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Slump? Here are my 5 tips for getting out

Ever found yourself in a slump?  Like a baseball player, only in life?  It can be professional, relational, spiritual, or some other aspect of life.  The one common thing is this: at one time or another, we all will endure them.  

On a very personal note, I’m coming out of one now.  Without turning this into an Oprah episode, I’ve had a rough, year-long stretch professionally.  After an insanely busy 2013, I became a bit complacent.  Work wasn’t coming in as it had in the past.  On top of that, I developed an eye disorder that I’ve had to learn to work around.  So of course, like a lot of people, I looked the stress square in the eye and began medicating it with food.  So I put on a lot of weight, which helped a ton.  (Pun intended to enhance sarcasm.)  So I’ve had recent experience with the reality that, sometimes, I will have trouble with the curve ball that I was scorching into the upper deck just two years ago.

Over the years, I’ve taken note of a few things I’ve learned about how to get out of a slump.  Also (and perhaps mainly) I’ve observed how others successfully claw their way out.  I was thinking on this recently, and felt compelled to share what I think are five great disciplines that might help you start swinging the bat effectively again.  For the scope of this article, I’ll frame my thoughts around the actor – and specifically, the audiobook narrator.  I truly believe, however, that these practices are healthy for everyone in every walk of life.
DISCLAIMER: Since our national discourse today seems to be controlled by lawyers, I must say for the record that I am NOT a counselor, doctor, therapist, or guru.  I make no guarantees, claims, or predictions in anything I say or write.  I’m just a fella who cares about people, and want to help when I can.  Your mileage may vary, some restrictions apply.  OK…play ball.
1) Know who you are.  This sounds so easy, but there is a real tendency for us to begin defining our identity by what we do, rather than who we are.  Actors do this a lot, especially men.  Self-employed folks are also susceptible.  Self-employed actors…well, you get it.  I think it’s a wonderful practice to take a piece of paper and really spend some time.  Who are you?  I made a list of 7 “I am” statements that define who John is.  I review them frequently.  When you have a firm grasp on your true identity, you’re in a much better position to weather the storm.  This is especially true when your business hits a rough patch, as mine has.  If you fall into the trap of defining yourself around what you do for a living, professional slumps can be very deep and damaging.  
2) Embrace gratitude.  I narrated a wonderful book in 2014 about this that really stuck with me.  Gratitude is one of those things that is so often taken for granted today.  Take a moment to consider what exactly you are grateful for, and to whom.  If you’re like me, you’ll have a list as long as your arm rather quickly.  That’s all well and good – but when was the last time you expressed that gratitude?  And I’m not talking about sending expensive gifts or sending your favorite client on a cruise.  I’m referring to the simple things.  A hand written note, a fast phone call, even a text are all great ways to say Thank You.  And the great thing about gratitude is that it is mutually beneficial.  Both ends of the relationship are enriched.  One last thought – if you’re a parent or grandparent, you know it feels great when a child comes up and thanks you for a gift you’ve given them.  But how much better does it feel when that child comes up and thanks you for just being you?  Think about how that idea might translate to your professional life.
3) Invest in a prayer life.  I’ve always thought of a person being a three-legged stool: physical, mental (emotional), and spiritual.  If we take good care of all three legs, our lives will stand with good sturdiness.  But if one leg weakens too much, the stool can wobble and fall.  Of course, we all have different beliefs in this area.  Substitute the word “prayer” with “meditation” if you’d like.  Either way, a healthy spiritual life is a good thing to have when you find yourself striking out constantly.  I think this one is tied closely to item 1 above.  It is for me, anyway, because I believe that my identity is determined by God and what He thinks about me, not by my career, bank balance, or popularity.  My prayer life helps connect me with my true identity, and shores up my ability to push through the tough seasons in life.
4) Get some exercise.  Those of you that know me personally can see that I’m not great at this one – I’m trying.  But I have noticed that when I do “get out there,” I feel better – inside and out.  Narrators are often stuck inside, usually in a very small space, and required to move as little as possible (at least when we’re working!)  Next time you feel that “slump funk,” go for a brisk walk.  Go hit a bucket of golf balls.  Get your juice moving.  At the least you’ll feel better physically.  Sometimes, though, this simple practice can have a very positive impact on your entire perspective.
5) Get up an hour earlier.  I’ve heard this one from several very successful and inspiring people over the years.  I’m not totally  sure why this works, but it does for me.  I spent many years doing morning radio, when meant the alarm went off at the charming hour of 4am.  It also meant that bedtime was around 9.  So when that all ended, I was very excited.  I began to stay up late, and sleep until 7:30.  But fairly recently, I took the advice above and began going to bed at 10pm, and rising at 6am.  It’s amazing the difference it makes in my day.  Again, I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it’s just a psychological jolt that makes me feel more aggressive, productive, or like I’m getting a head start on the day.  Whatever it is, it makes me feel better personally and professionally.  Plus – and you can take this for what it’s worth – I believe that nothing good ever happens after midnight.  Discuss.
I hope these things help you like they are helping me.  Slumps are real (I’m a Brewers fan, so I know!)  But by consciously placing new disciplines into your routine, maybe you can emerge more quickly and start hitting again.  I sincerely hope you do.
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The exercise of listening

