So, let me tell you about my first time. In the Studio, that is (shame on you).
First off, you're probably supposed to have done some training prior to going into the studio - me? I figure, 'hey, I can do this, I can wing it!'. OK, actually it was more like "I can do this!" and "WTF am I doing?! I'm going to look like an idiot". So, yeah, mixed messages....
You see, there was this opportunity to work in and (to me, more importantly) see a professional grade home studio. Look, I'm not building a Beach- or Propeller-grade studio in my home.....like, ever..... So seeing this set up was really important. I wanted to be able to have that reality-check moment of "Yeah, doable..." versus "You're delusional." Problem was, this was supposed to be for people who kinda knew what they were doing.....
So, I'm stressing out, trying to find copy to work with (ok, that's not really a problem - 'cause it's like the 'kid-in-the-candy-store' problem - but still, I wanted to make a favourable impression. These are sound engineers and other professional voice talent that I will run across again (Calgary ain't big, folks)). But then! THEN! they send copy for the session. And it's 'your choice' of 15 different commercial spots. I can talk about Target or nail colour or fitness apps or Lean Cuisine or Ikea or......
I start twitching: first off, I'm not a 'seller' (right, right, beggars can't be choosers, but....!); second off, I'm a writer, and the first thing I wanted to do was re-write the copy. Which I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to do. To amuse myself, I do read-thrus in front of my boys (ages 9 & 12), but I don't preface this with any context. The more I read, the more their heads get that "WTF?" tilt. Finally, one asks: "Mommy? What are you reading? It's awful." I'm inclined to agree. It's no different, mind you, from what you hear on TV, streaming internet or radio, but when you're up-close-and-personal with it, well.....it just feels different.
I explain, they laugh at me, and life goes on.
But, you see, this was my first mistake.
What I didn't do was really try and engage with the text. And if there's ANYTHING I know from my years in Voice work it's this: always unpack the text first. Connect it with your mind, body and voice (even when you think it's terrible). And I didn't.
Off I merrily go to the studio. I ask approximately a billion questions (eternal thanks to the engineer for not side-eyeing me...), and get progressively more nervous as the other talent come in, greeting each other, talking about projects. I'm actually starting to feel pukey. I don't do failure particularly gracefully, I regret to say.
We discuss who goes first - I ask to go last, and state, straight-up, that I'm clueless. WOW. What an amazing feeling. Seriously. So, I watch and listen manically to the other takes, absorbing (it feels) through my actual pores. I can't believe how engaged I am - I have spent my educational life (and, if you've seen my credentials, you know that's the VAST MAJORITY of my life - self-inflicted sad face) bored senseless. Education-as-a-means-to-an-end. Party time.
But this is different. I am truly there.
My turn. I tell everyone I think I'm going to puke, but that I'll give them warning. Into the isolation booth I go. First impression? "Oh my god." Second impression? "AWESOME!!!!" The engineer asks for my level, I give one, and we're off to the races. I do my first take (for those interested, I chose 'Target' - go big or go home). I finish, and he tells me that I have the perfect "Announcer" voice - immaculate articulation, etc., etc.
But this isn't actually a compliment.
Of course, if I was doing CBC or BBC 40 years ago, I'd have that shit nailed down cold. But today is not yesterday (profound, I know), and my skills, while exactly what are needed for live voice performance, are not what are needed for Voice Acting....in Target commercials....(or others, it seems). So, he gives me coaching, and I do another take. And another. And anooootttthhhherrrrrr. Six takes, I think, in total. I'm 'talking to my mother-in-law', 'talking to society ladies', 'talking at an intimate luncheon with society ladies', you name it. Second-to-last take is 'it'. I hear the playbacks, and I cringe.....sure, hearing my voice recorded is somewhat odd, but hearing all these (obviously, nervous and newbie) takes publicly, well.....outside the comfort zone would be an understatement.
Another batch of turns, and I roll around again. This time, I'm doing a fitness app (go ahead, friends, family and colleagues - laugh - I know I did). I have to do 'sexy lady in black velvet dress whispering in the ear of the hottest dude at the party', 'fitness fanatic', 'talking to professional who likes gadgets', and - get this - SAM ELLIOTT. To say it was bad is.......well.....vastly understating reality.
