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Re-priorities in the New Year

It’s everywhere this year, as it is every year.  New Years Resolutions.  Should we?  Will we?  How long will they last?  On and on.

Lots of folks will tend to shy away from making resolutions because they know, deep down, that they’ll fail to keep them for very long – and would rather not deal with the shame of failure.  That’s too bad, because I believe that anything that motivates us to think about making our lives better is a good thing that should be embraced, not run away from.
So if there’s something you need to change, call it something else.  Instead of using the R word, call it a life change, or shifting gears, or turning over a new leaf…whatever.  I choose to use a different R word: re-priorities.
Let’s face it – we all have the same 24 hours in each day to accomplish whatever we want.  Most people divide that time into thirds – 8 hours to sleep, 8 hours to work, and then 8 hours for everything else.  That’s the basic framework that many feel bound by.  But what if we thought of it differently?
Like the old adage says, anything that’s truly important enough to us will get done.  Why?  Because we’ll prioritize it that way.  Most people will watch their favorite TV program, come hell or high water.  For some, it’s watching the game.  Riding their bike.  Taking time to read to the kids.  I will dare to wager that most anything that “we just can’t seem to accomplish” is simply because we haven’t prioritized it highly enough within our own given 24 hours.  Fair?
I try to keep a list, usually on my phone or my whiteboard.  It looks like a task list, but really it’s a priority list.  The order of the items on the list is very important.  First things first.  I’ll happily admit that a lot of the minor stuff on the bottom of that list never sees the light of day.  And that’s just fine.  
So if I really, really want to drop those extra pounds this year, I put my exercise time near the top.  If I want to deepen my relationship with a family member or friend, I put spending that time up there.  There’s only room for a few at the top spots.  And that’s where the prioritization comes in.  Stephen Covey teaches the power of prioritizing our time by helping us imagine time as a finite container.  Any way you slice it, the 24 hours in a day are a constant.  But how we choose to use them is a variable, and it’s up to us. 
So for me, as 2012 approaches, I’m not looking at “resolutions.”  I’m taking a hard look at my priorities – and how I can seize the power of re-prioritizing my days to improve my life, inside and out.  I hope you’ll do the same, as we look forward to an exciting and fresh New Year!    

Instrument care – without the polish

Many moons ago, when I was in 6th grade, my folks went down and bought me a brand new, shiny saxophone.  I was finally old enough to take band in school.  I’ll never forget it – when I opened the case I was nearly blinded by its brilliance.  Polished brass, lacquered to a mirror shine.  The case was elegantly lined in a red velveteen fabric.  It even had that new-sax smell.  I took good care of that instrument; buffed all the fingerprints off after every practice, cleaned the mouthpiece as instructed, and always shrouded it in a soft cloth before putting it in its case.  It served me well, and, when I switched to trombone a year later, my folks got a nice trade in on it.

As a voice actor, though, I use a very different kind of instrument – my voice.  It’s not new…I started using it seconds after I was born!  It’s also not visible, at least not without special medical equipment.  And the kicker is, I only get one.  This is it.  As carefully as I pampered that saxophone, it was replaceable.  Not so with the pipes.

Caring for the vocal instrument is so vitally important for voice actors and singers, and yet so often it is neglected if not outright abused.  Sadly, this is often the result of simple ignorance.  This instrument is made of human tissue, which means it can suffer injury if not properly maintained.  It also means it can heal, though often slowly.  Some simple techniques and rules can help keep the vocal instrument as healthy as possible for a long life of quality service.

1) WARM-UP.  Warm-up exercises are so vitally important, and yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people just rip into singing or voicing – at full volume – with a totally cold voice.  Most people would never dare to lift weights without proper stretching, but for some reason, they just expect the voice to be ready all the time.  Neglecting to warm-up properly is playing with fire, and when your livelihood depends on your voice, you could really get burned.  There are dozens of easy and effective ways to properly warm-up for performance, and they are all available for free online.  Find a few that work for you and commit them to habit.

