& Company


A Veteran Listener's Frank Appraisal
& Disclosure of Key Tips

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba


This is my assessment of reading aloud. It's my very own point of view; i.e. observations here are beyond the purview of most oral interpretation training. In short, only here will you find this reading-aloud approach. And this virtual secret will astound you not only for its simplicity, but also for its rich mothering of other positive results. Last, all the tips found here, though directed at a very specific reader, are wholly applicable to all kinds of solo readers.

detail from a psalter from Kyiv, 14h century


Who reads aloud these days? Who has to?

Not at all within the scope of this appraisal are rip-and-tear radio newscasters — God help 'em. Also outside the target clients of this approach is an even bigger group — the unsung heroes of much of the good that America ever generates: they are all the good moms and dads who put their children to sleep with, say, a nifty Newbery Medal winner. Besides, readers addressed here must never put anyone to sleep.

Other than the aforementioned public readers, I'd venture to say the only other occasions for witnessing someone reading solo (as distinct from readers' theater practitioners who do their work together in concert) are librarians in a circle of children (a bold endeavor unless you're the president of the USA), lecturers recycling old lectures (often dull), poets declaiming their own verses (often unlistenable), politicians speechifying (often too stentorian), preachers preaching (sometimes too long), and lectors.

Lectors lectoring?


Until the 1960s — correct me if I'm wrong — you couldn't find a layperson in front of a gathering of worshipping believers, reading to them a passage from scripture, unless you were at an Eastern Rite liturgy. Till Vatican II Catholic priests muttered, in Latin, the epistle on one side the altar, the gospel on the other, their backs to the people who dutifully tracked the translation in their missals. American Protestants back then were indeed declaring the scriptures in English, but that holy job was mainly the clergy's exclusive domain.

These days the use of lectors at a Christian liturgy is standard not only in Roman Catholic churches, but in Anglican and Lutheran parishes too, and even in those Presbyterian and Methodist congregations with some liturgical sense. But what's been your experience of their work — the lectors? In comparison with droning university lecturers, bullshit-shoveling politicians, ear-grating poets, sleep-inducing preachers, how have these non-ordained and often untrained readers been doing these past 30-40 years?

detail from a book of Armenian chants, 14th century


From 1967 to about 1987 I made it a practice to drop in on Sunday worship at various locations to test for good liturgy and identify good preaching. My circuit over those years took me from Holy Trinity, a parish in the shadow of Georgetown University, all the way to Sacred Heart in poor old Camden, New Jersey, and even up to John the Divine in Manhattan. In between I worshipped in RC and Episcopal churches situated in southern Maryland and the Annapolis region, plus a variety of Protestant congregations in and around Baltimore. I heard homilies delivered without visible scripts, sermons read from pages just outside our sightlines — bright ones, scintillating ones, turgid and excruciating ones — preachers who could surprise me on every visit, preachers who seemed capable of redoing the same theme 52 different ways. But in all that listening to the clergy, I paid scant attention to the quality of the lay scripture readers, unless one was grossly under-prepared.

Since 1992, however, I've become more sensitive to lector work, often comparing notes with my Bride. We almost always agree on whose reading deserves a private Te Deum. Yes, the situation is such that really good lectoring raises an exceptional hallelujah!

And not just lectors at the lectern, but many public readers — from platform to political stump to stage to pulpit — many, if not most, often perform not anywhere near their best. Even those trained in voice, those diligent about pace, those smart as a Rhodes scholar, even they fall into a particular practice, a bad habit, that prevents the reading from communicating fully.


Whose voice can compare to the Reverend Jesse Jackson's? Who knows tempo and inflection better than he? Yet even this master of the podium, at the Democratic Convention of 2004, suffered a particular affliction, fell victim to an awful habit — the target of this essay — the display of which habit considerably reduced his oratorical effectiveness.  The habit?  The problem? The eyes.

What do you do with your eyes when you read aloud? Why, you look at the text! Of course you do. How else will you read? Well, then, why do readers constantly look up from their text?

Wait-a-minute, you complain: of course a reader looks up! Don't audiences expect speakers, readers, lectors to look up at them? Eye contact? Isn't looking up from the text, looking at your audience, a procedural convention sanctioned by centuries of practice from Cicero orating against Catilline? to John Chrysostom preaching to unruly Greeks? to Winston Churchill in parliament? to the lector at John Paul II's funeral mass?

There's something in that, I agree.