I finished, thanked everyone, went home...and got the .wav files the next day. Well, my family had a good laugh - ONCE THEY REALISED IT WAS ME! My husband kept saying, "yeah, but when do we hear you?" and I'm like, "dude, that IS me," and he's all, "but that sounds like a professional!" I will admit that last bit made me feel a little less like a complete twit.
There you have it - the good, the bad....and lots of the ugly. I'm actually looking forward to my next session, rather than devising ways to quit (which would be my default).
Imagine my shock when I sit down to write a post, thinking "Oh, I'm behind, it's about time", and check the date of my last post. Guess what? IT WAS EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO! That's tantamount to a blog-walk-of-shame.
I am going to attempt a more regular blog presence (that's what they all say, I know....), but I have something quite big going on, and I thought the Studio Blog might a good way to chronicle the journey.
What is this 'quite big'-ness I speak of? Well, I've decided to move into Voice Over/Voice Acting. To be clear: we're not talking video games, cartoons or commercials - where my heart is, and always has been, is literature. In particular, I'm moving into long-form narration - so, think audiobooks - fiction and nonfiction (I actually have a deep love for nonfiction narration - not enough people can make nonfiction fun and engaging! Nonfiction for the masses!!).
Despite nearly 25 years in the 'Voice' industry, I am effectively a newbie. Sure, I did some studio work, like, 20 years ago, and sure, I've been mic'd on many an occasion, but given the way the digital industries have exploded, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. So here I am, entering my dotage (not really, but you get the idea), learning brand new things. Like, what cardioid patterns of directionality are (hint: has to do with mic voice pickup). I'm learning things like 'popping' and 'slates' and 'windscreens' and new recording programs, like 'Audacity'. I'm joining new FB groups and reading their archives; I'm attending workshops, and working in a variety of professional studios. I'm even building my own professional studio (sorry - I just can't Auralex a closet and be done with it - I'm too old for that, and they might just find my rotting corpse in there one unfortunate day).
I'm finding that so very, very much of my training and experience is invaluable in this new field/industry - from the business aspects, to the text analysis, to the vocal performance details. I can (and do already) 'talk the talk', and I'm working hard to be able to 'walk the walk'. It's rather stumbly right now ;-).
And so it begins - a new adventure (because I can't ever stand still), one that has me genuinely excited and nervous and...and...and....makes me feel young again (despite the lies my mirrors tell me). Let's see what's out there.
I have spent some time this Fall thinking about the connection between the text and voice, and how a deeply-embraced and -understood text affects the body.
Well, imagine it this way: take King Lear's powerful line, "Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!" (Act III sc ii). It comes in the second section of the famous, "Blow, winds..." rant on the heath. Now, when working with students, it's pretty hard to cast a 10-year-old (or, for that matter, a 30-year-old lawyer) as King Lear. To say that the emotion depth and experience might not be there quite yet is an understatement of laughable proportions.
But what it you were to unpack that beautiful little line of blank verse as an experience in sound? What if you were to dig into the line on the basis of the images of the storm, rooting your feet, and feeling that power surge through you? What if you were to feel the thunder in those /r/, /b/ and /l/ sounds ("Rumble thy bellyful")? What if the lightning in 'Spit, fire!' was to shoot from your lips like arrows? What if the openness of 'Spout, rain!' was full of the invitation for the storm's worst downpour? What then? Put them all together, and unleash the hounds, as it were.
Very quickly you discover that there is something in this text that transcends meaning, and that, I believe, stems from the magical combination of rhythm and sound. It pushes you - if you let it - to places that - again, if you let it - bring from your voice, through your body's experience of the rhythm and sound, a more profound and powerful understanding than any mere reading - or textual analysis - would ever provide. And you don't need to be playing King Lear to get this. Try it.
Now, what about the insults? Well, many people know that Shakespeare was a brilliant insulter. I, for one, wouldn't have wanted to incite him, if his insults flew out of his mouth a fraction as effectively as they fly out of his character's mouths.
Where this becomes interesting in Voice work is when we begin to explore the sounds of the insults as a way to deepen the meaning in the body, which will then - in my experience - percolate up and out through the voice.
