Archive for the ‘Reflection’ category

Tell the story!

May 5, 2009

Here’s irony for you: I’m a voice actor who was just assigned to help coach visual presentation.

In my case, that’s not really so peculiar. I’ve been a public speaker and stage performer for decades longer than I’ve been a voice actor. By conservative estimate, I’ve delivered in the neighborhood of 5,000 presentations before audiences ranging in size from a half-dozen to several thousand. As a facet of my communications consulting practice, I also coach businesspeople on individual speaking and presentation skills.

So, when the musical leadership of my Internationally ranked a cappella chorus, Voices in Harmony, asked me to join a newly formed visual coaching team, it made at least a little bit of sense.

In truth, performance is performance, whether executed in front of a live audience, a camera, or a microphone. It’s all about unlocking the freedom to openly express one’s inward thoughts and emotions. That freedom comes more naturally to some people than to others — I’m fortunate to be one of those to whom it “just happens.” But I’m convinced that anyone who wants to be an effective performer can become one, with training and practice.

The venue, however, makes a difference as well.

I was surprised, given the depth and diversity of my performing and speaking experience, how intimidated I was the first few times I stepped into a voiceover booth and found myself staring a studio microphone in the diaphragm. I’m completely fearless on stage, but I discovered that the combination of mic, script, pop filter, and dead acoustical space unnerved me just a little.

That is, until I reminded myself that performing is performing… because performing is communicating… and communicating is communicating.

In the booth, my mission is the same as it is when I’m standing behind a lectern, or wandering a dais, or acting on a stage, or even singing on chorus risers: Tell the story. The techniques may differ from one setting to another, but the goal does not: Tell the story. As long as I remember to tell the story, my voice — like my face and body — knows exactly what to do. I don’t need to analyze it. I don’t need to micromanage it.

I just need to tell the story.

That’s what I hope to share with my chorus mates as we prepare for this year’s competition cycle. Performance is not about mechanics. It’s not about rote memory, or choreographic precision.

Just tell the story.

If you do that one thing, everything else will fall into place.

Actor, direct thyself

April 30, 2009

A thought-provoking insight in tonight’s first session of a four-week course in self-directing skills…

Approach every script as though you were going to direct another actor’s performance of it.

That makes so darned much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.

After all, how many times have I, as a presenter, reiterated the well-observed point that the best way to master a subject is to prepare to teach that subject to someone else? More times than I can count, much less remember.

It simply follows, then, that one way to gain complete ownership of a piece of copy would be to prepare to direct it.

That single sentence is going to provide a launching pad for my next quantum leap.

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

April 17, 2009

Sad but true… I now have Friday afternoons free.

As I was preparing this morning for the final session of this six-week workshop, it struck me suddenly how much I was going to miss this weekly gathering, and the people with whom I’ve shared the experience.

The baker’s dozen of us — plus Samantha, of course — became our own little family as we supported and encouraged one another over the past month and a half. I’ve witnessed so much phenomenal growth in each of the other actors in the group, and have come to admire and respect each of them for their unique gifts.

I’ll see most, if not all, of them in other classes as we progress — some as soon as next week — but we’ll never be Sam’s 13 Apprentices again, or join together in this exact configuration.

I’m a touch misty, to tell the truth.

Realizing the occasion, I took my camera with me today to enshrine the moment. The pictures can’t preserve the electricity in the studio, or the raw emotions that we shared as we alternately soared or stumbled in the booth. They certainly don’t capture Samantha’s tough-love, painfully honest but maternal critiques, the hazard of which we each weathered like lobster fishermen braving a New England squall. But when I look at these faces — smiling, reflective, or focused — I’ll remember the 24 hours we spent together, and everything that we learned.

For my final exam, I performed two pieces of copy: an animation script selected for me by another member of the class, and an introspective TV spot that Sirenetta and I had worked on in a recent private lesson. I would never have chosen the animation piece for myself — I still have a hard time envisioning myself doing character voices, even though everyone tells me that’s where the core of my talent lies — but I gave it an earnest whirl.

When Samantha gave my performance her highest score, I couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure?” I’d struggled so miserably over the previous five weeks that it was difficult to accept that I’d done this well. Sam, with characteristic directness, reminded me how frequently I’d complained about my frustration with myself during this workshop. “So, when I finally give you a 3, shut up and take it,” she laughed.