2) REST.  This means more than a good night sleep, which should be obvious.  Periodic rest for the voice during performance is critical as well.  This is especially true of long-form performers.  The body has a miraculous ability to heal itself, but a critical and inescapable ingredient is always rest.  Even 3 minutes of silence can do a world of good during a long performance.

3) WATER.  Or, as audiobook narrator extraordinaire Scott Brick says, “Hydrate or die!”  Many people walk around dehydrated most of the time and don’t even realize it.  When you use your voice, those tissues are constantly losing water.  64 ounces of drinking water is the daily minimum for most people.  I drink a good deal more.  Drink water before, during, and after performing.  Avoid cold water while performing.

4) DRINK SMART.  Water is always good, but anything with caffeine should be avoided if possible.  Same with alcohol.   Both are diuretics, which dry out your body.  Sugary drinks, carbonated beverages, and dairy can also adversely affect your instrument.  Some herbal “teas” are good.  I join many other performers in recommending this one.

5) EASY DOES IT.  We live in a loud world that gets louder by the day.  Be aware of your volume in everyday speech.  Use only the volume you need.  You’d be surprised how much a dinner conversation in a crowded restaurant can harm your voice.  Always be aware of how your instrument is being treated.  Recently I was at a rock concert, and about 15 minutes into it, realized with horror that I was shouting at the top of my lungs!  Not smart.

6) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.  This is critical.  If at any time during a performance, you feel something “wrong,” STOP IMMEDIATELY.  It could be your body issuing a warning that a vocal injury is imminent.  Certainly if you become hoarse or experience tightness in your neck, stop!  Rest, hydrate, and play the quiet game for as long as you can.  NEVER be afraid to call it quits on a session if you are hurt.  It’s not worth it.  Take ownership of your instrument and insist on its care – remember, you only get one.

7) KNOW WHERE TO FIND HELP.  If you do experience a vocal injury that doesn’t seem to heal, get to a doctor right away.  Find a specialist.  It’s worth it.  There are some great clinics used by professional performers that can help you recover.  Some “extreme” performers, like touring musicians, will actually have their vocal instrument checked even if there isn’t evidence of a problem – just in case.  It’s smart insurance.

Finally, let me say with clarity that I am not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV.  I do have a lot of experience in this area, however – not all of it good.  I remember a time during my radio career when I was participating in an aggressive fund-raising event on the air that amounted to hours and hours of non-stop, amped-up talking.  In an effort to impress, I ignored my body as it screamed for rest, and the result was a total loss of vocal function.  I was terrified.  Was my career over?  What would I do if it was?  Thankfully, the doctor said it wasn’t serious but ordered 48 hours of complete silence as treatment.  The experience made a believer out of me.

I hope you, too, will take excellent care of your precious vocal instrument.  No polish needed.



Just a little patience

5:35pm on a Monday afternoon. I had just plucked my garment bag off the carousel at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, boarded the bus to the parking garage, and merged onto the busy on-ramp. I was heading 40 minutes north on I-17, to my comfy home in the foothills after a jam-packed and very successful weekend in Los Angeles. Home – where I would find my loving wife, my favorite chair, and my loyal and faithful dog – who always acts as if I’ve been gone for months when she greets me at the door.

I was tired; the good kind of tired that you feel when you know you’ve really done something worthwhile. I had gone to LA to study audiobook narration with the amazing Paul Ruben, who had flown in from his home in Brooklyn for what turned out to be a terrific workshop. I learned a lot, made some new friends, and reconnected with some old ones. It was a great trip. But in this day of tight schedules, and strip-search airports where bottles of water are considered potential weapons, but ballpoint pens aren’t, travel is pretty exhausting. Even short trips like this one. So I was ready to head to the house and melt into my chair with a cool one. Anxious, even.

As I merged into traffic, I suddenly realized that I had timed my trip perfectly to enjoy the afternoon rush. I’ve lived in cities where it’s much worse than Phoenix, but still, I suddenly felt my heart sink as I realized that my 40 minutes just turned into and hour or better. Having been here many times before, I began my inward journey to my happy place, plugged my iPod into the dash, and tried to enjoy the 15 mph trip.