Take, for example, Timon of Athens' biting "Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!" (Act IV sc iii). The /w/ and /p/ sounds virtually dart out of the language at the listener - the tightness the lips use to form the sounds contain depths of loathing - look at yourself when you say those words, you'll see what I mean. These bookend the the vitriolic, even hiss-like 'clean enough'. The 'ee' sounds in both words share the close positioning of /w/ and /p/, coupled with the pulling back of the lips, snarl-like. Put it all together, and the insult takes on sharpness that courses through your physical self. The sounds make the words, the body makes the voice.
Over and over again you can experience the unique joys of Shakespeare's insults at the sound-level - as part of voice work, sure, but even more deeply as body work.
Now, away, 'thou lump of foul deformity' (Richard III, Act 1 sc ii). Go practise some insults.
First, let me address the elephant in the room - my distinct lack of posts. I recently discovered that summer and bronchitis do not, in fact, play well together. There's something uniquely disagreeable about lying on your couch, wheezing and hacking, while the temperature spikes (and YOUR temperature soars). It's also very tricky - it makes you believe you feel better, so you pull yourself up to go do something mildly productive, then WHAM! 20 minutes later you're back to your semi-catatonic state. Bleh.
But that is now behind me - and I am up to my typical no-good. Just today I was introduced to a group of scholars who are arguing that Shakespeare (our ol' buddy) was at the cutting edge of scientific developments during the Renaissance (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/was-shakespeare-aware-scientific-discoveries-his-time-180951198/?no-ist). Citing evidence in King Lear, Cymbeline, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. Shakespeare, so they argue, didn't go in for the "tralala, look at me, showing off my physics chops" - he sort of subtly threw it in, and waited for the smart people in the audience, or at least the more aware people, to pick up on his references. Sort of an inside joke, or cultural reference to a trending topic. It's almost like Shakespeare's plays could be read like Yahoo's "Now Trending". But way cooler.
As of tomorrow, I am actually embarking on a rather grand field trip - and I will be looking at just these things - Shakespeare's stomping grounds, and the sites of many of the leading scholars in physics (at least back in the day). There may also be some Harry Potter thrown in just for good measure. Just saying'. Follow those adventures on the 'Turtle Travels' tab, a blog I share with my son. I'm pretty much the hired help there, except without the pay.
Stay tuned...it should be interesting.....
My sons go squirrelly in summer, if they don't keep up a base level of learning. They discovered this about themselves about 3 years ago - after a particularly tragic week of wailing and teeth gnashing, my oldest turned to me and said, "Mommy, I think I'm like this because my brain isn't learning." Agreed. Had I come out and said this, I would have been met with ever-escalating denial. But personal realisation? Pure psychological gold.
Every summer since, I give them a week (early on) where there is nothing - NOTHING - planned. No chores, no camps, no playdates, no reading, no schoolwork, nada. After about two days of running wild and free, it begins...."Mom, he's bugging me"; "Mommy, I have no books" (HA to that); "Mom, can we do more tech?" (this is about 6 hours in, for kids who get a ration of no more than 45 daily); "Mommy, come play with me" (um, no? see that pile? mommy has work); "Mom, there's nothing to doooooooo" (insert stomping and whining); "Mommy, he won't do what I want to do"; "Mommy, we're boooorrrrreeeeddddd." Meanwhile, I'm biding my time (and trying not to drink), while they run the slack out on the rope.
By the end of the week, they're miserable. Surprisingly, I'm not - not after the first few years where the pattern emerged and I decided I could choose - go nuts or get sneaky. If you know me, you know I chose option b) 'get sneaky'.
Continuing in the vein of 'why do you think you feel like this?' self-reflection, I pose them the question....and they've come to recognise by this point that all of it is symptomatic of....drumroll please....'brains turning to mush and leaking out ears'. This is my actual diagnostic term that I use with them (and have since they were toddlers - happily, they were never traumatised by the somewhat zombie-esque imagery).
So, I inform them that 'school will start' next week. Now, 'summer school' in this joint is a gradual and ephemeral beast. This week, for their daily work, they've had 8 equations (which they do until they receive 100% - word to the wise, it's way quicker to get it right the first time ;-), a half-page of writing, group reading (this week is 'Treasure Island), some physical skill (this week, it's swimming), and some arts pursuit (this week, it's reading Shakespeare's tragedies (don't freak - these are the little kid versions!) and discussing what constitutes a tragedy and tragic hero. And yes, I AM that big a nerd. The point is, it's just enough to a) give the accountability and b) give them new ideas for Playmobilia and Legonia, their alternate play universes. For real.