If you’re a “remote narrator” like me, it’s very likely that you work much of the time without a director.  Indeed, aside from my demos, I’ve never worked with a director.  It’s the trade-off for the privilege of working at home all the time, and never having to deal with traffic or burning your gas.

But there are options.  The great teacher Patrick Fraley developed an entire course of study on “self-directing.”  It’s a skill that more and more narrators need as the home studio grows in popularity.  Recently, I stumbled onto a simple (though time consuming) exercise that was very informative for me as an audiobook performer.  I’ll call it the exercise of listening, and I thought I’d share it here.
New or innovative?  No.  As narrators we’ve been told for years that listening to audiobooks is an important and worthwhile discipline.  But I’m going to be honest here – I don’t listen.  Not much anyway.  I just don’t have time to plug into a 10+ hour recording and do some serious, engaged listening.
I know what you’re thinking.  Just grab some snippets!  There are great lessons there!  True.  But honestly, I was seeking more of a long-haul lesson.  Something that spoke to duration, maintaining the mojo over the course of a week’s worth of sessions.  And for me, anyway, I needed to hear it in one sitting.  As luck would have it, a road trip was on my calendar.
Phoenix to Ft. Worth was just about the perfect trip for nearly any work of fiction.  But what title to select?  I wanted to hear a great story, sure – but I mostly wanted to learn something.  Hopefully a lot of somethings.  So I made a short list of narrators who met the following criteria:
* specialize in the same genres I do
* widely recognized today as a top talent
* are a fairly close match to my personal style as a narrator
I found my narrator, and a title that was also widely recognized as excellent.  I bought and downloaded the audiobook.  But for the experiment to be as informative as possible, I needed something to compare it to.  So I grabbed a book of mine that I recorded last year; one that I believed was pretty good but was received with less than, um, enthusiastic praise.  The final piece of my mobile laboratory was my lovely wife.  She’s an honest soul, and would provide great feedback.
To be clear: this was not an exercise in “just do everything he does exactly as he does it.”  I was listening for enjoyment first, and wondering if I could recognize clues in the performance that could make me better.  Perhaps, I might identify little techniques that I could apply to my world somehow.  I decided I’d listen to his book on the trip out, and mine on the return trip home.
As I write this, I’ve been home three days and I am still jotting down nuggets.  My wife Jan had an amazing list of observations from a consumer standpoint.    The vast majority of these lessons (and this is the point of all this) were old, bad habits that I’ve very slowly fallen back into.  We all have them, and our coaches and teachers have made us aware of them.  But in the course of a busy recording season, these seemingly harmless little habits can creep back into the booth, and potentially wreck a performance.
So I’m going to do two things.  First, once complete, I’m going to post my “craptacular habits list” right in the booth.  And before I open the mic each and every session, I’m going to review it.  Be aware of it.  It will make my performance better.  DEMONS OUT!
And secondly, and unfortunately much less practically, I’m going to do some more comparative listening exercises.  Which means I need to plan more road trips, I suppose.
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APAC is back!

I’m preparing for my annual trip to New York for a great time at APAC and the Audie Awards presentation.  It’s been a great year and I’m excited to find out what everyone else has been up to!  It’s shaping up to be another busy summer of audiobooks.

June Is Audiobook Month is coming up, and narrator Xe Sands has spearheaded a really cool project called “Going Public” to celebrate.  It’s a collection of public domain short stories, selected by narrators in a variety of genres.  Look for updates, tweets, and blog posts as June Is Audiobook Month approaches!  
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”Nat Turner Pt. 1″ is an Audie Award finalist!

I’m honored to be a finalist for the 2012 Audie Awards!  The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses by Sharon Ewell Foster was nominated in the Inspirational / Faith-based Fiction category.  I’m excited for Sharon, and the wonderful team at Oasis Audio.  It’s an astounding story that even the author herself admits she didn’t expect to write.  

Now we have the long wait until June, when the winners in each category are announced at The Audie Awards and Gala in New York.  So many wonderful titles have been honored once again this year.  Plus, it will be fun to just get together with peers in the audiobook industry and celebrate!  This wonderful storytelling medium is growing leaps and bounds, and the future is bright indeed – for publishers, authors, listeners, and yes – narrators. 
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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!    
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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!
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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!