voice acting

Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 2

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Pay-to-Play, Promotion, Social Media 8 Comments

Click here for part 1

What do you think voice-overs do all day long?

Sit behind their microphones and record the most amazing scripts?

Make $5,000 for a twenty-second commercial?

Narrate yet another best-selling novel?

If you choose to believe Facebook, that’s what voice-overs do. They book, they record, and they cash in. Rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately, that’s a big fat lie, told to the world because no one wants to look like a loser on social media. We’re one happy family, everything is always great, and business is booming!

The truth is, some voice actors are doing really well, and many are not. Going into 2019, even the big names are asked to work for smaller budgets at full perpetual buyouts, while $249 seems to be the new normal for many non-union jobs. Jobs that would easily go for four or five times as much some years ago, perhaps even more.

If you’re just starting out, and your expectations are as great as your ambition, that’s probably not something you want to hear. But let’s be realistic for a moment.

Once you’ve told the world that you are now a professional voice-over, it stops being a hobby or a daydream. In fact, you’ve just opened up a business. Congratulations.

Are you ready to be a business owner?

Just to be clear: the IRS considers an activity to be a business if:

“that activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year (…).”

As someone who has coached many beginning voice talents, I’ll be straight with you. Most of my students have no clue what it means to run a for-profit business in a market saturated with wannabes. That’s a huge part of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult!

Think about it. You may be a crazy talented chef in your state-of-the-art kitchen, but if you don’t know how to run a successful restaurant, you’re doomed to fail. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Ramsey!

Here’s where the comparison stops. A smart chef has a staff managing all business aspects of his establishment. That way, he can concentrate on the cooking. As a VO-pro you are on your own, wearing many, many hats. You’ve got to get customers in the door, set the tables, cook the food, clean up at the end of the day, and do the books.

On top of that, too many beginners don’t know what they don’t know. Between you and me, they just want to have fun talking into a microphone, and get paid for it.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: most voice-overs spend way more time trying to get the work than doing the work, myself included (and I’ve been at it for over thirty years).

Like any business, you’ve got to attract customers. How do you do that when no one has ever heard of you (and no one cares to hear about you)? Have you thought about that?

Don’t tell me you’re going to sign up for a voice casting website, and expect them to get you work. That big unethical one in Canada claims to have a global network of over 200,000 voice-overs, and most of them speak English. By the time you open that casting email, you’re at the back of a long line of hopefuls who just received the same message. Chances are that the client won’t ever hear your carefully crafted custom demo. I mean, who’s got time to listen to over a hundred auditions?

And you pay for that “privilege”?

Don’t expect an agent to send you work either when you still have to prove yourself. The irony is: agents want you when you no longer need them. As soon as you have clearly demonstrated an ability to make them money, you become interesting. By that time you should already have a portfolio of returning clients giving your business a sustainable basis.

So, if you can’t rely on Pay to Plays or agents, what are you to do? Where do all these fantastic money-making voice-over jobs come from? Do you find them on Craigslist? Do they grow on trees?

Ultimately, finding work comes down to one person: YOU!

Here’s secret number two: it’s easier to have clients find you, than you having to find clients.

To get people’s attention, you’ve got to toot your own horn. That puts you not only in the business of providing voice-overs. You’re also in the business of self-promotion and marketing. Be honest: do you have expertise in those areas? Are you even comfortable telling people why they should hire you?

Let’s be more specific. Do you know how to design and maintain a kick-ass website that’s search engine optimized, and ready to withstand hackers? If not, do you know a reputable company that can build that site for you? Let’s assume you just spent thousands of dollars on coaching, professional demos, equipment, and a good recording space, how much money is left to get you an online presence? Include the money you pay to a company like SiteGround, to host your website.

Building a website is not just about finding an attractive template and some stock photographs. You need someone with serious copywriting skills to sell your services. Someone who can capture your essence and turn it into a brand. You also have to develop fresh content to give visitors a reason to come back to your website. How are you going to do that?

