Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Feelings of inadequacy

I imagine just about the entire world - the entire English-speaking world, at any rate - has by now encountered the heartwarming story of Ted Williams, a down-and-out who only a week or so was begging for change beside a road junction on the edge of Columbus, Ohio.  His pitch for spare coppers involved proclaiming that he had a "God-given gift of voice", perfect for the radio.  And it seems he wasn't exaggerating: his ability to launch into a string of breezy, seamless, and velvety smooth "next up..." style introductions is quite uncanny (he claims he did use to work in radio, a decade or so back, before his life started to unravel).  Word got around pretty quickly, and local paper The Columbus Dispatch went down to check him out.  The video interview they shot with him through a car window "went viral" on YouTube last week, and within 24 hours the golden-voiced hobo was a nationwide celebrity - with job offers starting to flood in.  (Of course, there are already mutterings of discontent within the radio industry that, while it's certainly an uplifting tale, this kind of media-hyped redemption is a bit rough on all the possibly equally talented people looking for on-air voice work who didn't share Ted's fat slice of good luck in getting noticed.)

Darn, this guy definitely has something rather special, though.  And it's apt to make me feel a bit insecure about my own voice work.  I do not like the sound of my voice.  Most people don't like the sound of their own recorded voices, of course; but with me it's rather more than a generalised embarrassment at finding my voice out of context, transposed into some public medium, or a sense of shock at the jarring unfamiliarity of it when heard outside the confines of one's own skull for once; no, because I hear my recorded voice so often, I've rather got used to it - and I know what I don't like about it.  I have weak 'r's, that's the worst fault; not that they come out as wubbleyu's... but they're not far off sometimes; my 'r's lack the crispness I'd like, and I certainly can't rrr-roll them.  A number of my consonants are a bit 'soft', actually.  And there's just a hint of sibilance sometimes, something I do my best to thwart (I suspect replacing the horribly ill-fitting cap I've suffered on one of my front incisors for years would go a long way toward solving the problem...).  People tell me my voice is deep, but I fancy there are a few overtones in it that are rather higher than I'd like (and it does have an alarming tendency to crack and suddenly shoot up several octaves whenever my throat gets dry or sore); it certainly doesn't have that Barry White kind of depth and sonorousness to it.  And, never having been a smoker, I find my voice rather bland, lacking in character; my voice hasn't aged, really, it's still much the same as it was when I was a teenager; the last thirty years don't seem to have weathered it - there's no rattle'n'hum, no growl, no purr.  I even worry a bit about the accent: I've always been notoriously immune to picking up accents (and thus speak with something like the exceeding rare - and highly desirable for this kind of work - ideal of 'BBC English'), but after years of living in Beijing with mostly American (or Canadian or Aussie) friends, I fear my accent is betraying just a few hints of becoming 'internationalized' now - the odd vowel sound here and there becoming teased into a new shape.  And I can't do that SMOOTH thing like our Ted, dammit!

What I am good at is sight-reading - scanning half a line or a line ahead of what I'm reading, to get an idea of context and help me choose an appropriate pace, phrasing and intonation for each piece of dialogue (we scarcely ever get an opportunity to preview the scripts before we record!).  And I'm a half-way decent actor, too; I actually attempt to give an appropriate performance for every scenario (most of my colleagues - even a few who boast of being 'trained actors' - can't really be bothered most of the time, or aren't capable of generating a performance under the constraints of sight-reading).  I suppose my enunciation is exceptionally clear - much better than most people's anyway (notwithstanding my self-consciousness about my 'r's).  And the bland, non-region-specific accent (though I - and many people - find it dull... or, sometimes, off-puttingly posh) is an advantage too: easier for non-native speakers to follow (and, on occasion, I can pass for a blandly accented American - or Canadian or Aussie - if I have to as well).  I just can't do that SMOOTH.  And I'd like to be able to.

Then again, Ted probably gets more than one take for his non-live work. I just had to do another bunch of museum audioguides - 2 or 3-minute spiels in one stretch, with no preparation. SMOOTH is one thing, but being able to wing a voice performance like that takes some doing as well.

Anyway, way to go, Ted! Best of luck with the new life!!


Gary said...

Yeah, it's a great story - but I hope it's going to die down soon, so the guy can just get on with trying to make a new life for himself. The media attention this last week has been getting kinda crazy, and already there's a bit of a backlash against it.

I'm kinda curious to hear what your voice sounds like now. What's this museum you're doing the audiotours for? You didn't get the Roger Moore gig at the imperial palace, did you?

Froog said...

No, no, our Roger is still The Voice of the Palace Museum Tour.

I don't like to give out any further details of my work. I am really embarrassed by the quality of these recordings (the studio we used for the last one had a horrible echo, but I couldn't persuade anyone to give a damn; and my delivery isn't as polished as I'd like, when I have to do almost everything in one headlong take). Also, of course, I don't want to compromise my anonymity!

I, too, hope we don't hear too much more of Ted Williams now. It's going to be tough for him to adapt to these sudden changes in his life, and to forge a sustainable career out of his momentary fame. I think the guy needs some peace and quiet now, some privacy to start getting on with that.