As I did so, I noticed something almost immediately. Most of my co-commuters did not share my attitude. In fact, many seemed to grip their steering wheels as if wielding a medieval weapon, weaving in and out as if in the final lap of a Cup race. They weren’t anxious to get home, they were desperate to get there – and get there first.

This observation is anything but profound. But as the relaxing, folksy sounds of Ellis Paul kept me centered and mellow, I began to reflect on the break-neck speed of our culture today. Everything has to be now. Everyone wants to be first – even at great personal risk. And for me, as the owner of a one-man voiceover and narration business, it’s very seductive to get in a big hurry, too. Indeed, like the traffic example, running a business – particularly a young one – at a hell-bent-for-leather pace can be outright dangerous.

A very well known narrator friend of mine gave me some great advice recently. He said that if there was one critical skill that he could teach to audiobook narrators, it would be this one: patience. Patience with your training and skills. Patience to let healthy business relationships develop. And the biggie – patience to see the work start flowing in. Patience – rather than panic. Staying the course – instead of freaking out and going nuts.

And yes – even patience to wait for that long lane of traffic in front of you to unwind and begin moving forward.


The music of voice acting

One of my regular rituals as I start my day each morning is making music. I have one of my guitars next to my nightstand. My piano is just around the corner in the den. Making music is a big part of how I wake up. It’s my way of getting my creative juices flowing each day.

I learned to read music as a small child, but as I matured as a musician, I began to see that there’s more to music than playing or singing notes on a page. A lot more. The process of “making music” is immensely intimate and creative. It’s really about getting inside the head – or really the heart – of the composer. Trying to tune into his or her muse. Indeed, the notes themselves become almost secondary to me. Recreating emotion takes center stage.

One of my best friends in the world is Dr. Scott Ferrell. Scott is a gifted musician, conductor, and teacher in Texas. I studied choral music and theatrical performance with Scott and learned so much about this process. Scott is one of the most passionate and emotional men I have ever met. He’s willing to open himself to the art in front of him, drinking in all of the musical subtext that the composer injected straight from the heart. He taught me about “honoring the art first, rather than just banging out notes.” I saw his ability to strip away everything else around him – contaminants that would interfere with the performance – and be completely vulnerable to where the music would take him as a performer.

In voice acting, the same process applies. While I’ve never had a client deliver a script to me with actual musical notes on the page, I see them. They are there, underneath. Because when the writer sat down to the task of communicating their message in text, they also included emotion, color, mood, flow, tempo, and more. In the Bible, the Psalms were originally written to be sung.  When they are, they take on a whole new depth of meaning.  The work of William Shakespeare is undeniably musical.

We do the same thing without even knowing it when we communicate verbally. When I’m talking on the phone and someone says those often heard two words, “I’m fine,” it’s immediately obvious to me whether they really are or not.

When I approach the task of voice acting, my natural tendency is to find the music underneath. Tempo, crescendos and decrescendos, staccatos and legatos, swells and troughs, ebbs and flows. I’m not embarrassed to confess that sometimes I’ll actually stand there in the booth and sing it. How would I sing this script if it was a song? Because the truth is – it IS a song. This exercise can help you find the “juice” that the writer had when it was written. And that’s the goal of a truly great acting performance, voice or otherwise.

Allow yourself to go there. Regardless of your own musical background or ability, you have the music in you.


Getting to know characters

So you’ve been hired to read a great new title by an audiobook publisher.  Of course, the first step is to read through the book beforehand.  And before you know it, PRESTO!  You’ve just met a slew of brand new characters.  There’s nothing better than rich, memorable characters in a book.  Over the course of a long audiobook, recorded across multiple sessions and days, it’s critical that the narrator continue to honor the choices that were made when we first “met” the character in the text.  In a title I narrated recently, Sharon Ewell Foster’s The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses, I had many characters of all different ages, races, nationalities – even time periods!

As a voice actor, you’ll be making many choices about these characters that will enable you to portray them when it comes down to performing in the booth.  In some books, you may have a lot of characters – dozens or more – and they may reappear in the text at any time!  You have to be ready to “bring them back onstage” for your listener.