The TV spot wasn’t perfect, but I was nonetheless happy with my read. Sam’s score for this one was, predictably, not quite as lofty, but still good. It also came with compliments and encouragement — I’d taken her direction following the first take and implemented it into the second. All it lacked was confidence, which I probably would have nailed if given a third bite at the apple. Still, coupled with the other piece, it represented my best work of the entire course.

It had taken me six weeks to find it, but the old mojo had returned.

Without exception, everyone in the group delivered her or his best on Finals Day. In several cases, the comparison with the first week’s work represented a quantum leap forward. Some of the newer students, in fact, pulled performances from their inward depths of which I would not have believed them capable. I was overjoyed for them.

For the more experienced of us, the increments of improvement were smaller and subtler, but still vibrantly evident.

Besides which, we gained something beyond our own talents — the connection with others traveling different, yet largely parallel, paths.

When next those paths intersect, we’ll tap into that synergy.

You do me, and I’ll do you

April 13, 2009

We did an interesting exercise last week in my Friday afternoon workshop.

During our first meeting five weeks ago, we were each secretly assigned another participant to “shadow.” For our fifth session, we were to bring a script perfectly suited to the person we have been observing, and perform that script in the booth as we thought that person would — using the qualities we’ve noted in that individual’s vocal and acting style.

My challenge was both easy and remarkably difficult. Easy, in that I’ve shared several other classes with the person I shadowed, and was more familiar with his work going into this exercise than I was with any of the actors in the group. Difficult, not only in that this person’s style is in many respects antithetical to my own, but also in that I like the guy — I was afraid I’d do a lousy job of imitating him, and he’d never speak to me again.

Fortunately for me, however, I’d had a fair amount of practice.

Since my challenging experience in narration class back at the beginning of this year, I’ve been grasping at every hook I can find to help me master what is, for me, a consistently frustrating aspect of VO. Because my natural vocal quality is energetic and expressive, it’s tough for me to dial down to the lower-intensity, more understated tone necessary for effective narration. Watching tons of TV documentaries has helped some, as has my growing appreciation for “vocal colors.” (When I narrate, I have to think “blue”cool, get it?)

As it happens, the actor I’ve been observing for workshop has one of the “bluest” voices I know. A couple of months ago, I discovered that modeling his thoughtful, measured, laid-back delivery helped me find my narrative voice. So, even before this exercise, I’d been imitating him for some time in my daily workouts.

I chose a piece of narration copy for the exercise. And what do you know — the read that came out of my “impression” might have been the best work I’ve done in weeks.

After class, I had a chance to catch up with my unsuspecting “model” and let him know how much practicing his delivery has helped me grow as a narrator. I think he was more than a little stunned. This was also my opportunity to let him know how much development I’ve noticed in his work over the almost-year that we’ve been in classes and workshops together. He really has come a long way from the first time I heard him read.

The person who has been shadowing me chose an animation character script for her exercise. She’s mentioned to me on prior occasions that she thinks animation might be my niche, so when I learned that I had been her observation subject, I wasn’t surprised by her selection. It was hilarious to hear my boisterous delivery rumbling out in her angelic, childlike voice, but she made it work — I knew immediately upon listening to her read that I was the one she was imitating.

What did surprise me was the evaluation my observer gave after a month of monitoring my voice. She described my vocal quality using words like “emotional,” “sensitive,” and “vulnerable” — characteristics that I would never in a million years have associated with myself. (Even more surprising was Samantha‘s follow-up comment: “That’s exactly how I hear you, too.”)

I’ve always envisioned myself as the aloof, detached, intellectual type. But I guess I don’t sound that way to others.

I hope that’s a good thing.

Next week, I’ll get my chance to perform the animation script my observer chose for me. I’ll try to do it justice.

I’ll also be interested to see how the person I’ve been shadowing presents the copy I selected for him. I suspect that he’ll give it a better read than I did. Which, I guess, is kind of the point.

Private dancer

April 10, 2009

Today’s private coaching session with Sirenetta touched off several new flashes in the old chandelier.

