Hollywood Voice Lessons
Sometimes I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. I’ll be transcribing an interview and feel the urgent need to leave the room. Once, I called a number on a For Rent sign, and the guy who answered wouldn’t tell me how much the place went for; instead, he screamed at me that I couldn’t afford it. I do not command authority over the phone — or in person, for that matter. I rely, for the exercise of personal power, on the mighty keyboard.
Based on my own encounters with strangers, I have concluded that I sound like
(a.) an ingénue, (b.) a child, (c.) a sexy squirrel, or (d.) Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, to all but Haley Joel Osment (i.e., not there).
So I was looking forward to meeting Roger Love, a voice coach in Los Angeles who works with public speakers, actors, singers, actors playing singers. He helped Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon become Johnny Cash and June Carter for Walk the Line; Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell prepare for Crazy Heart; and Quvenzhané Wallis learn to sing for Annie. He has also worked with Tony Robbins and Suze Orman, Selena Gomez and John Mayer.
Vocal coaching has been around since ancient Greece, was systemized by medieval monks, and underwent maybe its most radical shift in the mid-20th century. You know how most actors used to talk in rounded mid-Atlantic accents, enunciate clearly, and really, really project, and now they speak in all sorts of regional accents and often mumble? One of the people most responsible is a woman named Iris Warren, a voice teacher at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, who in the 1940s moved vocal coaching away from elocution and toward naturalism — much as Method acting had done. A student, Kristin Linklater, expanded on Warren’s ideas and brought them to the United States in the early 1960s, where she influenced a legion of actors and coaches. The Linklater technique, as it’s called, is now taught in drama schools all over the country.
“Communication, in general, has become more casual,” Love tells me. “People use fewer melody changes, less volume changes. They speak like no one is really listening, and they’re not being judged.”
We are talking in his studio, which is a bunker on Hollywood Boulevard, nestled unobtrusively among nail salons and Thai-food joints. Love, who is in his 50s, is trim and energetic. His voice is the most noticeable thing about him — it’s clear, deliberate, and musical.
Like other vocal coaches I spoke with, Love believes that while almost everyone worries about how they look, their voices make a far bigger, more profound impression. A recent study by researchers at the University of Glasgow and Princeton University supports this. They found that on hearing a new voice, people make judgments about traits such as trust, likability, dominance, and attractiveness, and this impression persists. My high, soft, apparently slightly nasal (I take issue with this) voice is not only undermining my image, it’s also possibly ruining my life. On the bright side, at least, I finally found the culprit.
Before men and women reach puberty, Love tells me, their voices are in the same range. Then, when puberty strikes, men’s voices drop almost an octave. Men start to limit themselves to a low voice; women remain with a high voice. They can get trapped there for the rest of their lives. Men can regain access to the whole range by finding the higher sounds they made before puberty. Women can do it by building the thickness of the bottom part of the range.
My problems, it turns out, are legion. Love says that when I have to sell myself or sell an idea, I should present more volume to sound older and more influential. “That kind of little-girl kind of thing might not work,” he says.
Also, I prefer not to pay attention to what my body is doing — I realize I’m not at all on trend here. It makes me tense and fidgety. Calling attention to my breath makes me feel like I’m being smothered, and focusing on my diaphragm is unpleasant. Also, it seems that I suffer from some variation of Connecticut lockjaw — which is weird, because I’ve never lived in Connecticut. But it’s true. My mandibular range makes Gilligan’s Island’s Thurston Howell III look like he’s catching flies.
As if this weren’t enough, it turns out I’m terrible at controlling my Adam’s apple. This comes as no surprise because, frankly, I can’t locate it. Love demonstrates by raising and lowering his, and I can see it bobbing up and down, but mine seems to have securely fastened its seatbelt in preparation for landing.
I am making these noises as Love accompanies me on the piano. I am not relaxed.
Although I can barely hear myself, I can’t tell you how relieved I am that Love’s studio is soundproof.
That’s what I think I said. He hears:
“You’ve established quite a quiet voice,” he says. “Maybe that’s why you decided you were going to become a writer, because you had so many things you wanted to say, but you really weren’t prepared to open up your mouth and shout them from the mountaintops.” I’m clamping my teeth down, it seems, and strangling my throat with a too-high Adam’s apple.
Aside from volume and pitch, Love believes that melody is crucial for communicating emotion and engaging interest. Most people, when they talk, speak in a monotone. When a person speaks in a monotone, you start to anticipate how the person will sound (the same). When you anticipate how a person will sound, you anticipate what he will say. You feel you’ve already heard it. You tune out. “Singers would never just get stuck with one song,” he says
Why is the speaking voice any different? Why shouldn’t you have times when you’re speaking fast, trying to get people excited? Why shouldn’t you have times when you’re speaking low, making people think that they should invest all their money in you? Why shouldn’t you have times when you’re speaking on the higher side because you just won the lottery?
“Who decided in your life that you weren’t ever going to speak loud?” Love wants to know.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you have loud siblings? Did your parents tell you that it’s better to be seen and not heard?”
“Hmm.… What a disaster,” I say.
“You should be able to do this,” Love tells me. “Make sounds that give you control over the way that other people perceive you. Make sounds that give you control over taking people through emotions, because people are not going to remember what you say — they’re going to remember how you make them feel.”
If I can do all that, maybe I can control the world. “I need to learn how to do that,” I say in a monotone. I can tell Love’s not buying what I just said, because I’m not really selling it.