Then there’s your social media presence. Your brand new company has to be on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and whatever the next big thing is going to be. Each platform has its own rules, algorithms, and format. You’ll have to learn how to shoot and edit decent home videos, how to take striking pictures, and how to write compelling copy that makes you stand out above the crowd.

A word of warning. Once you get started, you’ll soon notice that social media is a monster that constantly needs to be fed with fresh, relevant, and unique content created by YOU. This takes time. Lots of time. If you’re lucky, your content gets picked up. More likely, it gets lost in an ocean of mindless, self-absorbed chatter crying “Look at ME. Look at ME!”

Those who are young and full of energy are used to living life online. Their self-esteem is linked to the number of likes each post receives. To them, creating a social media presence is no big deal. I have coached quite a few people for whom voice-overs is a second or third career. They’re in their fifties or sixties, and to them building a website and being active on social media is intimidating and often frustrating. It’s not what they signed up for when they dreamt of being an audio book narrator.

They want to try it the old-fashioned way: cold calling clients. It’s the most masochistic way to spend your day. With people being sick of unwanted solicitation and robocalls, good luck trying to get past the screener before you can read your script to some teenager who is in charge of promotions. These days, more and more people refuse to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number. If you love listening to voicemail and pissing people off, go for it!

So, let’s quickly recap. Why is doing voice-overs so difficult?

Last week I told you it is hard to sound natural in an unnatural situation, and to act as if you’re not acting. You need much more than a great voice to make it.

Today we talked about running a business, finding work, and self-promotion.

Next week I’ll add another layer: dealing with constant uncertainty.

Be certain to check it out!

Paul Strikwerda

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PPS Bob Souer, one of the nicest people in the voice-over community, has had a tough year. He has asked for our help to turn a corner and move ahead. Through the years, Bob has supported many of us with his wisdom and insight. Now it is time we support him and his family. Please visit his GoFundMe page, and give what you can give. Thank you!

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 1

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 7 Comments
Yuja Wang performing with the National Youth Orchestra of China at Carnegie Hall on July 22, 2017

Yuja Wang

A new year, a new career?

It’s almost 2019, and if you’re one of the many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, this is for you. Before you leave your day job, you need to hear from someone on the inside what life is like when you depend on your voice for a living.

I can tell you one thing right now: in spite of what you may have heard, it’s not what you think it is. Far from it. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, so please trust that I know what I am talking about.

I have to warn you, though. You may hear me say a few things you don’t want to hear. Please keep an open mind. It’s not my job to either encourage or discourage you from following your dream. If there’s a fire burning inside of you, don’t let me put it out. Use this information to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

So, why is doing voice-overs so hard?

Anything that seems easy, usually isn’t.

It sounds like no big deal, doesn’t it? Talking for a living. We all do it, incessantly. Human beings need to communicate, so, why not get paid for it? Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer J. Simpson is said to be worth over $60 million, just like Nancy Cartwright who voices Bart Simpson. All they do is blabber into a microphone.

Seeing them at work in the studio, voice acting looks like so much effortless fun, and that’s where you make your first mistake. What you see is the result of unique talent, and many, many years of training, hard work, and experience.

In a way it’s like watching Yuja Wang perform a Rachmaninov piano concerto. Her playing is so fast and fluent that it’s easy to forget that even at the peak of her career, she has to practice many hours a day to get to a point where it becomes seamless and second nature.

In our society, we tend to fixate on the end result, and ignore the long and arduous journey to success. Please keep in mind that those who do well as voice-overs are in it for the long haul, and they realize that instant gratification is an illusion sold to you by people who want your money.

Back to the musical metaphor.

The relationship of a musician to a score is like the relationship of an actor to a script. You’ve got to make the words your own, finding the right tone, melody, and rhythm.

Here’s a question for you: There’s a difference between playing the notes and making music.

Anyone can read, but can you actually make music?

