There’s this cartoon about music that I think is very telling. I’ll try to describe it to you.
Imagine a tall white wall with two doors. Both doors are wide open. Above door 1 is a sign that says: “Basics of music theory.” The sign above door 2 reads: “Make music in 3 minutes.”
Guess which door has a huge line of people, and which door has no one in front of it?
Of course it’s door 2! They all want to learn to make music in 3 minutes. No one wants to spend part of their busy day learning music theory. That’s so yesterday…. I mean, who’s got time for that?
Does anyone who appears on The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and the X Factor ever have a music degree? Of course not. If these contestants can make it to the top, anyone can! (if you’re going to point out exceptions, remember that exceptions prove the rule)
MY MUSICAL BEGINNINGS
The first musical instrument I learned to “play” as a kid was the electric organ. Now, the purpose of these lessons wasn’t to turn me into an accomplished musician. The idea was to teach me just enough to impress my parents without teaching me to read music. Enough to justify the fee they were paying the music school.
The method I was using didn’t use traditional music notation, but colorful dots with each dot representing a key. Inside the dot was a number telling me which finger to use. At home I had to put colored stickers on the organ so I would know which keys to press.
I was a quick study. Within two weeks I could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and my parents thought they’d given birth to a new Mozart. After a year of lessons, I had a whole repertoire of children’s songs I could play to proud family members, and then my teacher moved out of town.
No worries… the organist at my dad’s church was willing to step in, and he put an actual hymnal in front of me and asked me to play the melody. Since I didn’t know how to read music, that didn’t go very well.
“You’re telling me you spent a whole year at music school and all you know are colored dots?” he exclaimed in frustration. “You may impress your friends and family with that, but not me. I think you and I have to start with the basics.”
Thanks to him, I actually learned how to read music, how to find the right keys without color codes, I learned music history and theory, solfège, melody, harmony, counterpoint… A whole world opened up to me. The great thing was that I could apply most of my musical knowledge to other instruments as well.
When I was seventeen, I was playing solo cornet in my local band and I was admitted to the conservatory to become a professional musician. I chose to study musicology instead, and music is still one of my main passions in life. Had I stayed with my first teacher, I highly doubt that this would have happened.
Now, apply this story to a certain type of up and coming voice talent. Somehow they become a member of a professional VO Zuckerbook group, and start asking the most basic questions. They may know a few colored dots, but have no idea how to connect them. They don’t know what they don’t know, and yet they act as if they’re entitled to everything.
Luckily, there is another, more serious breed of aspiring voice overs that isn’t afraid to get help from more experienced colleagues. Some of the better questions these smart people will ask are these:
“How do I know which voice over coach is right for me?’
“How do I know which Pay to Play to sign up for?”
“How do I know which VO training track is right for me?”
Rather than giving them a lengthy answer, I have one quick response that will help them separate the wheat from the chaff. I tell them:
“Be wary of anyone offering you a shortcut.”
It could be a coach saying he can turn an amateur into a pro in ten sessions. It could be a Pay to Play promising you instant work and a steady income stream. It could be a sound engineer promising to make your home studio sound phenomenal if only you buy his magical plugin. It could be a soundproofing company saying you should purchase their unique panels to keep ambient noise out.
If it sounds too good to be true…
You may be God’s gift to voice over and the best thing since sliced bread, but it takes time to become good at anything. This isn’t American Idol. There’s no microwave method to greatness. There’s just an old-fashioned crock pot that you stuff with healthy ingredients and then you let it simmer.
Getting good at what you do means making plenty of mistakes and learning from them. It means being open to quality feedback. It also means saving enough money to invest in a decent recording space and audio equipment. It entails becoming good at finding opportunities, and selling your services for a decent fee.
RUNNING A BUSINESS
You may like it or hate it, but the moment you set up shop as a voice over, you are in sales, marketing, promotion, acquisition, bookkeeping, customer service, audio engineering, and any other aspect of running a one-person, for-profit, freelance business.
IT IS HARD WORK, and it may take years before it pays off. Most new businesses don’t make it past the three year mark. Did you know that 48% of professional voice talents surveyed, made less than $8000 from voice overs in 2020!
That’s not something the success coaches, demo mills, and online casting platforms will tell you. They’ll say that what VO’s do is simple, requires little training, and little investment. Best of all, you can work from home. Ideal during a pandemic!
FACING THE MUSIC
My first music teacher made it seem like I knew how to play the electric organ, but in all honesty, I knew nothing. Painting by numbers isn’t painting. It’s coloring inside lines someone else drew for you. That’s how I was making music.
In hindsight, thanks to using this so-called shortcut, I wasted a year of my music education and it took me LONGER to get to an age-appropriate level.
So, if you ever have a choice between two lines, and one of them says “Learn how to do voice overs in three minutes,” what will you do?
Are you going to take that shortcut?
Lee Colee' says
I love your essays! I’m one of the slow and steady VOs at 65 years of age who started after I retired from live entertainment, opera and theatre. Right now I’m being seriously coached by top talent in this field and feel so blessed and yet so ignorant! Your articles give me a positive boost that I’m doing things right.
Paul Strikwerda says
I’m so happy about that boost! It sounds like you’re approaching this the right way, Lee. Above all, have fun. Your background will inspire and support you all the way!
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
Interestingly, ‘exceptions prove the rule’ MEANS that exceptions TEST the rule (archaic usage).
I like YOUR shortcut: don’t do it if it’s a shortcut. I found that our when I used to program supercomputers (CRAYs): every single time, if I tried to do a quick and dirty program, I spent endless time cleaning it up when I had to use it. It was much better to do a quick but tidy proper program, with comments and variables, because there was never a case where I didn’t have to alter quite a few things before it worked. I think it goes that way with everything.
I am now even more grateful that my mother insisted on proper music lessons from the beginning. Music notation has served me well my entire life, in instruments and in singing.
Paul Strikwerda says
Glad you caught on to the irony that my shortcut is in fact a shortcut!
Joshua Alexander says
Now if only there were a “Basics of music theory in 3 minutes” microwave class that would teach us ALL the basics and then we can go through Door #2 – six total minutes to success!!! Step right up folks! Hahahaha. Kidding. Caterpillars don’t just transform instantaneously into butterflies. And I love the crock pot example with healthy ingredients and simmering. Once again, all truth and information we need to hear. I love it when people ask me “How can I break into voiceovers?” as if there is some supposed crash entry into this glorious pursuit. The cold hard truth is that there’s nothing to “break” into at all. It’s all one giant slow-moving marathon of improvement and gradual successes. My audiobook client and friend Thibaut Meurisse says “Success is a process and not an event.” So is music-making. 🙂
Paul Strikwerda says
Absolutely. You know how long it takes to become an overnight sensation!
Paul Vinger says
Great post, Paul – I’m grateful to have been steered to an excellent coach.
Paul Strikwerda says
Isn’t David Rosenthal the best?!
Paul Vinger says
David is a wonderful coach – it really is a gift to be working with him. The fella who connected me with him is pretty amazing, too!
BTW, just ready your review of the CA Melomania earbuds – very timely, as I’m looking for a new pair… currently enjoying Saint-Saëns, Symphony No 3!
Ray Cole says
Really have enjoyed your essays over the years. I have contemplated giving up this business many times over the years. Yet it still calls to me. I am finally working with a real genuine coach in audiobooks. This essay landed right in the gut for me. Thanks. For constantly making us better by holding up the mirror to us.