That, plus I'm less likely to have a big transition when the new school year starts - less 'shock and awe' and more 'mildly startle and intrigue'. I like that.
If I had to pick one thing that students, big and old, desire the most in all of their work, it's to be funny. Funny poems, funny stories, funny scenes, funny public speaking topics, funny conversationalist.... In fact, I'd say that the second place - dark and possibly tragic - comes in a distant second. Like, no contest.
I love to laugh; I love to make people laugh; I love to teach people to make other people laugh. I'm no stand-up comedienne (the very thought makes my bowels liquify), but I do get it - I get the need for the rush, and the sheer power that comes from being able to have that effect on people. It's sweet.
But it also places a ridiculous amount of pressure on people who are learning to speak. Being funny is tough. It's equal parts timing, energy, knowing your audience, surprise, confidence, and expressiveness. It's a very elusive combination of elements that cannot be systematized or formulated.
Too many times, though, students will ONLY pick things that they find funny, equating humour with fun. They will avoid pieces or topics that are serious, contemplative, simple or just plain interesting. Why?
There's this moment - this moment where you feel the pulse of the humour. It's that millisecond between this word choice and that word choice, this upwards inflection and that downward inflection, this raised eyebrow and that knowing glance. And frankly, it's a very addictive substance.
When I'm working with students, and they sooooooo want to be funny, I often have to reign them in. Why? Because when we begin to emulate what we think is funny, we become painful to watch. It's the vocal equivalent of *jazz hands* - it's the overdone emphasis, the miming every would-be funny phrase, the excruciatingly long pause (for laughter that never comes), the rushed delivery because it's so darn funny to them, that it's even funnier when it's faster (trust me: it's not).
Being truly funny - and this is the crux of the matter - is about being yourself. And too many people think they have to be someone else in order to be funny. That's probably the most profound thing to learn.
To that end, picking pieces or topics that challenge you to, first and foremost, communicate as yourself, from a wellspring of deeper human feeling, grappling with ideas, words, and stories that ask more of you than timing - that's where the real art lies. Because in that place you will find the ability to connect with others, becoming more than you imagined you could be - the speaking and the person are truly connected.
Then, if we can manage THIS, we can move on to other - frankly, simpler - things. Like being funny.
This is a leap of faith, a wild jump into the unknown - if we take the mask off, become visible, take a risk, what happens? Isn't better to cross that road, before throwing humour into the mix? Humour feels scarier, but it's actually safer.
Attempting to alter your voice could increase your sex appeal — but it won't turn you into a stud muffin.
I wish I could lay claim to the above quote, but I can't. Those are the closing words of Erika Engelhaupt's 2006 NPR article . In it she discusses, albeit rather briefly, the idea that changing your voice can change your image. Research does seem to show that lower voices (in men) are deemed 'sexier', which ultimately means 'more appealing', and contrary to popular opinion, higher voices (in females) are not necessarily thought to be more attractive (for 'those of certain age', like me - think Victoria Jackson, and you'll get the idea). If anything, that higher pitch can be culturally associated with being less intelligent (though I don't think there's a direct correlation...or is there?? *wink*). It's even more entertaining to think of the example of David Beckham, the über-footballer: nice to look at, even aspire to, but then...then....he talks. And it's game-over.
Carmen Chai (http://globalnews.ca/news/910567/women-are-attracted-to-men-with-deep-voices-but-only-for-a-fling-study/) makes an interesting point around a McMasters Study on voices and attractiveness, vis-á-vis males: women can also register deep male voices with unfaithfulness. Sure, a fling is ok (we're thinking in terms of genetic-swapping here), but a long-term, raise the offspring arrangement, is less likely.
All of this, from your voice??
So, if your voice is power, your voice is perception (and you fully accept that while that perception may make you SEEM like a stud muffin, it will do nothing for your muffin top), then the real question becomes: how can I make the most of what I've got?
It comes down to one word: VARIETY.