Yes, there is indeed value in looking at those to whom you're reading, such tremendous value in fact that the presidents of the USA when addressing congress take advantage of a piece of modern technology that allows the chief to produce the illusion that he is addressing all the senators and congressmen, their spouses and guests, totally, face-to-face. You know the technology, those virtually invisible prompters that electronically display the speech. When the president looks at one teleprompter then the other, reading off the state of the union message, he seems to have his eyes on his listeners. It's a cutting-edge version of the old handwritten cue cards still displayed off-camera for Letterman and Leno. Who even thinks Leno is reading his monologue?

Thanks to the same technology, speechmakers at both political conventions pulled off the same trick. Except for the Reverend Jackson. He had his text only on the lectern. He was in the same position as a lector at worship. He was (I have no idea why) without the magical technology. But whatever value there is in looking up at one's listeners, that value was ambushed by his insufferable habit of just cutting loose those eyes —
— each glance up and out executed for no apparent reason, and each return to the text (located about a third of the way down from his lips) looking like the desperate reaching of a man afraid of losing his place on earth: if he didn't snap back down to the anchoring page and quick, why, for sure he'd lift off, sucked into a wide-wide emptiness.

detail from a book of Armenian chants, 14th century


Now, if you had heard Mr Jackson's beautiful voice reading that speech on radio, you wouldn't have been bothered. But an audience, obviously, is not just listening with its ears. They are a witness to an event. A congregation at liturgy is not a radio audience of a religious broadcast. A real reading event sets out to engage all of your soul through hearing and sight, which is well nigh impossible when the reader's eyes bounce up and down again and again. The scripture's message remains trapped on the page. Better to read without looking up at all.

You think this business about the lector's eyes is a peripheral issue? Ah, maybe you are dozing through the Liturgy of the Word, or, worse, you're following along in your missalette, or some Sunday handout, tracking the scriptural excerpt, barely looking at the lector before you, just hearing.

Actually, I'd say that's not listening. The speaker is in your presence; you happen to be gifted with hearing and sight; it's only natural you're challenged to listen with all your being. It's liturgy, not bible-study, not Sunday school. And, further, if you don't look at the lector, why is he or she bothering looking up at you? And getting themselves in all that damned trouble with —
   / D-O-W-NNNNNN???

Well, what's a poor lector to do? Lectors work in institutions only minimally technologically endowed. They're lucky if the church's PA system works right. Am I proposing you address this problem with memorization? Not on your life, although that's another solution. Different workshop.

detail from book of Gospels, Moscow, 16th century


Are you familiar with the sound of these individuals? W.C. Fields? Gerald Ford? Diane Rehm? Barbara Mikulski? Barney Frank? Helen Delich Bentley? Andrei Codrescu?

Through no fault of their own these well-known individuals have voices that — were they to read aloud for an extended period of unbroken time — many of us would find difficult to endure. Particularly when their protracted performance is strictly audio. The spells of Codrescu on NPR are just short of torture. Ms. Rehm — God bless her — her participation in her two-hour public radio program amounts to just doses of short introductions, bursts of questions, brief responses. Now, obviously, a lector's role at worship is of several minutes duration. And yet I will be so bold as to say a person with the most difficult voice (take your pick from the above) who has done advance work can read the appointed scriptural passage at a lectern on Sunday and hold your attention, can communicate the message, indeed, can lift the scripture off the page. How? Through advance work according to the following approach.

The lector's advance work comprises these steps.

1.   Use the stretch of days till D-Day to make yourself at home with the passage. This can be done in a number of ways, but common to them all is the requirement of visiting the selection each day, quietly reading through the piece several times each day. Before going to sleep is a good time. Or while snacking alone. While standing in line at the Giant. Over those days, the text, as deadly familiar as it often is, will begin speaking to some part of you. Real lector work is never doing a reading cold. Leave cold readings to rip-and-tear newscasters. If you ever are pressed into a reading assignment just moments before the event, well — just read, keeping your eyes on the text.

2.   Two to three days before D-Day, take the selection in hand, stand, imagine a churchful of people and read it aloud without once looking up from the text.

3.   Repeat this exercise until —
   (a) either you get a feeling for just where the text cries out for punctuation, which could be your looking up at the congregation;
   (b) or you have a sense of discomfort, an unease with abstaining from looking up, which itself may be a clue as to just when it may seem most natural to look at your audience.

