Engaging Voice and Body in Preaching Preparation

Student Preaching in Immanuel Chapel

Actors use voice and body warm-ups as they prepare for rehearsals and performances. Preachers, too, can benefit from such exercises as they prepare to write and to give sermons. Here is an excerpt from a letter that the Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke wrote to the first cohort of Preaching Fellows from Deep Calls to Deep: A Program to Strengthen Episcopal Preaching.

A common misconception about engaging the voice and body is that voice/body exercises are merely application of truths about preaching learned elsewhere. This misconception is rooted in the mind-body split in which we habitually live, in which we think of our bodies as instruments for accomplishing our brain’s demands, rather than recognizing that the body itself holds wisdom and is the place where mind and spirit find integration. In fact, embodiment work is itself generative of theological knowledge as well as spiritual aliveness. Embodiment work for preachers is about learning how to bring all of yourself to the preaching task, or, to put it differently, how to be fully present in preaching. What does it take to be able to say, “I am here in this room with all of you” and really mean it? We can engage this challenge at a spiritual or emotional level, but there are also physical and vocal practices that can help us speak these words with the ring of truth. Some of the exercises we did at the Residency to help free the voice involved:

  • awareness of how we stand, so as to find the natural alignment that enables the breath to come and go freely
  • becoming aware of the natural rhythm of the breath, and connecting the impulse of relief with the breath, so that feeling is expressed on the breath
  • picturing sound coming up from a pool of vibrations deep in the body, so that our voice is connected to our body and our breath
  • amplifying the sound through adding vibrations in humming on the lips, in the head, and in the body; so as to feel the voice going out into the room and reaching others

These exercises are about taking the risk of connecting our voices to our bodies and our breath, so that the words spoken fully express the deep truths that God gives us to communicate in preaching. There is no question that this is vulnerable work; to be present in body, mind, and spirit, and to speak deep truths, requires the courage to strip away defenses, to break open the self to the human other and the Divine Other. We can resist engaging our bodies in preaching because we are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with being truly present.

Some of you asked how concretely to build these exercises into your practice of preaching. The exercises mentioned above can be found in Kristin Linklater’s Freeing the Natural Voice; if you want to delve further into this work, that book is an excellent resource. Aside from these exercises, here are some other ideas you can use:

  • Begin your sermon preparation with the body instead of going straight to the written page—stretch, stand and feel your feet under you and your spine long. Become aware of your breath. Sigh out on sound. Sigh a hum onto your lips and wake up the vibrations in your body. Then read aloud the text on which you will preach. You might be surprised at how the text strikes you differently when you let it resonate in your body.
  • Write your text on a separate sheet of paper. Lie down on the floor with your knees up and feet flat on the floor, and the paper beside you. Become aware of your breath dropping into your belly. Pick up the paper and whisper the lines of the text. See how the text connects to thoughts, feelings and images down in your breathing source.
  • Learn the text by heart, and speak it aloud to someone else, perhaps in your peer group. Notice what you learn about the text because you have internalized and externalized it in this way.
  • Take the time to stretch, breathe, sigh on sound, hum prior to preaching. Do this physical preparation just as you would prepare for preaching by prayer. Or make this physical work a form of prayer. It will make a difference!

The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke is Associate Dean of Chapel and Associate Professor of Homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary and Faculty Consultant for Preaching for the Center for Liturgy and Music.