Beating the Book
From the gentle joshing between champions of Emulation and Taylor’s to the less decorous “tut” sometimes felt by those trying their best, we have all faced the challenges of ritual.
It’s worth remembering that everyone, at some stage, has experienced the cloying fear and dry mouth of utter stage fright. Even the most polished performer has frozen in the headlights.
But every one of us has ultimately become a more accomplished and comfortable public speaker in our personal and professional lives for the experience. So we asked London Masons for their tips on committing their blue and red books to memory…
W Bro Nick Tessier got in touch the day after vacating the Chair for the first time, installing his successor with a complete ceremony. He says, “I am neurodiverse and in fact severely dyslexic. It takes me three times as long to read anything, so I will often learn presentations in order to keep up. This has made me surprisingly good at ritual. I spend half an hour each morning going through a couple of lines, and then half an hour each night putting today’s lines in place with the rest of that section. Then I go over the whole ritual, morning and night, for the final few days.”
W Bro Lewis J. Hooper agrees: “For me, the best tip is to break each practice session into small chunks. Break it down into a couple of sentences and focus on learning those. When you then move on to the next chunk of sentences, start from the beginning and add them on. Little and often, you’ll add to what you already know.”
But for a masterclass in ritual, meet W Bro Barnaby Clutterbuck. “Initially I found it challenging to consume the ritual and even more challenging to convert my living room performance to the floor”, he says. “Lodge rooms diminish memory, so I started developing memory tricks to help with parts that wouldn’t stick. ‘Teach us to bear in mind and act according to’… for this I would conjure images of a bear in my head acting with an accordion…”
But that’s just the start. Clutterbuck adds: “I was successfully performing memory tricks, but I wasn’t tapping into the meaning of the words I was parroting. This was the turning point for me. I started working on understanding the pieces I was delivering, delivering them as a story and engaging the recipients rather than just saying the words. I will always credit Metropolitan Grand Inspector, Clive Hawkins with this massive change in my ritual.”
Clutterbuck offers these steps as a whole:
• Understand the story you are telling.
• Use memory tricks and learn in small but testing chunks at a time.
• Practice whenever you can: in the shower, jogging etc.
• Go back and review: you’ll have a few words wrong, so craft it.
• Deliver it out loud at home.
• Deliver it at LOI or arrive at the Lodge early so you can deliver it in the room.
Now, disregard everything you’ve just read – because there’s no one right or wrong way to learn. W Bro Steve Murphy LGR, Visiting Officer, says: “I am a competent ritualist and early on in my Masonic career realised that looking at the book was not the best way for me personally to learn the ritual. We tend to learn in one of three ways: “words, music and dance” or reading, hearing and doing. As DC in my Lodge I encourage the Brethren to find the best way for them to learn. I tend to make an audio recording of the ritual that I want to learn, save it in my iTunes and then listen to it multiple times. The beauty of listening is that I can do it anywhere. It is amazing how you quickly pick it all up!”
We haven’t yet mentioned LOI. Of course, LOI is fundamental to ritual practice, and many Lodges are now simplifying this with virtual LOIs (not that there’s a substitute to doing the requisite floorwork). But LOI is the midway to a performance, not the start point. W Bro Christopher Blackman says “Practice as much as you can at home so that, when you attend your LOI, the other brethren can then support you where necessary. Just learning it at LOI sometimes isn’t enough.”
There is also important advice for more experienced Brethren watching from the sidelines. W Bro John Morris can no longer attend meetings for health reasons, but still encourages new candidates from his computer. He says: “When I found out I had to remember words, I thought, ‘Oh well – that’s it for me!’ But I met people who would go on to help me learn. More senior Masons should take positive note of what Brethren do correctly, rather than focusing on what they get wrong, which is too negative. More new Masons would stay in the Craft if they were helped in a positive way.”
Clutterbuck concludes: “Ritual is for the recipient. Your job is to actually convey the message. Think about performing the piece with more people, bring Past Masters and light blues together; it binds the Lodge. Use gestures to animate your speaking. Make it relevant to objects in the Lodge, touch the ashlars as you describe them, stand next to the pillars as you describe them… all this will give ‘Aha!’ moments to even the darkest blues among your Brethren. Understanding and delivering ritual has made the last few years of Masonry my most enjoyable: I feel like I finally get it.”
“Oh, and when you think you’ve got it… you’re only halfway through your practice!”