When I first started reading in public, I wore glasses all the time (I now tend to wear contacts most of the time) and I don’t have a very pronounced bridge on my nose. This meant my glasses regularly tended to slide down my nose, and I had unconsciously developed the habit of pushing them back up my nose at regular intervals, even if they had barely slipped at all. For some people, this was a distracting form of punctuating the reading, and I needed a kind critical friend to tell me I was doing it. I found a way of adjusting them once in a pause before I began reading, and then making sure I didn’t do it again.
The first thing that will help you read well is having a critical friend in the congregation. They can observe you when you are actually reading, and tell you honestly both what you are doing well, and whether there are things you should try to change. It helps if, from time to time, they can sit in a different place, including at the back of the church (the seats that, in any denomination, tend to fill up first).
A critical friend, however, at least in an ideal world, should not be where you begin. I think churches generally could do more to train those who read, especially by holding practice sessions for new readers. Whether through a local school or dramatic society, most communities have someone around who can offer some basic voice production guidance, and would often be happy to help out. It can be really beneficial to have had the chance to practice reading in the building(s) in which you will regularly read, and to have feedback from others on what you need to do.
Some common things many readers need to practice include these:
- lower the sound register of your voice,
- slow your pace,
- enunciate your consonants more clearly,
- keep up the volume towards the end of your sentences,
- more generally speak up.
That list should also warn you of some of the most common mistakes people make:
- speaking at too high a pitch,
- reading too quickly,
- losing the consonants at the ends of words,
- dropping your voice towards the end of a sentence,
- speaking too quietly.
They are also all things that with only a little bit of practice we can all put right fairly easily. I will come back to this list in more detail in the next post.
With the technology built into most phones today, it is also relatively easy to record yourself, on audio or video. Most people do not like the sound of their own voice — the literal sound, that is! On those occasions we hear recordings of ourselves, most of us are surprised to hear what we sound like.
Normally we hear our voice as much from inside our heads as from outside. The first time anyone hears what they sound like entirely from outside their own heads in a recording, their instant reaction is “that doesn’t sound like me”. However, it is what other people hear all the time. You are the only person who doesn’t really know what you sound like to others.
It takes a little bit of time, then, to get used to hearing yourself. But once you have done so, listen carefully to yourself reading a passage of the Bible out loud in church, with and without the sound system working. This is an opportunity all churches should offer all of their readers, and it is well worth doing this as a group exercise with the whole reading team in a church.
Such groups always offer more experienced readers a chance to share their experience, and, to be brutally honest, sometimes offer an opportunity to help an experienced reader make a much-needed improvement in how they read. Peer support, criticism and encouragement is a great help, but whether you can or can’t do this as a group exercise, you can still go ahead and record yourself. Particularly if it’s a large building, there may be a significant echo; the echo will nearly always be less when the building is full than when it is empty.
And that’s a key step in improving how you read: listen to yourself!