We began the hour talking about some of my recent challenges. As Sirenetta rightly pointed out, confidence is the key. Once I trust myself enough not to overthink and overwork every word of copy, I’ll be better off.

Toward that end, I walked into the booth with pristine, unmarked scripts and tried to just let things fly. The technique seemed to work — although I didn’t hit anything perfectly on the first take, I managed to get to a place of relative quality within just a couple of attempts. Sirenetta’s customarily pointed and incisive directing helped.

We worked through a pair of similar scripts designed to bring out my conversational, “regular guy” side. In both cases, I started the process bigger and broader than necessary, and needed to work backward to find a more believable note. When I got there, I was pleased with the end results, albeit frustrated that it still takes me longer than I’d like to find the sweet spot. But, as I reminded myself, it’s the final take that matters. I’ll probably choose one of these two pieces for my “final exam” in next week’s Friday afternoon workshop.

Next, we played with a character script for a TV spot. Once again, I found the character work easier to hit from the start. Maybe I’m just more comfortable working at greater distance from my own perceived self. A therapist would probably have a field day with that revelation.

Last on the docket was a spot that involved an internal monologue. Once Sirenetta pointed out that I could treat the monologue as though it was the audible half of a dialogue, this came together rather well.

What I took away:

  • Confidence is good.
  • Instinct trumps intellect.
  • Frame a monologue by envisioning it as a response to an unheard question.
  • I’m still crippling myself with literal-think, but I’m improving.
  • Let the copy sell itself.
  • Less is still more. Except when it isn’t. And I still have trouble knowing which is which.

Overall, a step forward. I’ll gladly take every one of those that I can get.

New morning, new day

April 3, 2009

I had an infinitely better Friday this week than last.

Today’s VO workshop was busy, busy, busy. I had six — count ’em, six — opportunities in the booth today, and while I don’t know that any of the six displayed my finest work, all of them flowed more easily and less painfully than anything I did seven days ago.

I even got one “strongest read in the group” from Samantha, albeit on a piece of copy on which she described our collective work with adjectives including “horrible” and “atrocious.” So I’m sure exactly how much of a compliment that was.

More importantly, though, I regained much of my customary ease in front of the microphone. I still found myself fighting my copy a few times, but today these were minor skirmishes as opposed to the pitched battles of recent weeks. As I listened to my playbacks, I never felt like cringing. I wasn’t pounding myself on the back with self-admiration, but I wasn’t kicking myself in the groin either.

Progress is progress.

A few excerpts from today’s “notes to self”:

  • Remember that in commercial reads, even an angry character needs to be likable. I struggle to find the happy medium between a sufficiently strong emotional choice, and one that pushes the envelope too far.
  • Even when my “levels” were off, I liked the choices I made today. A couple of times, my choice didn’t work as well as it might have due to poor execution. But I’m still glad that I made the specific choice.
  • Relax, relax, relax. The words are less important than the performance. Let go, and let God.
  • As much as I enjoy hearing — and frequently, learning from — the work of my peers, I’m glad that I do what I do. I’m learning to love my instrument, which is a major step forward for me.

At this juncture, I’ll take all of the steps forward that I can get.

I took positive note of how much easier it is to work when I’m well-rested physically. Last weekend came at the end of a stressful and exhausting stretch of days. Today, I stepped into the booth armed with a solid night of sleep. A world of difference.

I can’t yet say that my mojo is back, but I can hear its footsteps. And for a change, they’re getting louder.

13 again

March 28, 2009

In the third week of a six-week Friday afternoon VO workshop, I hit the wall.

Whenever I have a weekly class, there’s always one week where my frustration with my progress — or, more accurately, my self-perceived lack of progress — escalates to the point that I drive home quivering on the precipice of surrender. By the next week, I’ve clambered back onto the bicycle and am once again pedaling furiously.

Yesterday felt even worse than usual. Every bit of work I created seemed forced, trite, tired, or just plain wrong.

The fact that, an hour after that class ended, I started the first session of a two-day seminar didn’t help, either. It just provided me with another three and a half hours in which to be awful.

Fortunately, today was a better day. I didn’t rock anyone’s world — certainly not my own — with the work I did today. But at least I felt capable and competent each time I was in the booth. With the day’s final exercise, a refresher on “vocal colors,” I actually sounded like my old, marginally talented self.