Let me take that back. Not everyone can read. Most people think they can, but when you give them a few lines, their volume drops, they start stammering and become very self-conscious. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. You put emphasis on the wrong words. You mumble as your tongue dries up. What comes out of your mouth sounds stilted instead of spontaneous. And when I point that out, you tell me:

“Here’s the problem, Paul. This script… those are not my words. I would never say it that way. That’s why I’m having so much trouble.”

Well, there’s your challenge! At one point, Nancy Cartwright had to find her Bart Simpson, and Dan Castellaneta his Homer (as well as the many other characters they play). They were asked to say things they would never say in real life, and convince the rest of the world they meant every word of it.

That’s part of why voice acting is so difficult. You’re paid to sound authentic and sincere, even when you’re faking it and the script sucks. And take it from me that more than half of the scripts you’ll be asked to voice are written to be read, not spoken, with too many words and too little time.

Meanwhile, you and I are still working on that text I just gave you. Now let’s put you in front of a microphone, and we’ll add an audience to the mix. Let’s assume you’re in a recording studio and the client is listening to your session, together with the director and the sound engineer.

Are you ready for that? After all, people have told you that you have “such a great voice.” How would you handle your nerves? How would you deal with last-minute script changes? How would you respond to feedback that isn’t necessarily positive? Are you patient enough to work for two hours on a thirty-second script, laying down take after take? Will your voice hold up, even when asked to scream enthusiastically over and over again?

All of the above assumes that you have passed the first hurdle: the microphone. Most people become very self-conscious when someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they don’t know where to put their hands or how to hold their head. The same thing happens with a microphone.

Once you’re aware that every sound you make is being recorded, the pressure is on. And when I say every sound, I mean every sound. Even the sounds you’re not aware of. Every breath, every lip smack, every pop, every click, every snap, bone crackle, and stomach rumble.

The microphone is like a merciless magnifying glass exposing all your imperfections.

These are just some of the things you have to confront as a voice-over professional. You have to…

Sound natural in an unnatural situation, and act as if you’re not acting.

To be honest, most people can’t do it, and they don’t need to because they have other talents and ambitions. Not every piano student wants to have a career like Yuja Wang, but those who do, better prepare themselves!

Next week I’ll talk about another aspect of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult:

It’s a freakin’ business!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Equip Your Voice-Over Studio For Under A Thousand Bucks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 4 Comments

Rode NT1 microphone

With the midterm elections out of the way, America can finally focus on its favorite pastime. No, I’m not talking about baseball, football, or binge-watching Netflix. I’m talking about…

Shopping!

It’s one of those things I learned quickly when I entered this country as an immigrant. When America has something to celebrate, people flock to the stores.

When they wish to honor their veterans, they go shopping.

When they wish to remember those who died on the battlefield, they go shopping.

When they wish to celebrate their independence, they go shopping.

When they wish to observe Thanksgiving, Americans shop until they drop.

So, with Black Friday and the holidays around the corner, I want to talk to those of you who feel the uncontrollable urge to do some gear shopping. In fact, one of my new readers emailed me this week and said:

“I am seriously thinking about becoming a voice-over. I am starting from scratch, and if you were me, what equipment would you buy, knowing you have a limited budget?”

Here’s my response.

We don’t know one another, but I’ll assume that you have talent, training, time, and energy to pursue this career. If you’re just exploring options, I wouldn’t make a considerable investment. But if you’re really committed, I recommend you forget about the equipment for now, and focus on your recording space. A hundred-dollar microphone is going to sound better when used in a dedicated recording space, than a thousand-dollar microphone in an untreated, non-isolated space.

FLAWED FIXES

Now, there are plenty of manufacturers that are offering “easy solutions” to turn any room into a vocal booth. Remember this. You can buy all the eyeballs and acoustic shields you want, but they will never adequately isolate your microphone from annoying leaf blowers, barking pitbulls, and heavy traffic.

There are at least three proven ways to stop or reduce the transmission of sound:

• Adding mass: the heavier and thicker a wall, the better the isolation.

• Adding dampening material: absorptive material within a wall slows down the transfer of sound.

