Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

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