4.   Identify some purpose for looking up just then. Never look up reflexively. Never look up just because you think the congregation expects it. Look up as a result of a decision. What would looking up at the congregation accomplish for these words, for communicating the meaning of this sentence, this line, this phrase? In short, when you look up, you don't go silent, rather you will continue reading without the text, i.e. you don't need the page for reading every single word. It's a short-term memory mechanism, but it is not memorization, though they're probably related.

5.   Highlight in some manner the words you plan to recite without looking at the text. The number of words which you recite without having your eyes glued to the page should never be less than three.
Most up/D-O-W-N / up/D-O-W-N bobbing yields a glance away from the text for the length of just a single syllable. Yes!!! If you don't believe that, next time you're in church check it out. Reciting three words while looking at the congregation may be enough to accomplish the objective you identified. However, push. Stretch. Can you manage five words without hyperventilating? Six? Seven?

6.   Consider where and how you will return your eyes to the text. That can be an index for just how many words you should pick up from the page in step number 5. You don't want to return to the text in a desperate fashion.

Of all these steps, number 1 may be most difficult because of the sloth that afflicts us all. Numbers 4-5 can be a lot of fun, really. Number 6 will be most challenging, and is best practiced in a workshop.

detail from Gospel of Luke associated with the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Novgorod, 11th century


Return a moment to that individual with the difficult voice you selected earlier. Now, think of a biblical passage that, of its nature, is so familiar that the average churchgoer will probably just tune it out. I offer as an example Genesis 1. Now, assign that challenging reading to one of those with the difficult voice. I say even W.C. Fields, applying his atrocious voice to Genesis 1, could — were he to take to heart and work through the six steps above — he could hold everyone rapt from ''In the beginning . . . '' through all the pre-scientific cosmogony and all the creepy crawling creatures to God Godself finally taking a Sabbath break in the last verse. Everyone could readily feel the story come off the page except for the stubborn ladies and gents who can't do without following the text in their missalettes barely giving the lector a glance.

It's not the voice alone, my good people, it's the eyes, the face, the purposeful head-on meeting with the hearts of the congregation.

Rare is the man or woman who enters any church without wanting, consciously or unconsciously, to be fed. And in that context, a prepared reader who at pre-determined moments looks up away from the text — that reader you will experience as offering something more than the printed page. The same passage from the lips of an under-prepared reader never amounts to such a substantial meal.

I call this approach The Chrysostom Method. A long-long time ago, the good bishop John read his homilies to parishioners reputed to be among the most raucous and ill-mannered in the Roman Empire; yet he succeeded in engaging their attention. And I'll wager it was more than just his content that won them, and more than just his golden mouth.

I do a workshop in The Chrysostom Method to help readers sense the natural power this approach lends to a passage read aloud. Feel free to write me to make any inquiries.


Last, it's a dream of mine to find participants in various lector workshops who really love reading aloud and long for opportunities besides the occasional Sunday solo assignment. I propose such opportunities.

I've long been a promoter of simple at-home entertainment. Now, it's customary for friends to gather for cocktails and gossip, or for poker or bridge, or progressive dinners. How about off-duty lectors organizing friends and literate neighbors for the sake of reading something together? I've been working on ''Soft Boiled: Adventures of a City Detective in Old Baltimore,'' a series of parlor plays featuring a Civil War veteran who actually did police work in the second half of the 19th century. As researcher and writer, I provide the scripts — parts for almost everyone — and, as storyteller, I supply the mortar that fastens the scenes together. Can't you just see it now — your friends reading their parts, major and minor, seated there in your living room?

I'm also very interested in the fate of all those classic materials of American literature — poems and stories we haven't read since high school. What do you do in your adult years with ''The Raven, '' ''Thanatopsis, '' or ''Evangeline''? We can't just banish those old gems from our adult lives. So I'm working on readers' theater scripts that incorporate and have fun with those literary selections from high-school English anthologies. I'd love nothing more than to recruit lectors to form local units of Dead Men Talking, the name I give to such a movement, not to mock the retired guys on any of these reading teams, but rather to highlight the use we'd be making of literature written mostly by men, all of them long dead and buried.

Any interest? Write me.

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Images in text above are samples of Orthodox Christian art edited from an 1887 Imperial Russian publication. In order they are (1) detail from a psalter from Kyiv, 14th century; (2) and (3) details from a book of Armenian chants, 14th century; (4) detail from book of Gospels, Moscow, 16th century; (5) detail from Gospel of Luke associated with the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Novgorod, 11th century.

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