• Adding space: the further away from the sound you are, the weaker it will be.

Adding air space within a wall also helps decrease those ambient decibels.

So, take a good look at your designated recording space and at your finances, and spend at least sixty to seventy percent of your budget on your recording space. Without a quiet home studio, you won’t have the freedom to record whenever your client needs you to record, and you cannot deliver professional quality audio. Ergo: you won’t be able to compete.

THE GEAR YOU NEED

Here’s the good news: while soundproofing and acoustic treatment of a space is never cheap, getting decent gear to record with does not have to break the bank. I take it you already own a decent computer and a good monitor, so all you need is:

– a microphone, shock mount, and pop filter
– a microphone cable
– a boom arm
– an audio interface
– headphones
– monitors (speakers)
– recording/editing software

Before I give you my recommendations, please realize that the options are endless and the sky is the limit. When talking about gear, some people get on their slippery soap box telling you about must-haves and industry standards. Don’t let them intimidate or belittle you! You don’t need to spend a fortune to produce quality audio.

I’ve only picked equipment that:

– is mostly budget-friendly
– is good for voice-over applications
– has been tested by people I trust
– has had very good reviews

THE MICROPHONE

My choice of a starter microphone is the Rode NT1 Condenser. For well under three hundred dollars, Rode even includes a first-rate Rycote shock mount and a pop filter. This microphone works well for most voices, and during shootouts, it holds its own against models that cost three times as much.

I’m a big fan of the Rycote shock mounts because they work with lyres instead of elastic bands. Click here for my full review.

Rode NTG4 Shotgun Microphone

The Rode NT1 has a cardioid pickup pattern, but if you’d rather go with a tighter supercardioid pattern, I suggest you look into the Rode NTG4 shotgun microphone.  For a little over three hundred dollars, you get a mic with a 75 Hz high pass filter which is useful for reducing low-frequency rumble from HVAC systems indoors or street traffic.

For a shootout featuring the Rode NT1 and the NTG4, listen to the Pro Audio Suite podcast by clicking here.

CABLES & BOOM

Quite a few audiophiles have heated debates about cables. Some believe it doesn’t matter which cables you use because most people won’t hear the difference between a ten-dollar cable and one that sets you back several hundred dollars. I’ve worked in radio for twenty-five years of my life, and sound engineers have assured me that a quality cable does make a difference. A six-foot Mogami GOLD STUDIO-06 XLR Microphone Cable should do the trick.

Blue Compass Premium Boom Arm

As long as you’re not in the habit of pounding on your desk, I recommend getting the Blue Compass Premium Tube-Style Broadcast Boom Arm.  What I like about this arm is the minimalistic design with internal springs and hidden channel cable management. It’s compatible with all standard shock mounts, and costs about one hundred dollars.

AUDIO INTERFACE

So why would you need an audio interface? Well, an audio interface is the hardware that connects your microphone and other audio gear to your computer. A typical audio interface converts analog signals into digital audio information that your computer can process. If I were starting out as a voice-over, I’d choose the Audient iD4.

Audient iD4

I’ve reviewed its bigger brother the iD22 and it’s the interface I still use in my studio. The portable but sturdy iD4 has the same stellar and super clean preamps that will give you a low noise floor. It works with both Macs and PC’s, and for two hundred bucks it’s a no-brainer.

CANS

Next on the list are studio headphones. Not all heads are shaped the same, and what might be a good fit for my impressive noggin, may not work for you. Over the years I’ve tried Sony cans, Audio Technica, and Sennheiser. I finally found a pair I can wear for hours. It’s the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium Edition 250 Ohm Over-Ear-Stereo Headphones.

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium Edition 250 Ohm Over-Ear-Stereo Headphones

Beyerdynamic DT 880

Even though they look huge and bulky, they’re extremely light and comfortable, and come with a straight cord instead of a coiled cable. I hate coiled cables because they add weight and always seem to wrap around things. You will be able to find cheaper headphones than these semi-open Beyerdynamics, but not ones that hug your ears like teddy bears.

