Q It Up: Training Your Voice

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Sometimes we get a flood of responses to our questions, and sometimes we don’t. This month, only five responded to our question about voice work, but these are five talented and seasoned pros with some great feedback. Thanks guys!

Q It Up: If you do voice work, what training did you go through, if any, to polish your skills? Did you take acting classes or other types of classes? Did you hire a voice coach? How did these things help you? Did you just learn as you go and listen to and mimic other talents? What things do you continue to do to keep your vocal skills sharp? Please offer any other tips or comments you might have with regard to being the best voice-over talent you can be.

Bumper Morgan [bump[at]bumper morgan.com]: Living in Nashville, there’s a vocal coach on every block, which is pretty convenient if you’re a singer or aspiring VO talent. You know, Willie Nelson was a disc-jockey at KCNC/Ft. Worth in 1954. Since then, he’s proved that a pretty voice doesn’t always get the girls.

Knowing the basics of breath control and acting surely helps, but let’s not forget that a well written script and knowledge of your vocal instrument is crucial.

It’s important to learn as much as you can about this craft, you can never read too many websites and talk enough shop with your friends. This business is always changing; it’s dynamic, not static (we’ll leave that to AM radio.)

What works for me? I take long walks, try to get plenty of rest, spend quality time with family and friends. I like lemon water, and watch my caffeine intake closely, since it can dry the tender vocal chords. Good advice, unless you plan to imitate Don Knotts in your next session.

Dave Foxx [davefoxx[at]clear channel.com]: I spent several years going to school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but my announcing skills were mostly formed during one semester of a class called “Speech And Dramatic Arts 201 ­ Broadcast Announcing.”

Now, bear in mind, I had the thickest southern drawl you’ve ever heard, having spent my middle and high school years in Fort Worth, Texas. I wuz a jin-u-wine goat-ropin’, tea-sippin’, Tony Lama boot wearin’ Dallas Cowboy fan when I started this course. My instructor simply shook his head when I stood up and introduced myself to the class. Looking back on it, I can see why.

The first 4 weeks of that class (one day per week) began the whole career in voice work. We dissected spoken English into every letter and letter combination of the alphabet. The diphthongs, plosives and vowels were all studied in great detail. We talked a great deal about regionalisms in speech patterns and how sometimes a southern drawl, western twang or down-east accent would place the speaker in a light of being stupid, or at least dim-witted. Well, I couldn’t stand that idea, so I decided to lose the accent. Between the fourth and fifth session of that class, I did. By then, I had learned enough about using a flat mid-western style of speaking to know that it was the preferred accent of speaking scholars. I nailed it.

From that point on, I learned to invest certain words with emotion and to process much of what I was ABOUT to say, before I even opened my mouth. I learned to evaluate words for their emotional content and give them the prominence they deserve and the inflection they require.

Since I finished that course, I have learned so much from other announcers, from pronunciation of seldom-used words to possible inflections of more common words. I’d have to say that it’s an on-going process. I might not learn something new for weeks, but then I’ll hear someone say something that really twists my ears and makes me take notice. Then I’ll sit down and re-evaluate what I know about the spoken word and try to make a new map of English to carry around in my head.

And, by the way...doing this kind of “continuing education” by listening REALLY helps in the writing and production areas too.

Rich VanSlyke [richvs[at]bellsouth.net], Rich VanSlyke Productions, Atlanta, GA: I never took any classes except acting class in college. Also, I obtained a tape on how to do dialects. I learned a lot and I think taking classes is a great thing to do. Like most radio guys, I learned by trying to mimic others and by trail and error.

I think the best way to get better is to just keep doing it over and over, and to experiment until you find styles that work for your voice. Make a demo with as many different styles as possible. If you get calls, you have a good demo. If you don’t, do another demo.

Johnny George [jg[at]johnnygeorge .com]: I became interested in commercials when I was tagged to be in a TV spot fresh out of high school—a non-speaking role where a nice looking talent acted as my “wife” and kissed me after taking money out of a huge diamond with little money doors on it. (The retakes were killer.) It was a savings and loan spot. When I got to college that fall, it was running heavily on TV. It garnered so much attention, I decided to make myself available for other roles and signed up with the agency that had casted me in that first spot. Little by little I would get a spot here and there. Some radio, some TV. In college, to help refine my “mediocre plus” skills I did take several extra classes in acting and a class in public speaking, besides the usual classes I was already taking for Broadcast Technology.