Where was that guy yesterday?

Samantha gave me a stern pep talk after the other students left. Her words, as they inevitably do, put things into clearer perspective. “You’re in your awkward teenager stage right now,” she pointed out. “You’re past the point of being cute on raw potential alone. Now, you’ve got acne and growing pains. And it’s taken you a step backward.”

That observation ignited a light bulb in my chandelier.

It’s like puberty all over again, 35 years later. Only now, it’s not my physical voice that’s changing. It’s my ability to act with my voice that’s undergoing a fundamental — almost hormonal — overhaul.

When I first began studying VO, I could step into the booth with the cheerful abandon of innocence, because I didn’t yet know what to do and not do. I was unencumbered by knowledge. Now, months later, with hundreds of hours of coaching and personal practice time under my belt, I’m wrestling with all of the education and understanding I’ve gained. I drag a zillion things to think about — and worry about — with me every time I face the microphone.

Now, I have to fully internalize everything I’ve learned, so that I can stop thinking about it and start performing.

Knowing what my problem is should help push me toward resolution.

Samantha says that once I reach that breakthrough, nothing will be able to stop me from becoming as great a voice actor as I want to be, and know that I can be.

I would love nothing more than proving her correct.

Pat-urday in San Francisco

March 9, 2009

Now that I’ve had a moment to rest and recover, here’s the lowdown on last Saturday’s workshop.

Pat Fraley titled the event Audition Technique Masters, which probably described everyone in the room other than me. Pat invited agent John Erlendson, principal of San Francisco’s JE Talent, to direct one of the two sessions. Sydney Rainin, a local voice artist best known for her work with Macy’s and Safeway, dropped by for an hour of Q&A at midday.

Paranoid that I am, I arrived at the event location, Polarity Post Production, nearly an hour early. I found convenient parking in a lot literally a stone’s throw from the studio. The extra time gave me an opportunity to decompress from the drive, finish my coffee, read a few pages on my Kindle, and arrive promptly feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

We began the morning with the usual get-acquainted round robin. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the other 11 participants also study or have studied at Voicetrax. Even though I didn’t know anyone, that commonality made the room feel immediately comfortable. So, for that matter, did Pat, who is every bit as funny and engaging as his reputation (and the audio lessons I’ve downloaded from his site) would suggest. All of the trepidation with which I’d arrived fell away like dandruff.

Our first round in the booth was a brief character piece from an interactive game project. We had several scripts from which to choose. I selected three possibilities, giving myself flexibility in case one or more of my classmates picked the same copy. That proved wise, as one of the first people into the booth went with my first choice, and I observed another student carefully reviewing my second option. That meant I ended up focusing on my third choice. That was fine — I enjoy a challenge.

It’s always fun to hear other people work. Although everyone else in the class outstripped me in experience — most of the others have been pursuing voiceover for several years, and several were working voice pros with agents and actual careers — I didn’t feel intimidated. Once Pat had put a few of my classmates through their paces, I was encouraged to think that I could stand on a reasonably level competitive field with the others. At least, I’d avoid embarrassing myself.

Before my turn in the booth came, we broke for lunch. While we noshed on sandwiches and salad from Il Fornaio (“you deserve a quality lunch,” Pat remarked), John and Sydney joined us to share their insights. I couldn’t think of any questions I wanted to ask, but I enjoyed listening to the responses both of these successful artists offered to others’ inquiries.

After the break, John led us back into the studio to tackle some commercial copy. I really appreciated John’s straightforward, non-technical directing style. As he sent each student into the booth, he asked for three consecutive reads through the copy — basically the same read, without major adjustments in character or interpretation. After the third read, he offered simple direction. What quickly became clear was that by the time the talent had run the copy three times, he or she more often than not had a handle on their basic approach. For there, it was just a matter of refinement. For most, the refinement involved speeding up the tempo of the read so that it flowed naturally.

I had chosen a spot for a well-known amusement park. Since the copy seemed comfortably in my wheelhouse in terms of both vocal character and personality, I didn’t attempt anything fancy. I just focused on delivering the read with the appropriate energy, and keeping my voice within my optimal range.