STUDIO SPEAKERS & SOFTWARE

Last on my hardware list is a set of studio monitors. At less than one hundred dollars per speaker, the Presonus Eris E5 ticks all the right boxes. Click here for my story on monitor selection. My Nethervoice studio monitors rest at ear height on speaker stands like these. You’ll also need two XLR Female to 1/4-Inch TRS Male Cables like these from Monoprice.

And what about recording software?

By far the cheapest audio editor costs… nothing. It works across all platforms, it’s got a fully featured spectrogram, and it even allows punch and roll. The name? Ocenaudio.

Well, there you have it. For less than a thousand bucks you’re all set!

Now, do your duty as a patriotic American, and go shopping!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection. Here’s Why.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 14 Comments

Words are powerful things.

They can inspire us, they make us laugh, they melt our hearts, and they entice our souls to jump for joy.

Words can also scare us and scar us. They can intimidate, discriminate, and humiliate.

The sound of certain words alone, can petrify people. Try this, will you?

Say the following words out loud, and let them sink in for a moment:

Terror
Horror
Pain
Death
Disaster

Did you feel the effect?

Although they are nothing but letters arranged in a specific order, they sound dark and ominous because of all the things we’ve learned to associate with them. The terror of 9/11, the horror of the Holocaust, the pain of suffering, the death of a loved one, and the disaster of losing a home in a fire.

We all carry these uniquely personal connotations within us, and -invisible to the outside world- they resonate whenever we hear these words. Here’s where things get interesting.

Although you may think that we share some of life’s ups and downs because they are part of being human, all of us experience these highs and lows in our own way. These experiences color what we associate with certain words. This explains why people can use the same words, and yet mean and feel very different things.

For instance, the word “Dutch” means something different to me than what it means to you. I was born in the Netherlands and grew up there. Dutch is part of my DNA. If you’re an American, the first thing you may think of is Pennsylvania Dutch, or a fun game of Double Dutch.

Take the word “relationship.” There’s the definition from the dictionary, and then there’ s our experiential definition, infused with memories, and expectations. We emotionally respond to the latter, not the former.

There are many scary words in our language, the scariest being the word “NO.”

A close second is the word “rejection,” which basically means the same thing. Today, I’m going to zoom in on that word, because I believe the voice-over community needs more of it.

What?

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We need more rejection. And before you reject that idea, please hear me out.

For newcomers trying to make a name for themselves in this competitive business, rejection is the worst that can happen. They’ve (hopefully) invested a lot of time and money in training and equipment, and feel ready to start playing the game. Subconsciously, many are convinced the world owes them. Why?

Well, when you make a serious investment, you should expect a decent return, right? That’s only fair.

Unfortunately, there is no fair in voice-over casting. There’s talent, training, experience, luck, who you know in the business, and subjective selection. None of them will guarantee any work.

So, when a novice starts auditioning for everything under the sun, and lands exactly zero jobs in three months, it feels like a slap in the face. Over time, they may start suffering from a gloomy condition I call rejection dejection, a feeling of failure caused by perceived incompetence.

Now, if that’s the result of rejection, why do I believe we need more of it? I’ll tell you.

1. People set themselves up for failure, and they deserve to be rejected

If you were ever in a position to cast a project, you know what I mean. You can throw at least half of the submissions out because the audio quality is appalling. Snowball microphones, egg crates, and leaf blowing neighbors can’t compete with pristine professional audio from someone who knows what s/he’s doing.

A quarter of auditionees don’t read the specs, and can’t be bothered to follow instructions. A quarter sounds fake and inauthentic, and many don’t know how to price their services. They’re either too cheap to be taken seriously, or too expensive to be competitive.

How do I know this? Because I’ve made all these mistakes! I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know without knowing it. The other day I was listening to some of my old auditions, and I was embarrassed. No wonder I didn’t book anything. But did I go on Facebook to moan and groan? No way! The only thing I could do was up my game, and rejection was the kick in the pants I desperately needed.