That was 30 years ago. Since then I worked as Production Director at several stations and always was on the lookout for clients that wanted to run their spots on all the other stations in the market too. So I realized early on to do the absolute best I could in order to win the clients over to using our station as the launching pad for their spots. This strategy worked well over the years to the point I began to rack a up a sizeable client list. I built a home studio almost 10 years ago in our home that would be my safety net if I was out of a job or needed to service clients outside of the station’s clients on my own time. Then after prodding from several other local voice guys, I went up to Chicago to study one weekend with Marice Tobias, from LA, in one of her workshops. It was the best time and money I’ve ever spent on myself. That was a wonderful learning experience and one I plan on repeating. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to learn from Dick Orkin, Christine Coyle, Avery Schriver and others during a Dan O’Day Creative Summit that too was well worth it.

Don’t forget the single most asset you have are people right around you. But on the other hand, don’t forget the obvious...the TV set as commercials play, theater shows and other forms of public speaking. These all have made a big impact with me and the strengthening of my abilities.

Jim Kipping [jkipping[at]texas.net], LBJS Broadcasting, Austin, TX: Wonderful question! I get calls on a daily basis that go kinda like this: “Yes, hello there, my name is (fill in the blank) and people have always told me that I have a great voice and that I need to be in radio or voice commercials. Where and when can I come up, so I can start my illustrious new career today? “ I try not to hang up instantly, instead I am writing a book on the very topic. So instead of telling the caller the standard line of  “Stand in line, lots of folks in radio are doing the same thing... blah, blah blah...,” Screw it! I’ll turn it into a money maker! “Well, I could go into the rather lengthy process of doing what we do, but if you just send $49.94 plus S&H for the book and companion CD...” You see where I’m going with this. :o)

The fact is, there is no one right way or path to do what we do. I think the more we consider what we do on a daily basis as “acting,” the better off the industry will become! Cuz’ that’s just what it is… acting! My background growing up included many activities that translated to what I do to day, and I am thankful my folks let me do em’. Things like live community theater, school drama, school musicals, swing choir, marching and jazz band (drummer, no band geek... we where the cool ones mind you) lots of public speaking type rolls. AND THAT WAS BEFORE I GOT INTO RADIO!!! At 14 I started my first part time gig in Albuquerque NM. I still remember the calls... 1450 KRZY, Crazy Country!!! Ha!

But in prep for that, I did—and mind you at 14 and in high school—start taking additional private classes at the University of New Mexico for vocal training. This did help me additionally in areas like inflection and breathing. But the rest has been on my own, and working up from the bottom of the radio food chain. And yes, I do have to admit, I do a lot of mimicking when I hear voices I like on radio, film or TV. This can help give you a broad range of deliveries.

Because of my past, even though I started as a jock in radio, I have always had the aptitude and the desire for the production and the sound design side of our business. I think those new to the business should know, that if you didn’t get any type of training, either by doing or by study, you will have to pay some dues. No one is going to hire you if you sound like you just stepped out of the University co-op station. And just because you get an RTF degree from a school, but don’t have any other real world experience, you think you’ll get hired instantly, think again.

But wait, there’s more.

I also think folks should step back and see what is happening in the industry. I have very dear friends of mine that have that “voice of God” sound that are losing out on gigs. Even if they have all the same training we have had, they have lost a number of gigs because of the “announcer” sound. As a good friend of mine said to me: “What’s so g@#% damn wrong with being an announcer! That’s what we F!%$#ING DO!!” Be flexible folks. A gig is a gig. Know what the market is doing and wanting. Adjust and adapt to find your shtick. Even in this type of economy, there is a TON of money to make in VO. But we have to go get it. Because...”that’s what we F!@$#ING DO!” Don’t expect everything on a silver platter. I can’t stand people with that “hand out” mentality. Hey, bust some ass like we all have done! You hate people cutting in line don’t you!

Go forth and produce, not re-produce.

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