Today I’d like to share a fun little trick I sometimes use to not only develop characters initially, but also to help me recall the choices I made for them when they suddenly reappear 200 pages later!  I call it “Character Sheeting.”

It’s fun and easy!  It’s done as part of your initial reading and study of the text, before recording begins.  And it’s worth it – it’s a whole lot easier to tell a story about a group of characters when you actually know them first!  Here’s how it works.

When you begin your initial read-through, have some blank sheets of paper handy.  I just grab some sheets out of my printer.  Also, keep some pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and the like nearby.  As soon as you “meet” a new character in the book, take a sheet of paper and write his/her/its name at the top in big, bold letters.

Then, study the clues that the author has given you about the character.  (Hopefully, your author has provided many – but if not, this is a great way to get creative!)  Next, simply begin doodling on the paper about the character.  Maybe you want to render a little sketch of the character.  Make the character sheet into a collage of everything the character is about.  Things like:

  • What 5 items would they want if stranded on a desert island?
  • What is a hobby that they always wanted to try, but never have?
  • How would they answer these questions?
  • What is their very favorite article of clothing?
  • Do they have a favorite sport?
  • On a scale of 1 -10, how would they rate their childhood?
  • And so on…

Once you have your characters “sheeted,” make voice acting choices for them based on what you now know about them.  Using your personal toolkit, you should have no problem creating unique, memorable performances.  (Here is a link to one of the best teachers on this topic I have ever encountered.)  What’s more, if a character does pop back into view after a long absence, you can simply glance at that character’s sheet and POOF… they are back in you mind in vivid color – helping you to maintain performance consistency throughout the audiobook.

Some additional notes:

  • Don’t over-act the characters.  Let your listener discover parts of the character for themselves in their own imagination.
  • Don’t leave yourself out – as the narrator, you too are part of the magic in the mind of the audiobook listener.  Make sure that you include some “you!”
  • Remember that characters – like real people – can change!  They can be affected by events that happen to them.  Allow them to evolve with the story when appropriate!
  • Respect the author’s choices first!  If your author has written a 15 page comprehensive description of a character, then honor those choices.  They are there for a reason.

Most of all, remember that you have been tasked with telling a story.  So tell it!  Happy narrating!





“The Resurrection of Nat Turner” is here!

It’s now available everywhere audiobooks are sold – both in-store and online!

Oasis Audio

Barnes & Noble



The question I get the most about audiobooks

Here it is: “Hey John, do you have to pre-read a book before you go into the booth to record it?”

A: YES!  If I were cast in a play, I would never go rehearse a scene by cold-reading the script!  In kind, I always* pre-study the book, several times in fact, with a different focus each time.  I make notes about plot, characters, setting, culture, linguistics, etc.  Also, I always try and see if I can answer an important question for myself: Why did the author write this book?  If I can zero-in on that, it makes it much easier to get inside the author’s head as I perform their work.
* ‘Always,’ in this case, means “if at all possible.”  I mean, let’s face it – there are times when the project deadline is so tight (a matter of days) that several pre-reads are not possible or practical.  So, as everyone does in the real world, we do what we can.  But without a doubt, the best, most professional policy is study, study, study – THEN record!

We’re on the same team, after all

My friend and fellow voice actor Rick Lance “The Voice of Americana” just posted a brilliant list of 6 things that clients can do to make their VO projects faster, smoother, and happier!  After all, when the project is underway, deadline is set, and money is on the line, we are all on the same project team!  Thanks, Rick, for the great post!


Thanks, Dog-eared copy!


Late summer listening

I’ve just finished narrating a powerful historical novel for Oasis Audio called, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses.  The book, written by Sharon Ewell Foster, is the story of conspiracy – truth buried for almost 200 years.  After extensive research, Foster uncovered a fascinating story that she admits she didn’t expect – a story of lies, cruelty, deceit, and the power of courage and faith.

It’s available from Oasis Audio in August.  I’m honored to have been selected to put a voice to Foster’s outstanding work.