Tony Payne interviews Russell Powell here about raising the standard of public Bible reading. You can listen here in your browser, download the MP3, or read the (slightly edited) transcript below.
Tony Payne: Scott Newling’s recent essay (in Briefing #390) about devoting ourselves to the public reading of Scripture has got a lot of people talking. One obvious implication of Scott’s piece is that we need to raise the standard of our public Bible reading. Today I’m talking with Russell Powell, who has been reading publicly for many years. How many years Russell?
Russell Powell: Close to fifty actually, because my mother was an ‘art of speech’ teacher, so when I was a kid I was reading in eisteddfods. I’m 51 now, so almost all my life.
TP: I’ve heard you read the Bible in church on many occasions with great pleasure. You have few equals in that, and you’ve been a radio journalist, a newsreader, and a voice coach. What are you doing at the moment?
RP: Well, I used to devote myself to the public reading of news on the ABC [Australia’s national broadcaster] and various radio stations, but at the moment I’m CEO of Anglican Media, which is the media arm of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
TP: In his essay, Scott proposed that public Bible reading in our churches has kind of slipped from prominence in recent times; we just don’t seem to devote the attention, the effort, and even the time to it that perhaps we once did. Do you have any thoughts on why that’s happened?
RP: Yes, there’s the prominence we devote to it, and the standard at which we do it. I think there’s a couple of reasons why we don’t do it with as much fervour as we used to. In our own context here in Sydney, there’s been a generational shift away from set piece liturgy to roll-your-own services that are free-flowing and outsider-friendly. Part of the problem is that when you roll your own services, you don’t give them the same kind of structure as say the prayer book has, which has a special place for Bible reading. Everything is subservient to the sermon, including the Bible reading. The problem is that the Bible reading precedes the sermon, and should inform it and help it come alive, but it’s just not looked at that way.
Another problem is that public reading is really not given the prominence in society it once had. I mentioned my early years as a student of speech and drama, and in those days Bible reading was part of the local eisteddfod. I competed in those competitions; a lot of people did.
TP: Win anything?
RP: I was highly commended several times. But that kind of thing used to happen over and over again in society. In schools, people would stand up and read in front of the class. There’s not the stress on that now that there once was.
TP: You also mentioned the effort we put into Bible reading. Why do we put less effort into it than perhaps we should?
RP: Look, I’m not saying anything about roll-your-own services. I come from a background where I was as a kid dragged along to a very formal set liturgy, and didn’t get a great deal from that, so I’m not suggesting we go back to it. But when you’re putting together a service of that sort, you actually want to share the work around! You want to have lay involvement, and when you have lay involvement you have people of varying qualities and abilities doing things, and so I think that competence
is one of the issues.
I think it’s also because of the way we have been focused on the Bible during the reading. You know, you’re encouraged to bring it to church, or it’s in the pew, and you are encouraged to read along as the person is reading. I think that’s a safety net for many people: “It doesn’t matter if the reader’s all that good, because they’re reading along with you anyway”. I don’t think that’s helpful, because even if you are reading along, the reader can still add significantly to your understanding of the passage, even if you have it right in front of you.
TP: Are there any obstacles to us making a better fist of our public Bible reading? What hinders our progress, do you think?
RP: I think there’s only one obstacle, and that’s the amount of effort you put into it. Well, it’s not quite that simple; there are some people who simply can’t read in public, who are not good at it, who are not gifted in it, and, no matter how much they try, will only be very, very mediocre with a lot of effort. But for most people who are able to read and who can read competently, then effort and wise advice can significantly improve the job that they do.
TP: So you’ve got someone on your Bible reading roster that’s a reasonably competent reader. If you were going to help that person and give them wise advice, what sorts of things would you be saying to them? How would you help someone really improve?
RP: I’ve taught this to many hundreds of people, and the problem is that each person has their own particular issues. You can teach this in a class, but then you have to move to the individual. Someone’s problem might be excessive sibilance, or they need to project their voice lower because it tends to be higher or grating. But the one thing that everybody has in common is that they read monotonously. What I do first is to get people to read into a tape recorder and listen to themselves back. And overwhelmingly what they say is “that’s not me, it’s changed it in some way”. What they mean is that they thought they were speaking much more impressively than the tape suggests. But we’ve only got the tape, we can’t see them making hand gestures to emphasize things, whether they’re making eye contact and things like that. You only have their voice to judge. And so all emotion and reflection and emphasis needs to come through your voice. People are not used to doing that, so overwhelmingly the main problem for most people is they don’t put enough light and shade, enough emphasis, enough life, into a reading.
