January 2, 2007

Public Reading

For a number of years, my church has used the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as its principal service on the Sunday after Christmas. Since the service is primarily the responsibility of the Organist-Choirmaster, most of the lessons (i.e., Scripture readings) are read by choir members. Whereas some of the readers may be regular lectors, most read in church only occasionally. This year, I found myself, a non-lector, reading the story of the Fall. Volunteering for this duty caused more anxiety than it might otherwise have because, as a member of the Worship Commission, I have been a vocal critic of youth readers. Youth readers tend to mumble, read too fast, speak too softly, and never look up from the page they are reading. I knew that clarity, speed, and volume would not be problems, but maintaining eye contact with the congregation without losing my place has never been easy for me, particularly since I began using bifocals.

A conversation with a choir member who is a lector led me to try something new, and I pass along my experience in the hope of helping others who read only occasionally in a formal, public venue.

As I always do, I printed my text in a large font with generous spacing between lines. The trick I learned, however, was to break up the text into logical chunks and to put a single chunk on a line. (If a chunk was too long, I indented the continuation line.) A chunk is basically text that, when read, is surrounded by pauses but has no internal pauses. Not everyone will want to read a passage the same way, so I will not offer rules for parsing a text, but I will give a sample of what I did. Consider this sentence: The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” I printed this sentence as follows:

The man said,

“The woman whom you gave to be with me,

she gave me fruit from the tree

and I ate.”

I used a finger to keep my place as I read, and I looked up after mentally taking in a line—most lines, anyway. I tried to look in the general direction of everyone in the congregation over the course of the reading. (This takes some effort in a church like St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, where people are seated in a long nave and two transepts.) It was particularly easy to read slowly, as my preparation had made me very confident. (Reading fast is usually a sign of nervousness.)

Apparently, my technique worked fine, as I received several compliments on my reading, and I have reason to think them sincere.

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