Here, let's try an acronym:
OK, ok. So I just made that like up. It's a work in progress (no scooping it - it's copyrighted!), but I think you get the idea. Sure, we're gunning for voice that is easily and safely produced, from a body that is aligned and relaxed, with proper breath support. That's like the triumvirate of Spoken Arts voice work, undoubtedly. And it's an excellent starting point. But even if you manage to achieve this, you are still faced with the possibility that you are dead boring to listen to. Why?
Easy: because there is no difference. After a very short while, we become bored - high-pitched monotone or low-pitched monotone is still monotone, right? We NEED that variety to a) help us understand and b) stay engaged. It's not like we need vast changes regularly - we're not talking the Drop of Doom here - but we also aren't aiming for the Merry-Go-Round. A mid-size rollercoaster is more the idea.
Don't waste your time on Wiki-How's "12 steps to a deeper voice". That's not really the issue (ok, you may be pitched too high, but that's not the biggest issue, trust me). The issue is making the most of what you have, and making it desirable to your listeners. It's like fashion, only for your voice.
Last week, I watched my son's group Filmmaking summer camp final project, along with another twelve or so groups. These kids (ages about 7-13) were charged with writing and acting a script (or stop-motion filming figurines), editing, doing voice-overs and other 'tricks', like slo-mo), creating websites, credits, movie posters, etc., in anticipation of this red carpet event.
You know what struck me? The repetition of what these kids are seeing in mainstream movies. And do you know what they're seeing in mainstream movies? Fight sequences and action heroes. Or school-based popularity dramas. So all of their storytelling models - when asked to create their own - default to these depictions. And it doesn't make for very deep, entertaining, thought-provoking or - frankly - intelligent - stories.
Yes, yes, I get that they're kids. But that's actually my point: if what they're exposed to is primarily this type of filmic storytelling, then where is the opportunity for growth? Like my previous posts about how our brains react and connect with speaking and storytelling, and how storytelling is immersive in nature, my observations about these film projects also reflect this pattern. It's kind of like nutrition. Who doesn't like chocolate or chips or candy or ice cream or soda? BUT NOT FOR EVERY MEAL.
Film is a (potentially) VERY powerful medium for storytelling. I'm no purist here - interesting stories, well told, are welcome at my table any day of the week. The problem arises when what is served at the table is junk food, posing as a home-cooked meal. What these kids showed me (and what I guess I knew, anyways) is that kids are being fed junk food, so when they're asked to do the cooking, they make junk food, too.
There was one film, however, that really exploded paradigms, and it was by far the most enjoyable. Much like Monty Python did for sketch in the late 60s/early 70s, this group took what the norm was, spun it, flipped it, and then made fun of it. And it was brilliant.
My hope is that, having seen what can be done in peer-group filmic storytelling, these budding auteurs will re-imagine the possible in the future. But it also begs the question (and the responsibility) we have (as the would-be grown-ups) for exposing kids to diverse forms of storytelling on film - not everything is Marvel or Disney. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. Just like with printed stories, we should care about the images, themes, messages, and the like, that we expose our kids to.
I am far, far from telling anyone that film should be banned - I admire its storytelling capacity, and I encourage us to engage in storytelling in all its myriad forms. I would no more reject film than I would food, in a general sense. And I understand that film (and other story-forms) are potentially (and happily, in many cases) escapist. But are our kids escaping to the same place every time? Just a thought.
Think about this: all those stats about our overuse of media - TV, gaming, the internet - are presented to us as indicators of our laziness, our complacency, our obsession with all-things-Kardashian (or Game of Thrones, or World of Warcraft, or CNN political coverage, or, or, or...), right? But what if - WHAT IF - we were to reframe this, and see it rather more as our addiction to STORIES.
Most of us have heard the the tales of our ancestors sitting around the campfire, pioneers around candlelight, Victorians by gas lamp, all listening to (or telling) stories (and later reading) - ostensibly because there was nothing else to do at the end of a hard day of (typically) manual labour. Oh sure, a few games of cards might have been played, and even some needlepoint, but stories have long been were it's at. Elizabethans going to the Globe, lyres being carted by troubadours across the Continent, we are not new to story-obsession. The form of story conveyance might change, but the desire - one might even argue, the need - for stories has long been with us.