TP: How much preparation does that require? Is that something that you’d recommend people spent hours or days preparing?
RP: Look, there was a man in the Sydney diocese called Clifford Warne. He was a great teller of gospel stories, and he used to recommend that people did a half-hour Bible study before they started to prepare, so that they actually understood what the passage said and would be in shape to prepare their reading. I think that’s perhaps too high a bar these days, but it’s certainly a good thing. You need to have understood the passage you’re reading and where the emphasis needs to go, what’s important, where the contrast is. Someone’s saying this, and then they’re saying that, and that’s in contrast to what they said over here… You need to indicate all this with your voice, so some familiarity with the passage and understanding of it is good.
You then need to read over it a few times, mark up where tricky words might be, where you need to pause (because everyone will have problems breathing, and some actually need to mark the text so they remember to take a breath at that point), underline things for emphasis, all those things. That’s not just something you can do through a quick squiz. It could take two hours or so if you’re going to do it properly.
TP: You often see today’s Bible reader with their heads down at 9:25 am, having a desperate look…
RP: That’s right, as they walk through the door and realize they’re reading, and then start to prepare!
TP: And they’re hoping that they haven’t got Mephibosheth or Zerubbabel or any other unpronounceables.
RP: I do have one solid pronunciation tip from years of newsreading, and that is: say it confidently. Because most people will not know if you are right or wrong, or you could say “Ah, well, this is the Oxford University pronunciation of it, you’re going with Cambridge”. You just say it confidently and get through it.
TP: When someone’s standing up in front of the microphone itself, they may be a little dry-mouthed or nervous. What would you recommend to help them once they actually start reading?
RP: Microphones can only pick up the sound and the timbre of your voice if they’re close to you. Well, some are oversensitive, but mostly you’ve got to be reasonably close to the microphone, or at least have it pointed somewhere in the general direction of your mouth, in order to for it to pick you up. So you need to work with the sound team and say, “Where should I stand? Where’s the
best place for this microphone to pick up my voice?”
Then usually the first thing I say to people, once they read a passage for me is “overact, overact”.
TP: Ham it up.
RP: Ham it up, because most people are too monotonous, not expressive enough. Out of hundreds of readers, there’s possibly two that I’ve said “no, no, please don’t, just calm down”. A lot of Christians are not people who put themselves forward. They’re in some ways afraid to make a show of themselves, because it’s not about them, it’s about the Bible. So they’re afraid to put in the expression needed. But because people are going pretty much on your voice, you have to put more expression in than you think. If you think you’re putting expression in it, no, put more in. You need more.
There are three things you can vary to lift your reading out of monotony. The first is pace, the second is pitch, and the third is emphasis (or attack).
You can vary pace by slowing down when the passage changes who it’s addressing, such as when the psalmist stops talking to his enemies and speaks to God. You need to vary pace all the way through, although to most people I say, “Look, do it as fast as you possibly can, because even if you are monotonous it’s over quicker!” Most people just need to go through it at a fair clip. However, you must always make sure that you can do that accurately. If you’re going so fast that you’re making mistakes and going back over and repeating yourself, you need to slow down to the fastest sustainable, accurate pace.
You need to vary the pitch as you normally would during a conversation. We have upward inflections in questions, and we have downward inflections for definitive statements. If you have too much of one or the other then it seems strange or stilted. You sound like a valley girl if the inflection is always upwards, and you sound like a Kennedy if the inflection is always downward.
TP: Or possibly even a newsreader.
RP: Or a newsreader if it’s too serious. So you need to make sure that you vary the inflection, and the key to that is the sense of what you’re reading. You need to look at the words you’re reading, and if a word can be pronounced similar to what it means then you can get some variation on that. So when I have the verse “The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed”, I’d say “The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed”, so I’ve actually put some sustain on the word. And you look for opportunities like that to get a little bit of light and shade into the reading. So that’s the second thing, pitch.
