Collaborating with the Building

Picture of hanging chandelier in Immanuel Chapel

In 2015, the Virginia Theological Seminary community moved into the splendid new Immanuel Chapel. One of the most striking and wonderful attributes of this new worship space is its resonant acoustics. Yet the sound that lingers in the air several seconds after a word has been spoken or a musical note has been sounded can prove vexing to many people, at least if they are not used to it. As a musician, and an organist, I was trained from day one to listen to whatever acoustic in which I am making music. Because each church building is different acoustically, an organist has to be flexible in adjusting performance practice to meld with environs for music making. However, I realize that many musicians, lectors/readers, and presiders do not deal with a variety of radically different acoustics on a regular basis. And in an age of wireless microphones and sophisticated sound systems, leaders of worship often do not think about sound in worship.

This is unfortunate because sound is one of the most crucial aspects of any liturgical experience, whether it is the spoken word (in reading, preaching, or presiding) the sung word (in choral anthems or congregational song), or the played “word” (in instrumental music). How can we who are interested in fostering dynamic worship experiences more acutely heed our acoustical environments? Below are some suggestions that might be of use in embracing the significance of sound in liturgy. Most of it is probably common sense, but we often neglect the most obvious in our daily living!

For musicians:

  • Pay attention to the tempo in relation to the amount of reverberation. You will need to slow down in a more resonant acoustic.
  • Listen to your articulation. For organists, you will need to have more “open” articulation in more resonant acoustics. In “drier” acoustics, you will need to focus on legato playing, especially in creating line through smoothly connected phrases. I believe that sustained sound (that is still clear and well-articulated) leads to the most effective congregational singing.
  • Consider what kind of instruments will work best in a particular acoustic. More percussive instruments are less successful in leading congregational singing in more resonant acoustics. Be intentional about instrumental use in different acoustical environments.

For presiders (and preachers):

  • Consider whether your acoustic really needs amplification of the spoken voice through a microphone. Our modern proclivity is to jump immediately to using a microphone, but often slow, deliberate, and well-informed vocal projection will do the trick. It will also probably sound more authentic.
  • If you decide that you do need a microphone, test the volume levels before a liturgy. Work out all the technical kinks ahead of time.
  • Avoid “eating” the microphone: in other words, maintain a proper distance between your mouth and the microphone. Microphones are intended to enhance speech, not necessarily to make it louder. Good use of microphones requires equally good vocal projection.
  • Be subtle about turning wireless mics on and off. Make sure they are off when they need to be! Remember that any excess movement effected when a wireless mic is on will be amplified exponentially.
  • Listen to and value silence. Avoid stepping on the toes of music. Allow time between your spoken words and music that is just finishing.

For lectors/readers:

  • If you think you are reading slowly, you probably aren’t reading slowly enough! Consonants and enunciation are vital. Notice how the acoustic of your liturgical space brings out different qualities of your voice, and be prepared to adjust your inflections and speech patterns on the spur of the moment.
  • Do you really need that microphone? (see above)

General tips for all:

  • Always prepare, which often means rehearsing in the space prior to a liturgy. This goes for the spoken word as well as for music.
  • The most important thing is to be intentional about liturgical action.
  • The building can be your friend if you listen to it and work with it. As the liturgical aphorism goes, the building always wins. Don’t try to compete with it. The more integrated and sensitive your partnership with the building is, the more seamless, non-distracting, and dynamic the liturgical experience will be.

Kyle Babin is Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music.