Hints and Challenges
Different focus points can be found in the gospel and readings on every Sunday. For the reflection after the readings it is helpful to choose one point of focus, otherwise the reflection and sharing (and a homily) can wander all over the place and lose impact. It could be of additional help to announce the focus point just before the readings in an introduction to the readings. An introduction to each Sunday’s readings can be found in my suggestions for “Next Sunday’s Liturgy” in this website.
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No one who has been reading publicly for several years finds it easy to be told by a skilled public speaking coach that he or she does not read well. This is not a matter of pronouncing a Hebrew name or place in the Bible incorrectly, about which readers in the Liturgy are legitimately concerned. It is the basic matter of coping easily with oral prose at sight or even after study.
Congregations suffer if the preposition regularly get more
attention than the noun, if every sentence receives the same treatment
regardless of its content, or if the reader does not recognise the contrast
Not all people who can read are able to proclaim in the Word. Even good public readers can fall into bad proclamation habits. Skilled readers might be pleased to offer to others some coaching advice. At times it may even be necessary to drop an earnest reader from the roster. That decision is so delicate that it is best made with the wisdom of Solomon and the tack of an experienced diplomat!
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Almost every reading has fast parts and slow parts. Most readings also have loud parts and quiet parts. Some readings call for clipped, staccato rhythm: others call for smooth, melodic rhythm. When you practise, try different, even ridiculous paces. Find the pacing that works best for your reading. Out aloud practice is virtually essential in this regard.
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Project Your Voice
To project your voice does not necessarily mean to speak louder, although that is often the result.
Humans are built with two air cavities. If you inhale in such a way that your stomach pushes out, you are filling your lower air cavity. It you try to make your chest bigger, you are filling your upper cavity. To project your words effectively, fill your lower air cavity first, then your upper air cavity.
As you read, use the air from the lower cavity first. Keep in mind that you want use your diaphragm instead of your throat to make our voice work well.
Try not to rely on the microphone to make your voice clear. If your voice is projected well, a microphone will amplify the good sound. If your voice production is bad, the amplifying system will only make it louder, and worse!
Control your breathing, and make sure you feel your stomach muscles moving as you read. Allow your expanded chest to provide resonance. As always, improvement comes with practice.
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Find the most important phrase
Every reading will have at least one important phrase. Most readings have several, so you will need to decide which one is most important. If you are having trouble, use a pencil and underline all the powerful, interesting or disturbing ideas in your pages of the texts. Then read the gospel and discern its main idea. Read your reading again, focusing on the underlined parts. Pray about it, and then decide what the most important phrase is in the reading for the liturgy on that day with that gospel. Emphasise that phrase in such a way that its importance is clear to everyone in the congregation.
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Find the Emotion
If you want the scripture you proclaim to speak to people’s hearts, you have to find the emotion in the reading. Read the passage several times and try to discover the primary emotion. Sometimes reading the psalm assigned to the day can help. Once you have the primary emotion identified, recall times when you have felt that emotion. Try to recall that emotion in yourself as you practise the reading, and let the emotion come through as you proclaim.
William M. Carr wrote in a Handbook for Lectors, published in 1968: “I once attended a convention at which a very prominent man was scheduled to speak. Unfortunately, at the last minute, he was unable to be present. He did send the manuscript of his talk, however, and someone was commandeered to read the speech. The paper was beautifully written, but the reader was unacquainted with it; he had no knowledge of the background or thought processes of the author, and his delivery was completely lacking in considered emphasis, vitality, and emotion. It was flat. The message was almost completely lost. When something is communicated poorly, the message is often lost. To proclaim the scriptural Word well we need to make it our own.
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Begin Well – End well
The introduction to the proclamation is very important.
In a sense your first words are introducing yourself to the congregation, so look at the people with love and respect in your eyes and a pleasant aspect on your face!
Having glanced at the introductory text to put it clearly in your memory, raise your eyes, look at the people, pause just a moment while taking a deep breath, then proclaim the introductory words: “A reading from the prophet Isaiah”, or whatever the introduction is. These words are proclaimed, not simply read. It is good to proclaim them deliberately and clearly – these are the first words the people hear you say on that occasion from that position and they need to tune into your voice. If the first words are said softly, or rushed, it makes it very difficult for people to tune in and they could subsequently lose interest.
The introductory proclamation grabs the attention of the congregation. If it is done well, and if they have a modicum of good faith, they are then waiting to hear something important to follow.
It is also important to end well. Again, you can pause and look up before declaring “The Word of the Lord”. The statement is made firmly and distinctly, without running the words together. It invites a response of gratitude: “Thanks be to God”.
When the beginning and end of the proclamation are done well, the chances that the body of the message also goes out clearly, with power and spirit, are good.
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In our effort to get the reading right, it is possible to overlook this very important part of our preparation.
Read the next Sunday’s gospel as a Sunday night prayer the week before you read.
During the days before you proclaim your reading, read the text you are to proclaim as part of your daily prayer.
Pray that you be open to the Spirit in finding the meaning of the text and in communicating it to the congregation.
Pray for the Spirit to open the minds and hearts of those who will hear your proclamation.
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To expect a reader to practise seems obvious. However, you’d be surprised at how many readers leave out this basic step. To practise means to read the reading out loud while standing up. Silent reading at your table may help you get ready to practise, but it doesn’t substitute for it. Practise out loud at least six times. Practise on at least two different days other than the Sunday you read. Other helpful things you can do are: practise in front of a mirror, practise with a tape recorder, practise with a video camera and practise in front of your children or grandchildren. Children are great critics.
Keep in mind, too, that reading the Word in the Liturgy isn’t simply reading: it is a proclamation: project, proclaim the message with understanding, clarity and conviction. Very rarely is the scripture text intended to be a softly spoken meditation.
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