“How’d you feel about that?” John asked, after I’d run my three reads.

“Pretty good,” I shrugged.

“I think you’re right in the zone. Pick up the tempo about 20 percent, and I think you’ll be there.”

I read the copy a fourth time, propelling myself along more briskly. When I finished, I glanced toward the booth window.

John said simply, “You’re done.”

Okay — that felt solid. (John thinks my natural speaking voice sounds like Seth Rogen. Who knew?)

When John had finished with the 12 of us, Pat slipped back into the director’s chair to complete the character round. My turn came up quickly, so back into the booth I headed. I could hear my game character, described as a friendly, larger-than life auto-racing promoter, clearly in my creative ear, so I attacked the copy with aggressive abandon.

A little too much abandon, as it turned out. Pat sent his associate into the booth to demonstrate the appropriate volume level — probably one-third as loud as I’d been on my first read.

It took me a couple of experimental runs, but the final time through, I remembered at last not to over-project, while maintaining the character I’d adopted. The resulting read sounded less strident and more authentic. I don’t know whether I’d cast me in that particular role, but I was happy with the choices I’d made. (Pat’s planning to distribute the recordings later this week. We’ll see whether my positivity survives on second listen.)

Pat finished the day with some additional tips. We gathered the class for a group photo, then scattered to the four winds. (It wasn’t windy, especially. I just wanted to say that.)

I drove northward out of The City brimming with enthusiasm. All in all, a terrific day. I can scarcely wait for another opportunity to study with Mr. Fraley. With any luck, that chance will come sooner rather than later.

Thinking ahead

March 6, 2009

Tomorrow, I’m participating in Pat Fraley‘s Audition Technique Masters workshop in San Francisco. Given that I’ve never worked with Pat, or either of the other directors, I suppose this is something of an audition in itself.

As I recall, I was always a dreadful first date.

This workshop begins an intensive four months of VO training. From now until the end of June, I have exactly one week when I don’t have at least one class, and some weeks I have two or three. It’s a bit like immersion therapy, but it’s time. By the end of these four months, I’ll know with certainty that I’m either ready to make a serious splash in this business, or better off bowling.

I might be in over my head in tomorrow’s workshop.

Or, this might be right where I need to be at this point.

Whichever is true…

Here I come.

New lightbulbs for my chandelier

February 24, 2009

Now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, here’s a summary of the lessons learned in yesterday’s coaching session.

  • I have a tendency to cut my projection too much when reading at low-to-medium volume. I’m not sure whether I’m subconsciously being protective of the microphone (afraid of overamping it) or simply feel awkward about the sound of my voice. I need to feel free to project with full voice and plenty of forward resonance, even when I’m performing an intimate read.
  • By the same token, I need to stay tighter physically on the mic. (Note to self: Review notes from last fall’s mic technique class.)
  • It was interesting to hear that I have a unique sound. I’ve always thought of my voice as nondescript in a good way — I can make my voice sound a variety of different ways. But I’ve never considered my “natural” sound especially unique.
  • Also interesting to know that my “money voice” may be the deeper, chestier, “superheroic” end of my range. To my ear, my lower range sounds manufactured. Apparently, it doesn’t sound that way to other people. The director: “It’s bassy, but not too bassy. A lot of nice texture. That’s where I’m going to want to hear you.” Gravitas is good.
  • Along that thread of different ears hearing different qualities: On my one narrative read, last night’s director thought I sounded as cool, laid-back, and conversational as the copy called for. I’m certain that other directors I’ve had would have found the same read too bright or dramatic. (Note to self: It’s selection, not rejection.)
  • My greatest vocal asset — warmth and brightness — is also one of my greatest challenges. I first learned that in narration class, and the lesson was reinforced last night. How often that happens in life: Our blessings and burdens coincide.
  • Appreciating my gifts, part one: I do an effective job of sustaining a character — not only in vocal placement, but also in attitude and style — throughout a read, even through changes in range and emotion. Consistency, thou art a jewel.
  • Appreciating my gifts, part two: I take direction well. That’s a reputation I’d like to maintain.
  • The less I think, the better my acting. I really need to trust my instincts. They’re good. I’ve been told that frequently since my very first VO class. It’s time to start believing it.