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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Voice Over Journey: Ten Years of Lessons to be Learnt

Anniversaries are not only a time for celebration, but also reflection.  This week marks the tenth year of my voice over training course - and what a learning experience it has been. 

I would like to share some of the highs and lows of my journey, which I hope will provide a few useful pointers on what to look out for if you are considering hiring a trainer or mentor or even becoming a VO teacher yourself. 

Of course this a personal look from the inside out, so if you are booking a voiceover coach make sure you check out what their students have to say as it will provide much needed balance.

You also need to take what I say with a pinch of salt - I'm biased! My students are the best in the world (there you go, see what I mean?).

In the beginning

I didn't just fall into coaching - I had been tutoring on an occasional basis at Channel 4 since the 1990s. As a continuity announcer I would be asked (along with my colleagues) to train the newbies as they took their first nervous breaths behind the mic. It was a role I enjoyed, not least because I could identify with the sweaty palms and slight tremble in the voice; it was all too familiar.

But what about those not in the industry?

"How do you get into voice overs?" 

People would ask me this at dinner parties (not that I went to many) and to be honest I could not really provide a succinct answer, so in 1999 I started to explore the possibility of starting up some sort of course to help complete beginners. 

My reconnaissance took me to a corner of Hertfordshire and The Cream Room studio secreted on a working farm in the village of Dane End.  The team there were very welcoming and interested to explore the voice over side of audio production. However as my own personal VO workload had increased dramatically, not to mention the arrival of two baby sons, it was a full six years before I pursued my nascent project fully. 

So it was in 2005 that the Cream Room played host to my first master classes under the expert ear of producer and guitar virtuoso Rob Clydesdale , closely followed by the opening of a London location (Uptown Studios) to meet demand for a capital-based option. 

Working with Uptown's owner Anthony Galatis has been an enduring relationship that lasts to this day and it is here that the vast majority of my students have been put through the voice mill. In fact well over a thousand mouths have been coaxed, nudged and cajoled into performing those fiendishly tricky scripts of mine.

But this has also been a learning decade for me too. 

All training courses are about people and I have quickly discovered there is no one size fits all. Just because one person wants to voice videogames doesn't mean everybody does.  Hard sell commercials can make new talents quake, whilst the thought of narrating a children's story leaves some reaching for the cringe off switch.

What I quickly uncovered was the need to balance listening and teaching -  taking on board what a student is saying, but at the same time showing them the benefits of trying something new. Leaving the comfort zone is an essential part of the learning process.

Exceptional Expectations

I am often asked what the hardest part about teaching voice overs is; the answer is managing expectations. Last year one of my students secured a voice over job within just eleven days of completing the studio session - a very pleasant surprise for him and me.

From that point he assumed, wrongly, that it was relatively easy to get the work; he would be quite happy with a couple of hours of graft a month earning £300 or more, he thought. Of course no more tempting offers dropped into his inbox and he became frustrated; an emotion I could detect in his voice as he submitted audition after fruitless audition. Eventually his annoyance turned into full blown resentment and he threw in the towel.

My failure was to not manage his expectations fully... I should have warned him that an early triumph did not guarantee future success. Hard work, learning your craft and persistence are essential in order to yield positive results over the long term.

Just as difficult to manage are the VO apprentices who refuse to believe in themselves:
"my voice isn't marketable", "there's too much competition" and "my voice is too... old/young/deep/high/posh/common (delete accordingly)"

My job has been to dismantle the obstacles, put their fears in perspective and persuade them that voice overs are fun and well worth pursuing.

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” 

           - Galileo Galilei

Then there are the high fliers whose achievements have left me in awe. When an eager young guy came to see us and asked how he could get into animation, I told him (half jokingly) he needed to swap Northampton for Hollywood.

He did.

Jay Britton's visits to California have since resulted in a prestigious Voice Arts Award in 2014, along with stacks of work.

You don't even have to travel that far. From Inverness to London was enough for Kelsey Bennett who is now not only the main female voice on youth broadcaster E4, but a creative continuity manager for Channel 4.  If I still worked for the station she would now be my boss!

And proving that age is no barrier to voice overs and that you don't need to travel anywhere to do voiceovers, my septuagenarian graduate Michael Andrews is currently narrating an audiobook from his home in Cornwall.

None of this success has much to do with me you understand; I merely lit the spark and helped keep the flame going when other forces threatened to extinguish it. Their accomplishments are theirs... and theirs alone.

I have come to realise that learning is a two way street - I am sure I gain as much from my students as they do from me.

To all my students, past and present I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you for the last ten years - I hope you can join me for the next ten.

As you might have gathered, Gary provides voice over coaching at


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