The What, Why, When and How Of Working With A Voice Coach
Perhaps Plato said it best – “If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.” Education is the first step in any profession, the foundation for success in any craft, and so necessary in voice over. Often people enter the voice over industry with a bit of talent and some well-meaning but off-base encouragement that “you have a nice voice” and “it’s just talking into a microphone, why would you want to be working with a voice coach”?
Consider only briefly if there is any profession in which you would consider hiring an untrained novice. Car mechanic? Surgeon? Recording engineer? Copywriter? Airline Pilot? While there are surely some areas where more education is needed than others, even occupations that seem entry level require at least a fundamental educational foundation.
Often in performing arts related fields, people are encouraged to rely on their talent and their luck to succeed. But this is short sighted. Even the most talented actors need directors to help refine their performance. And as a voice over business owner, you need to be looking for ways to rise above the competition.
Which is where a good coach (or 2, or 3) comes in.
So let’s break down what is coaching, why and when you need it and how to go about working with a voice coach to keep your skills sharp.
What Is A Coach?
The textbook definition of a coach is a tutor who gives private or specialized teaching. A mentor or a guru who will guide you in a process that focuses on improvement: in other words, helping you to learn. To take it a step further, a business coach is a coach with a background in small business who assists and guides you, the small business owner, in developing and growing your small business.
Even more specifically, a voice coach is a professional that helps performers with elements of style and performance practice and tradition. Often, a voice coach may be a director and/or performer themselves. A vocal coach might assist with such matters as pronunciation, phrasing, performance practice, deliver styles, as well as helping the actor to refine their unique read.
In voice over, a good coach is often both a performance and business coach, but there are some who specialize in one area or the other.
Why Do You Need A Voice Coach?
As we touched upon earlier, to truly excel as a professional voice actor, you need an education in the craft. Far from just “speaking into a microphone”, voice over actors need to be so much more than just good voices. In addition to knowing how to read a script and make it sound natural and not stiffly read off the page, they need to understand the various genres where voice over is used, what delivery styles are booking, which areas of voice over are naturally in their wheelhouse, how to listen and take direction, and how to dial into a script and find the story. And thanks to a global pandemic, you now need to also know how to run your own home studios, master at least the basics of engineering and the ins and outs of collaborating remotely with creative professionals hiring you.
And as a voice over business solopreneur, you need business coaches to help you learn to market your business, create systems of productivity and effectively invoice clients. Especially for those just starting out, you are chief, cook and bottlewasher so having someone coach you on best practices will save you immense time, money and headaches figuring all of it out on your own.
When Should You Work With A Voice Over Coach?
So when is the right time to work with a voice over coach? Short answer? Now. No man is an island and even professionals with long careers benefit from working with a coach. Regularly employing a coach to provide a second set of ears to listen to your reads and help you to find the best performance of the script in front of you can be vital to your success. As in any industry, continued professional development is key to staying current and competitive.
If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it is that voice over is always changing. A good voice over coach will have their finger on the pulse of the industry and be able to advise you in what performances are current and will help you book work. They will also be aware of new trends in existing genres, for example, seeing the trend of shorter, :06 pre-roll ads and helping students refine those deliveries (and even perhaps make a specialized, 6-second commercial demo).
It is good business to have in your budget some funds earmarked for coaches. There will always be new genres to explore, tactical skills such as conversational read styles or accents and dialects that can improve your performance, and trends in marketing to stay on top of that working with a coach will improve for your business. And when you’re working with the right coach, that investment will pay for itself and then some.
How to Find The Right Voice Over Coaching
So now that you’ve decided you need a coach, how do you go about find the right one? There are a number of coaches out there, so how do you narrow down the field and choose someone to help you navigate your career?
First determine what sort of coaching you need. Going back to our definition of coaches, some voiceover coaches will help you understand the different genres of VO, mic technique, slating and stylistic choices, and when to make a demo (or two). Some coaches specialize in specific genres and will refine your reads in those areas. Others focus on how to improve your breath support, your vocal articulation, your voice health, and address any specific challenges you might be facing. Still others will guide you in business set up, studio equipment, marketing advice etc. Many coaches teach combinations of these. Be unambiguous about what you need. Because paying someone for guidance in areas in which they are not equipped to help is money thrown away. For example, studying vocal technique with a coach who doesn’t understand how the vocal apparatus works can at best do more harm than good and at worst do irreparable damage. And if your coach has never heard of E-Learning or Corporate Narration how much do they really know about the industry in 2020?
Once you know what you need ASK QUESTIONS. Find some peers you trust and ask for a recommendation. Really explore what they liked about a particular coach, what did they find useful, did their methods resonate? Keeping in mind that everyone is different and what works for some voice actors might not work for others, do your research to find coaches you think can help you.
Ask for a consultation with the coach before booking a session. No conscientious coach will mind a quick conversation to determine if you are a good fit to work together. Inquire as to their experience with coaching and teaching and how their students are doing in the industry, are newer voice over actors booking work? Was the coach able to jump-start the careers of working voice over pros struggling through a lull in bookings? Ask if they’re still working with a coach themselves and find out about their teaching qualifications and education. Do they have a long, successful tenure working in the industry? Who do they study with or refer to for their own skill set? Good coaches encourage this conversation to determine how well you will work together and if they are the right coach for what you need. And if the fit isn’t great, a first-class coach will be able to refer you to someone better suited to help.
A Word Or Two Of Caution When Working With A Vocal Coach
Unfortunately, there will be people hanging out a shingle who should not be teaching voice over. Anyone who seems too eager to sell you their services probably needs you more than you need them. This doesn’t mean you should never work with a newer coach, but be cautious of hard sell tactics or programs offering big rewards or demos after a very short period of coaching. If the coach is busy getting you to buy their book, or sign up for their next group class instead of focusing on helping you to improve, you can find better elsewhere.
Good coaches know other good coaches, and understand that an actor may be working with more than one coach to perfect their craft (and often encourage it and recommend specific ones). If jealousy, ownership behavior or “I’m the only coach you’ll ever need” behavior arises, best to move on before it escalates.
Because, and this cannot be shouted loud enough from the hilltops, there is no room for bullying behavior among coaches. If a service provider demeans, belittles, makes inappropriate sexual advances or yells at you they are likely setting the table to take advantage of you or sell you things you don’t need by making you feel inferior. Don’t become a victim. Follow your instinct. If you feel someone’s behavior is off, trust your gut and stop working with that coach.
Finding the right coach can take a bit of research and trial and error, but once you have the right team in your corner, it can change the life of your business and build it beyond your expectations. Do not try to “go it alone”, resting on your talented laurels. Take Plato’s advice and avoid limping through your life in voice over.
During his career as a voice actor, voice over coach and demo producer, J. Michael Collins has mentored some of the industry’s fastest rising stars in voice over. With a rare ear for nuance, J. Michael can break down and analyze your delivery with singular ease and expertise. His proven performance-oriented coaching techniques will get you to the right read the first time, every time by harnessing your strengths and helping you rise above your weaknesses.
For more information, go to jmcvoiceover.com.