Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Faith Works 6-18

Faith Works 6-18-11

Jeff Gill


A Speaker Used To Be a Person



Last week I talked about those thrilling days of yesteryear, when air conditioning was not the norm in worship spaces, and for a preacher to step to the pulpit in shirtsleeves could make the wire services (now there's another anachronism, along with "ring you up," or "spin a record").


What churches often did in the summer, and a few still do, is a) move the service up a little earlier, before the sanctuary walls started picking up the heat of the day, and b) open the windows.


Hah. Today, whether your office, your child's school, or likely your church, the odds are the windows couldn't be opened if you wanted to.


What created an added challenge upon opening windows, aside from bugs flying in (since stained glass windows with hinged bottoms tend to be nearly impossible to screen), was the sound.


The town I grew up in had a cheerfully heathen motorcycle lover who, beyond doubt, made a point around 11 am of driving a loop past all the downtown churches, twice, before heading out into the more welcoming countryside. What was a hushed sanctuary for most of the year, swathed in oak and maple and maroon carpet, interrupted only by organ music and resonant preacherly intonations, would gain for June, July, & August the punctuation of dogs barking, birds singing, and the occasional fire truck (plus that 11 am motorcycle).


My mother's hometown had a train track a block away, and there was occasionally a special that would run through on Sunday mornings, and there was an odd moment of some duration when everyone, organist, preacher, all & sundry, would simply pause, and look about smiling as the clanks, shrieks, and clacka-clacka ding-ding-ding would fill the auditorium for a time . . . until the sound would fade, and the sermon would pick up as if nothing had happened once the gates swung back up with a thunk and the warning bell ceased to ring down at the crossing.


The thread through all of this was: no microphones. Electronic amplification was, as far as I can discern, a secondary outcome of radio technology, and didn't start getting used in this country at all until around 1913. Theodore Roosevelt is one of the last speakers to address a packed Madison Square Garden without amplification, in 1912 (all this is discussed in the opening of the eminently readable book on Roosevelt's later life by Candice Millard, "The River of Doubt"); when he returned two years later from his subsequent trip to the Amazon, although weakened he still wanted to tell the story of his explorations, so he booked the largest room in Washington, DC, Constitution Hall. His hour and a half lecture, delivered in a weary, softer tone of voice than the capital was used to hearing from Roosevelt, was still entirely without amplification.


In the 1920s, political speechmaking changed dramatically, starting under Ohio's own Warren Harding. Radio addresses became more common, reaching a national audience, and making a simultaneous "public address" system an obvious side-benefit.


As Andrew Tobias says about finance, "a luxury once sampled soon becomes a necessity." PA systems went from an extravagance to a commonplace, and more and more people insisted they couldn't hear if there wasn't a microphone in front of the podium . . . even if it wasn't turned on.


Two things were going on. One was expectations: crisp, clear tones that you don't have to strain to hear are no longer just a welcome relief, but a baseline assumption in any public presentation. The other change is that the interaction between audience and speaker changed dramatically, some would say for the worse.


Gladstone, the British prime minister and noted public speaker in his own right, talked about how an audience's attention and energy was "the mist, which I give back as rain." What he meant was that, in order to ensure a good speech, you had to work to make good listeners of them, and the effort meant there was a mutual process, a cycle of sorts, between what it took to be heard, and how you delivered what they listened to.


George Whitefield, the contemporary of John Wesley who made open air preaching common in the 1740s, had a voice that Benjamin Franklin personally confirmed was clearly audible from a city block away. For a generation, politicians and preachers had to have loud, strong voices, and be able to read and engage an audience in order to help them hear, whatever their vocal quality.


Today, a sound system allows almost any voice to be made audible, but the connection with the listener – that's still an art.


Next week: sound meets music. Buckle up, buttercup!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story you've heard at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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