a recording of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The highly dramatic reading by Basil Rathbone enthralled me. He is probably not much remembered now, but then he was the celebrated star in a series of Sherlock Holmes movies. Thus the seed was planted, or maybe that occurred when I passed a Recording for the Blind studio in my neighborhood. (Recording for the Blind was the original name of Learning Ally.) Fifty-five years later, I volunteered to become a reader. Better late than never— I love recording for Learning Ally.

 

I started as an apprentice in LA’s downtown studio on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, a few blocks south of the Wrigley Building. One day I listened to a flawless, sonorous reading and remarked to myself, “Gee, this guy is good.” Actually, it was a voice I had already heard often on the radio. It belonged to Barry Kaufmann, who aired a weekly program about health issues. He had graduate degrees in both communication arts and dentistry. Later we became good friends.

 

Another fond memory is a trip to Princeton, N.J. to help judge an essay contest sponsored by Learning Ally. The essays were written by high school seniors seeking college scholarships. One student wrote that with the help of Learning Ally, she progressed from struggling for six hours with her homework every night because of her dyslexia, to gaining college credits in Advanced Placement courses. Many inspirational stories like that convinced me, if I ever had a doubt, that Learning Ally changes lives.

 

After moving to a suburb south of Chicago, I worked out of a Learning Ally studio in Orland Park, Illinois. Its excellent manager, Sandy Elhenicky, once complimented me on my intonation, that is, stressing key words in passages as I read. I blush to admit it, but her casual remark boosted my self-confidence no end. I felt like Sally Fields at the Oscar ceremony, “They like me, they really like me.” Soon a number of individual-reader assignments came my way, many of them books for young adults. I especially enjoyed reading Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Closer by Mariano Rivera, the great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees.

Jim sitting in a recording booth reading

 

Best of all, I got to record Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. With plays the challenge is to vary your voice to differentiate a large cast of characters and then keep notes to remember whose voice you are using. Luckily, I taught Macbeth in high school for many years, and I had often played a Caedmon Label recording of the play to help it come alive for my students. I remembered certain voices like those of the three witches very well and modeled my interpretation on them. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trick is to listen to any recording of Dame Judy Dench reciting iambic pentameter lines.

 

In 2017 the switch to recording from home was a challenge, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of recording once or twice a week, I could do it more often, and when the pandemic arrived, I already had a set routine. I like to kick-start my day by arising very early and recording in the quiet hours of the morning. With something to accomplish every day, I can still feel relevant in my advanced years.

 

Currently I am registered in Learning Ally’s Textbook Community. The rule is to select just one chapter at a time within a project, often a large anthology. That way readers from all over the country can finish a nine-hundred-page book within a sixty-day deadline. Some of the new literature anthologies are the best I have ever seen, and they make me wish I could return to teaching. A few weeks ago, I recorded a chapter titled “Identity and Society.” Selections included George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man,” a portion of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” Oh, what a delight that assignment was!

Jim and volunteers holding up Building Books fundraiser towels and sitting down for pizza in Orland Park Studio

 

One tip I might offer is to employ YouTube as a resource. If I am unsure how to pronounce an author’s name, I can usually hear it done correctly in a video of the author being introduced at a lecture or performance. Also, listening to an author read her own work is helpful. Recently I recorded “Kindness,” a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in San Antonio, Texas. You can find her on YouTube reading her poem. You can also find it at two other sites, read by Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons.

 

I hope to continue with Learning Ally as long as I can, as a reader or checker. My hero is Dr. Bernie Strauss, a retired professor from the University of Chicago. He recently appeared on television, still recording for Learning Ally at the age of 92! 

 

- Jim McCullough




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