The third thing is simply emphasis. When introducing a new word or concept that’s not been in the passage before, such as redemption, then you’d highlight redemption the first time you say it, but in subsequent repetitions you wouldn’t put as much emphasis on it because we already know what we’re talking about; it’s just redemption. You need to be sure of how much emphasis you need on particular parts, and you must make sure that you emphasize the right words, not the little words, not emphasis on the right words, emphasis on the right words. This is just common sense, but amid getting up there, being nervous, looking at the words a bit, making sure we don’t make a mistake, people just forget these things and they don’t read for sense. You see it in the inverse. If a person doesn’t read for sense you’re actually trying as you hear the words to re-interpret what they’re reading, because you missed it the first time as it wasn’t obvious. Then you’re half a verse behind, trying to figure it out while the reading continues, and that’s good for no-one.
TP: I’m interested, what’s your view on the congregation following or not following along with the passage? As a very good reader, do you like people just to stop and listen, or do you think it’s valuable that people read along in their own Bibles?
RP: Look, I think people will do either, and I think we need to work for people doing either. There will be some people who say “I want to come fresh to the passage, I just want to hear it”, and I think that’s a legitimate thing to do. There’ll be visitors who haven’t picked up their Bible in time, or who don’t know that it’s the thing to do. So I think it’s especially important to do it for their sake. But even if they are reading along, you still need to help them understand, because quite often it’s the first time they’ve seen this passage in a little while, or maybe the first time they’ve seen it ever. Everything you do helps and sets up the preacher for his job later on. I don’t mind if people do either, but I think the reader must take into account that they will do either, and that the reader needs to do the best job that they possibly can.
Now this is not natural to me, I’m quite a retiring fellow, but I need to force myself to actually get into the reading. It’s in some ways the job of an actor, to really get those words out. The variation of pace is very important when you come to a complex part of a passage, because people will not grab it on the first run through. You need to slow down and perhaps say it more slowly and deliberately, whereas in more understandable passages you can go a bit quicker. I might use a pause if I lose my way in the middle, but creative use of pauses is good as well.
TP: I’ve noticed when you read how you often say a new idea or a new movement in the passage slowly, and with some emphasis. In Psalms there is often a strong first line then a parallel second line saying much the same thing, and you would pick up the pace in the second line and do the parallelism quicker, rather than doing both parts at the same pace.
RP: Yes, that’s right, so as not to labour it. At the same time, when you have things that are the reverse, you need to clearly indicate one not the other. And those kinds of things you really need to indicate with your voice and make it crystal clear to that person. Again, it’s being so totally conversant with the passage that you bring the sense to the listener.
TP: Russell, you constantly look at your audience while reading. When you keep looking up and speaking it to me, I get the strong sense you aren’t just reading it, you’re telling me it.
RP: Yes, well, my mother bashed that into me when I was a kid, as have radio tutors I’ve had over the years. There was one radio man who used to take a picture of the average listener to the microphone so he could actually talk to this listener. Since most people will have an audience, you use that audience to actually relate to them. I’m telling you a story, and I imagine this is the first time you’ve heard it, and so I just tell it like a story.
TP: Russell, it’s been very encouraging and a bit inspiring to think through how we can do better in our Bible reading in churches. Should people get together and coach each other, should we run a little seminar at church to encourage one another to press forward?
RP: Yes, I think that is good, if possible. Especially if there is a good reader there—perhaps a drama teacher, they often know how to do this very well—because it is in some ways a variant on acting. If you have someone who knows how to do it, then I would encourage you to have them teach you. You could also record your voice on a tape or digital recorder, and then just listen. Put the passage out of your mind and think: “I’ll listen to this as if I had never heard the passage. Am I placing the emphasis in the right place? Do I sound too monotonous?”
When I do Bible reading seminars, I say, “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to check your ego and embarrassment at the door. You’re going to have to read in front of everyone else. And I’m going to critique you and try and be as soft as I can be with you, and as loving as I can possibly be, but I need to assess each person’s problem.”
I think these kinds of seminars are great, great value and, in fact, I would say if the reader hasn’t done one of those seminars, then don’t let them read, because there’s a certain amount of quality control that’s needed in our Bible reading roster. It’s not something that everybody can do.
TP: Yes, because it’s not just the news we’re reading, or an eisteddfod performance, it’s the word of God. It’s something of staggering importance to convey to other people.
RP: Yes, absolutely, so it’s a great privilege and it’s a great responsibility.