When I was very young, way before I even had a thought of doing voice-overs, I’d take a tape recorder, insert a blank cassette tape and either just make up a story or read a book or script, while using my records as background music and/or sound effects. At some point, I’d get a few friends in school to join in as part of my repertory group, even though (A) they were reluctant to participate, and (B) they were wondering why it was necessary to sing the lyrics that were relevant to the story I’d written.
Then one Saturday morning in 1979 (at the age of 11), when cartoon-viewing was the absolute thing at the time, my younger uncle, who was just as much a kid at heart as I still am, was watching “SuperFriends”. But I had a question to ask him while it was still fresh in my mind.
(One thing a kid should never do was to interrupt anyone who’s watching a TV show while it was still playing. Especially, in this case, if it was “SuperFriends”.) So I waited until the commercials started.
During the whole time, though, I noticed that there was an intense look on his face. So the question then was not so much as “Why did you shush me?”, but rather “What are you doing?”
“I’m listening to the voices.”
Right then and there I understood exactly what he meant; he was listening to the actors behind the characters. So when “SuperFriends” resumed, I sat down with him and tried to listen to the voices for myself. The original question I was going to ask had already left my brain.
Over the years through television, radio, countless records and tapes did I listen intently to the voices and tried to emulate their diction, phrasing and interpretation; one of my ultimate goals is to go into voice-over (forget the animation section for the time being – nowadays you’d have to be a big-time celebrity for those “big-time” projects). To further increase my “professionalism”, I even used Morgan Freeman’s voice for inspiration (through an LP children’s album called “Spidey Super Stories”, back when he was part of the original cast of PBS’ “The Electric Company”. Freeman narrated all the stories as well as voiced several characters along with the cast). His diction was flawless and so precise that no matter how hard I tried to emulate it, for some reason I always fell short.
Years later still, after all the practices, taking workshops, singing in several groups and whatever exercises necessary, I felt that I was ready for prime time. I signed up for Voice123, a website that enables agents to hire voice-over artists for various projects as well as having the artists submit their demos and the people at the site connects them with a voice casting service for the projects. Needless to say, the demos I had sent were not quite well-received by a couple of agents who had heard them. One even went so far as to tell me that I should never, ever, consider a career as a voice-over artist.
I then talked it over with the other agent, and he practically pinpointed the overall problem I long thought I had conquered years before:
I had a speech impediment.
‘How is that possible?’ I kept asking myself over and over. Yes, I’ve had the problem all through childhood, and what with the many times I have recorded myself, going to recording studios, reading several books and ads and just about anything within my reach, the notion that I had outgrown the “problem” and that it was long behind me proved to be anything but. So after talking with the second agent (who turned out to be a voice-over artist in his own right and teaches the craft to those looking to pursue the career), I gave it a long thought, which came down to two choices: give up and quit, or do something about it.
The decision was the latter.
I decided to look up, and eventually found, a speech-language pathologist at a hospital in Arlington, VA. After a brief assessment, we had discovered that my tongue was laying flat in my mouth instead of it arched upward touching the roof of the mouth. This would lead to a series of tongue exercises to strengthen the muscle and improve my speaking, as well as eating and swallowing (another story).
One such example of tongue exercises is what they call a “tongue thrust”. Here you make the tongue clicking noise until the tongue becomes very tired. To make the click, push the tongue tip and blade tightly against the roof of the mouth and drop the tongue with a clicking sound, almost like a “pop”, without touching the teeth.
After the sessions with the pathologist, I then looked up a vocal coach in the D.C. area. I found that while my singing voice is in good form, it was my oral reading fluency and overall speaking that needed improvement, not to mention the articulateness of the “r”, “th” and “s” sounds. With the help of several exercises, form and practice, I eventually got better. Granted, I still have ways to go, but my speech has never been better and, truth be told, heightened my self-confidence as well.
So, now you’re probably wondering: am I now an official voice-over artist? Yes and no. While my speech has greatly improved over the past few years, and I have developed a couple of good vocal effects in the process, I’m not out there making connections or taking courses on the subject. At least not yet; however, I’m still working on it. The main thing is, I will get there. It’s never too late.