Kirk Byron Jones introduces the concept of “playing words” in his helpful book The Jazz of Preaching. As I thought about that and unified it with my early forays into attempting to play Jazz on the Trumpet, I recognized that playing a note has many dimensions. I will do my best not to use music terminology. The first of these is volume.
I was talking to Martha Simmons in between one of her lectures and she emphasized to me that one of the biggest problems that Black preachers have is too much volume. We don’t recognize that lowering the volume of the voice can be just as effective as raising the volume.
I know this in my head, but my heart still has a way to go. I find myself raising my voice to the point of not being able to continue a crescendo. However, when I played the trumpet, the music called for lowering and raising the volume of the notes played.
If I am to be a more effective communicator then I must “play” the words. I must raise and lower the volume of the words that are played. Loud volume is needed at times, but it is not the only way to emphasize. I have been working on this for a while and hope to continue working to get better.
In Music there are notes that take 4 beats, 2 beats, a half beat, 1/4 beat, and even smaller and longer. When we “play” words we also change the number of beats for each word. Some words take longer to “play” just by virtue of them being longer.
However, the composer will change the note length for effect. If I am to “play words,” I must play around with the length of the note. How long to I hold the word. Do I hold the “important” words longer so that they can stay there and have the intended effect? Do I hold the wrong words? These are some questions that we should ask to improve our “Playing” of words.
There are places in the music that you are not playing. You are not always filling up the song with music. The silence is a part of the music. So it is with preaching. I have heard some preachers who are always playing words, but never give us time to process the words.
Perfect times for rest are when you want the people to contemplate the word you just played or the concept it described. I often want to fill every moment with words, but when I do rest at the appropriate time, I find that the sermon is much more effective. Another thing that rest does is allow for the Holy Spirit to come in and say something.
There is the color of the note. Here is whether the note is played in a staccato or a legato? Is it choppy or smooth? Is it played with a mute or a open bell? Some even play the trumpet with a flutter tongue at times.
In preaching we sometimes use a choppy delivery style and a smooth one depending on the demands of the sermon. This also gets into the rhythm of the presentation. Do you always use the same color or rhythm? I find that I automatically change both based on what i am saying, but attention to this might help me to be a more effective preacher.
Finally, there is the tone of the note. Do you always preach the same tone? If someone transcribed your voice musically would you find that it would be the same tone the whole time? Maybe a Eb over and over and over again. Music requires a change in tone, perhaps preaching should as well.
This is experimental. I have no real conclusions just things to try and play with. How do you improve your preaching style? Maybe attention to these aspects of music that I learned from playing the trumpet can help us “play words” more effectively.
Mitchell’s second characteristic of Black preaching is the use of tone. This includes “whooping” but also many forms of intonation and tuning. Mitchell notes that many use this in the “celebration” of the sermon which should be connected to the content of the sermon.
I had a conversation with a classmate, the Rev. Brandon Blake, over “whooping” in black preaching. You can find a link to some discussion of that African American art form here. The conversation centered around definitions of terms that Rev Martha Simmons used when she was explaining “whooping.”
The first thing that was of interest is the differentiation between “whooping” and “tuning.” Dr. Simmons noted that lay people and congregants often “tune” to help the preacher who is “whooping” keep his or her pitch. In addition, Simmons noted that some preachers just tune because they don’t have the ability to whoop.
the difference between the two seems to be one of playing with a musicality (tuning) versus actually going into the musicality and staying there (whooping). Blake stated that oftentimes the whoop begins as a tune. The preacher begins playing with the musicality. The preacher’s voice may go back and forth between a musical quality and the normal speaking voice. That is the tuning. Many if not all can do that and I have heard Black preachers who would not even consider “whooping” actually do that on occasion. However when the preacher actually begins the whoop, the music takes over and the playing back and forth normally ceases.
Simmons seems to believe that whooping is something that is both by nurture and by nature. In other words whoopers are both born and made. This is interesting in that Rev. Jasper Williams believes that anyone can whoop. Simmons does not believe that, but she does seem to believe that anyone can “tune” as noted above.
Brandon Blake noted that sometimes fear is an impediment to whooping. When a preacher goes into the whoop that preacher is giving her or himself over to the Spirit. The idea is to let go totally to the in-working of the Spirit. However fear of looking bad or messing up or the like might make the whoop stop at a tune. It seems that the preacher has more control of the tune than the whoop, but certainly that is not always the case.
Another important component of the lecture was a statement by Rev Simmons to the effect that a celebration should not be teaching but pure celebration. If the preacher adds teaching to the celebration component of the sermon then the celebration of the Gospel is dampened. This is applicable to whoopers and non-whoopers. Teach during the sermon, but when it is celebration time, celebrate the truth of what you have taught rather than continuing to teach.
I am by no means an expert on whooping, but I noticed that there is little information available on the web so I decided to write up a few posts ont he subject.
It is usually spelled either as “hooping” or “whooping.” Go into many African American Baptist or Pentecostal churches and you will hear it. There is even a white version called the “holy whine.” Some churches don’t think you have preached unless you have done it. Others look down on it as problematic. I have looked on the web and seen it referred to as a “carnival.” I have even heard some preaching instructors say that it is nothing more than an increase in intensity for your sermons. While there is often an increase in intensity, a “whoop” usually means more than just that.
Whooping is when the words of the preacher begins taking on a musical quality. The preaching blends into musicality. Jasper Williams believes that the “whoop” is always unique to an individual. He also suggests that all who wish to whoop should just practice it and listen to other whoopers for inspiration.
It is very difficult to describe it in words so here are two examples of whooping found on youtube. First is a Baptist example from the Rev Jasper Williams preaching the Eulogy of one of the greatest whoopers of them all C. L. Franklin:
Now here is an example from a Pentecostal pastor Bishop Norman Wagner
In my view, whooping is a part of our own African American heritage that should not be put down out of hand, neither should it be made to be the end-all of great preaching. Some of the greatest preachers do not whoop, but then again some great preachers of today and yesterday whoop. It is a part of our heritage that can be a tool for the effective preaching of the gospel.