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Learning ritual
By RW Bro. Philip Durell
This article is intended as a guide for experienced and inexperienced freemasons alike because I believe that we can all improve our performance in lodge.
In one survey, public speaking was ranked as the number one fear among men—above the fear of death—so you are not alone if the very thought of giving a lecture in lodge fills you with dread.
The following are the methods by which I and others are able to learn the ritual, overcome our public speaking fears, and perhaps most importantly, perform the ritual to the best of our ability. That last point is very important because it represents the most we can expect out of any brother, to do his best.
In my view this makes comparisons of one brother's ritual to another a non-issue. But I also strongly believe that we can all improve our individual and collective performance of the ritual.
Planning and allocating
Lodges can greatly assist by planning their degrees early—giving two weeks or even less notice to even an experienced ritualist is only acceptable in an emergency, and last minute planning doesn't qualify! In most lodges the Worshipful Master and Director of Ceremonies would be responsible for allocating all the lectures and parts in a degree.
Doing so with three or more months notice gives the brethren ample time to study. It also allows an opportunity for other than "the good old standbys" a chance to be part of the degree. Those that already know the lectures can then be kept in reserve for last minute replacements if necessary. Always call the practice a week before the degree and insist on a full rehearsal of all parts as that will help those doing parts for the first time.
This is important as those participating then know that they have to have their parts ready for the practice. The week between the practice and degree should be used for polishing the performance, not learning the lines for the first time.
Memorizing and learning
There are four main stages to learning ritual:
1. Memorize all the words soon after you are allocated a part.
2. Repeat it aloud often
3. Repeat it aloud often
4. Repeat it aloud often
When accepting a part in a degree, too many brethren procrastinate and don't start learning their parts until it is too late to do it justice. Some men can memorize the work quickly, and for others it is a considerable time commitment. In my experience the more memorizing you do the quicker the brain will learn.
Before attempting to memorize any words, read your part two or three times over. Our ritual was mostly written over 150 years ago and although the English is exquisite there are many words not in common use today so look them up in a dictionary or online. By reading it aloud you will get a preliminary idea of how to communicate the lecture.
In our busy lives we often find it difficult to set aside time to memorize ritual but we have to make time, otherwise we will end up doing it when we have no choice and that is always way too late. Consider what time of the day you are most alert—for some this will be early in the morning, some later in the day, but it is rarely late at night. Try to get somewhere away from interruptions and on no account try to learn when the hockey playoffs are on.
There are many different ways of approaching memorization. For some making a voice recording of the whole lecture and repeating it at home or in the car works well. Others will write out the whole lecture by hand as this not only reinforces the memory but it also allows time to think about the meaning of the words. I generally use the old fashioned way of covering up the ritual with an old envelope and learning sentence by sentence and eventually paragraph by paragraph. For me it depends on the length of the lecture or the part, but the principal aim is the same: to memorize all the words as soon as I am able.
For a relatively short piece, say less than half a page, I simply learn the words sentence by sentence until I can repeat the whole piece. If it is in a couple of paragraphs then I will do it paragraph by paragraph.
For a one to multiple page single lecture I will learn it paragraph by paragraph, imagining them as a series of smaller lectures. I will spend exactly the time I need to repeat each paragraph roughly right and then move on to the next paragraph and repeat the procedure until I have gone through the whole lecture. Note: I know that I will have forgotten most of the first paragraph by the end of this process. But that doesn't matter because I am going to repeat the process all the way through the lecture and for a third or fourth time if necessary. The brain is a wonderful computer that recognizes that I've been over these words before and each time I go through the whole piece more sticks in my memory until I have it all down roughly right.
The aim here is to spend as much time on the last third of the lecture as the first third. Too often you hear a lecture in lodge where the first third sounds like Lord Lawrence Olivier or Sir Anthony Hopkins, the second third is good with the odd prompt and the final third requires a lot of prompting. Usually this is because the brother has repeated the first paragraphs learned every time he learned a new paragraph, thereby giving far more attention and repetition to the first third of the lecture.
