Church needs to use technology to its advantage

  • September 11, 2009
{mosimage}If every modern church has a box full of microphones and a covey of speakers perched around the sanctuary, why do so many people complain they can’t hear the readings, the prayers or the homily?

“I’ve seen around the world a kind of misuse of technology where it becomes counterproductive,” said Richard Osicki, a Winnipeg communications consultant and Catholic studies lecturer. “It distracts. It emphasizes things they don’t intend to emphasize — priests forgetting to turn on their microphones or blasting through the microphone.”

Osicki has organized a day-long seminar Sept. 26 at Holy Ghost Church in Winnipeg called “What is a microphone doing at church?” The idea is to get people thinking about how they use modern technology in the liturgy and to give people some basic skills so microphones and the equipment that goes with them don’t become maladjusted distractions at Mass.

“As with so many other Catholic communications things, they (microphones) just kind of grew onto the church without anyone giving them a heck of a lot of thought,” said Osicki.

Doing it thoughtlessly can certainly detract from the liturgy, said David Smukler, a voice coach who has trained hundreds of professional actors, priests and preachers.

“The purpose of speaking in the church is to convey the word. If you are not conveying the spirit you are not doing the job,” he said.

Whether they’re lectors, preachers or presiders, people speaking in church face very particular problems, said Smukler, who trains actors at York University and Toronto’s Equity Showcase Theatre and has also been a regular lecturer at the Toronto School of Theology.

“We’re always working with the acoustical problems,” he said. “The more stone, the more metal, the more ineffective the communication is... It’s about understanding the acoustical nature of the room. Then, if it’s necessary to use a mic, there are so many modern, good mics that are so simple, that can be pinned on. But people play with the buttons.”

The other problem in churches is sitting in the pews, said Smukler.

“We have a generational issue of people not listening, that’s number one,” Smukler said. “And then we have people who have hearing loss.”

Hearing loss isn’t just an issue for the grey-haired members of the assembly. Younger people who have grown up with cellphones and iPods have also damaged their hearing, he said.

Smukler’s formula for overcoming the challenges of effective communication doesn’t start with mastering the technology or investing more in better microphones and mixing boards. It starts with training people to read and speak effectively first, then putting a mic on later.

“The human training is not a major expense, but it takes time,” he said. “When it comes to the acoustical work, it depends on the sanctuary. Some can be solved fairly easily.”

Readers, singers and preachers all need to speak to the back of the sanctuary without thinking about the microphone. People who speak to the microphone instead of speaking to the congregation will defeat even the best equipment, according to Smukler.

“They’re putting the focus on (how) I’m frightened, I’m shy and this is very brave of me — instead of the focus being on, I am working to reveal the Word.”

The simplest way to get the people on the altar to project their voices is to place somebody they know at the back of the sanctuary and then have them read or speak to that person, said Smukler.

But sometimes the technology and the big echoing sanctuary full of sonic dead spots right next to areas of good reverberation is an issue. Acoustical engineers can help.

“Sometimes it’s not so much the electronic things but putting some baffles in which can either deaden or enliven things,” said Smukler.

Osicki is often surprised by how little thought has gone into how the people hear the Mass.

“When I talk to priests about it, or talk to chairs of liturgy committees, they say ‘Gee, I never thought of that.’ ”

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