In this day and age, we frequently relegate the idea of stories and storytelling to children - bedtime stories, storybooks, going to watch a storyteller, these are all the province of children, right? Or is it more, as Jonathan Gottschall suggests in his 2014 TED talk, that we're handing over our deep and abiding need to tell and be told stories to others, primarily in the form of digitalized stories. He suggests we, as adults, don't ever grow out of our need for stories, don't ever really leave Neverland....we just migrate to the Provinces of Neverland (which may be Vine or Netflix, take your pick).
Like Uri Hassan discusses in his talk on neural entrainment (see my tweet on that, on the main page), our brains start to mirror the (effective) communications of others, but the research also shows that our neural reactions to stories show a pattern that is not spectator in form, but rather participant. It is like we're in the story with Harry, or Frodo, or (god forbid) Kim Kardashian (never thought you'd see all those names in one sentence together, did you?).
Gottschall furthers points out that research shows that consistent watching/participation in a story with a particular worldview moves us in the direction of that worldview. I haven't seen the research, but I'm willing to bet that this holds true no matter the medium, as long as the storytelling is good. The rest may feed our addiction for stories, but it never fulfils us as really good stories and storytellers do.
Gottschall has a moment when he speaks of "Storyteller * Wizard * Conductor", and I don't think I've ever heard a more apt description of a truly gifted storyteller. A storyteller wields enormous power - and historically, the only way to do so was with expressive hands, face and voice. While the modern incarnations of storyteller offer great promise (and power) to those that use them effectively, we also risk a great deal turning over the power of the storyteller to those that would abuse that power - and, frankly, abuse can be as basic as just really bad stories or storytelling (I'm sure you can name a few straight off the top of your head).
Further, if we, as Gottschall says, "helplessly need stories, in the best times and the worst times", hadn't we better make sure that we can tell the difference between the good and the bad - story and storyteller - alike?
After all, most of us were raised with the "Say No to Drugs" campaign "This is your brain on drugs" - what if we simply change it to "This is your brain...on stories."
I think a lot about what makes a compelling story. Why do people listen? Why do people engage? I know the science, sure (see my tweet on Uri Hassan's TED talk) - but how can something like Norway's NRK (basically, the Norwegian Broadcasting Service) multi-day LIVE broadcast of the Hurtigruten - Bergen to Kirkenes - journey (about 3000 km) along the Norwegian coast constitute engaging storytelling? If people are so enraptured (and they were), then perhaps "boring" is better.
But is that really what happened here? No, I don't think so. Sure, there wasn't a lot going on most of the time (it was a lot like taking the trip from your couch), but there was something deeply compelling about the footage - especially when you take into account the number of people watching (in-person and online) and those that took to social media about it. Those were fellow humans out there, and they - indeed, we - were a part of something that was bigger than us all. That is the first thing I thing makes it engaging, and memorable.
The second thing that makes this "slow tv" mode of storytelling particularly powerful is something that the producer, Thomas Hellum, refers only briefly to at the end of his TEDtalk. In his words:
So you have to let the viewers make the stories themselves, and I'll give you an example of that. This is from last summer, and as a TV producer, it's a nice picture, but now you can cut to the next one. But this is Slow TV, so you have to keep this picture until it really starts hurting your stomach, and then you keep it a little bit longer, and when you keep it that long, I'm sure some of you now have noticed the cow. Some of you have seen the flag. Some of you start wondering, is the farmer at home? Has he left? Is he watching the cow? And where is that cow going? So my point is, the longer you keep a picture like this,and we kept it for 10 minutes, you start making the stories in your own head.(http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_hellum_the_world_s_most_boring_television_and_why_it_s_hilariously_addictive/transcript - found at 16:39)
Inadvertently, then, this type of programming does EXACTLY what daydreaming or reading a good book does - it forces us to engage our minds, to become a part of the creation of the story, and in doing so, makes us into storytellers. We're not bored - we're participating. I like that.
Hello! My name is Donna, and Raconteur is my Studio. Words are my passion - especially beautiful, powerful words, beautifully and powerfully shared. I never planned to be a Spoken Arts instructor, but I was lucky enough to have fallen into the work 23+ years ago - and I have never really looked back.