For a major part in a degree, such as that performed by a Worshipful Master, I start with what I consider to be the most important section of my part—in the case of the Worshipful Master that would be the obligation—and learn that first. As the obligation will be repeated by the candidate it is useful to practice the obligation by repeating both the Worshipful Master's part and the candidate's responses. When you have it down have someone else act the candidate's part. After learning the obligation I will memorize the next largest pieces, until finally I go through all of my part from beginning to end. Remember that all I'm trying to do at this stage is get the words memorized roughly right.
Some people find it easier to memorize the whole degree so that they know their cues, particularly in what I call the Q&A sections (like opening a lodge). What I do at this stage is have another brother 'test' me on the memorization by giving me the previous line to my part. I intersperse this testing by repeating the whole part out aloud until I know my lines and my cues. Some brethren are good at improvising, but I'm not, so I try and be close to word perfect—never quite achieved but close.
For a long lecture it is important to remember the sequence of paragraphs. Many brethren use cue cards which I think is great for practice but I'd prefer not to see used in lodge unless they are unobtrusive, say on a pedestal but not held in the hand when on the floor of the lodge. Far better to be prompted.
Stage fright and nerves
Most people get very anxious when they are about to perform even if they've done it a hundred times before. There are some pointers to overcoming nerves.
Lay off caffeine, particularly coffee and colas. It may make you feel more alert but it will increase heart rate and heighten any anxious feelings. Maintain normal eating habits and don't skip meals before a big part as the body and brain need energy.
Remember to breathe. If you feel a panic coming on before your part take several deep and slow breaths. You can also imagine how you'll feel after your performance, i.e. relaxed. This will help calm you down. Make sure you learned your lines days before and show up early on the night. A combination of last minute revising and late arrival can be deadly!
Lastly, remember that all those Past Masters out there are just people and your performance is not a matter of life and death, even if it feels like it at the time.
Performance and delivery
No matter how good your memory, always have a prompter. There should only be one prompter at a time who has no other responsibility, preferably not the Secretary or even the Director of Ceremonies. It is okay to have different prompters for major lectures in the degree provided that this is planned beforehand and the Worshipful Master, Director of Ceremonies and any other prompters are informed.
The prompter should be close to the brother performing the ritual, not at the other end of the lodge. It is important that the prompter have a clear and distinct voice and that you agree on the signals to be made when you need a word. Always speak in a clear and distinct voice loud enough to be heard in all corners of the lodge. You may be addressing a candidate but all the brethren want to hear you. There is one difference between a good piece of ritual and a great piece of ritual and that is the performance and delivery. The first is often characterized by good memorization but to be truly memorable the delivery has to match the standard of memorization. In fact I'd say it is even more important.
That's why it is essential to memorize the words early and repeat the whole piece as often as possible. The more repetitions, the more automatic will become the recall of the sentences and as the repetitions progress you will find yourself beginning to interpret their meaning. This is really important as it is your interpretation of their meaning that you will be communicating in lodge.To truly communicate a lecture we have several tools at our disposal. First is our voice which has a range of options to help us: tone, volume, speed, pauses and pitch. If we are close to a candidate we can also use facial expressions and body language.
The ritual gives us plenty of clues as to what we should emphasize. Take the Address to the Brethren where there are key phrases that need emphasis. Phrases like 'fundamental principles of our order' and 'the chief point of Freemasonry' beg for emphasis.
Most brethren are capable of performing ritual and all of us are capable of improving our performance. Remember 1. Plan the degree early and set the practice a week before the degree;
2. Learn the words as soon as you can;
3. Repeat out loud often;
4. Endeavour to interpret the meaning of your part;
5. Be ready to perform your part by the practice date;
6. Control your anxiety;
7. Have one prompter near the performer;
8. Speak clearly and distinctly and loud enough for all to hear.

Presented at the GVRD Grand Masonic Day, 5 March 2011.


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