In short, rejection separates the wheat from the chaff, and can give people a strong incentive to learn and grow up.

2. We need to reframe rejection

The discussion about rejection almost always focuses on the poor, powerless voice-over, being a victim of the whims of a demanding, mysterious client. I’m not falling into that trap of misery and self-pity. Over the years I have turned the tables, and have come to see myself as the one doing the rejecting. It’s quite simple:

On any given day, I receive invitations to audition, and projects to record. Most of them I reject. I believe that quality, not quantity, is the secret to winning auditions. The client does not pay me to learn on the job, so I will only accept projects I know I can handle in terms of my skills and the time I have available.

I also reject projects that advocate unethical practices or promote products I cannot stand behind. For instance, I don’t want to be associated with the weapons trade, climate destruction, human rights abuses, the meat processing industry, and political parties whose ideas I cannot support. I know this has cost me work, but having principles comes at a price.

Lastly, I reject working with clients, corporations, or businesses that have been shown to act unethically. A particular Canadian Pay to Play comes to mind.

What’s the result of all this rejection? It’s the fact that I do work I can be proud of; work that makes me happy. If that’s something you want, I advise you to warmly embrace rejection!

3. We need to reject low rates, cheap clients, greedy Pay to Plays, and lowballing “colleagues”

Audio books are booming, video games are making billions, streaming services are producing more and more original content, eLearning is in high demand… I’d say the opportunities for voice-overs have never been better. That’s why so many want to give it a try.

In spite of these opportunities, many colleagues I talk to are finding it harder to get decent work for decent pay. Some of them end up doing more for less because the cost of living is going up and bills need to be paid. Agents dealing with clients tell me that it’s harder to negotiate a good rate, and that almost every client wants an unlimited buyout without paying for it.

Meanwhile, new voice casting services are opening their virtual doors, hoping to do good business with low rates and high commissions. It seems the gradual commoditization of our industry is in full swing.

The big questions is: how should we respond to that?

I think the answer lies in …. you’ve guessed it: rejection.

Be proud of your pricing, and reject rates that are insultingly low. Reject companies that triple dip, and leave you with less. Reject undercutting “colleagues.” Educate them, just as you educate your clients about fair fees.

Reject the lowballers that say: “One bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” That’s based on shortsighted, egotistical thinking. It’s not a way to carve out a sustainable career that can feed a family.

Reject the notion that your decisions do not make a difference. Every time you quote a project or you accept a fee, you send a signal to the market: “This is what I believe my work is worth.” The only reason clients are getting away with paying pennies, is because people agree to work for pennies. No one is forcing them at gunpoint.

Now, you may have all kinds of reasons why you feel you have the right to work for a low rate, but I’m not interested in reasons. I’m interested in results. And the result is that for many it’s become harder and harder to make a living as a full-time voice-over.

Do all of us a favor and stop competing on price. It’s a game you will lose, because there’s always an idiot willing to do more for less, and go bankrupt in the process.

Show some self-respect, and show some respect for your craft and your community. Start competing on added value. Prove to the client that you’re worth what you’re asking.

Because if you do things right, your added value will always be higher than your rate!

Now, if that’s an idea you reject, I’m afraid can’t help you.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Losing My Voice

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 28 Comments

At speech therapy wearing a TENS device

The facts are sobering.

Every forty seconds, someone is struck with a stroke. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people will never make a full recovery, and more than two-thirds of survivors have some kind of disability associated with the attack.

Those are the statistics.

It’s a good thing I don’t believe in numbers. I believe in proving them wrong. The history of the world is filled with people who were told “It can’t be done,” and yet they persisted and succeeded. Against all odds.

I believe that people don’t equal statistics.

Going by the stats, it seems reasonable to believe that I would never fully recover from the stroke that struck me six months ago. But I chose to be unreasonable.

Last week I wrote about my road to recovery, and I promised you to open up about the one thing that terrified me most. It was something I didn’t want my colleagues or clients to know, because it could ruin my career.

HOW IT STARTED

Let me take you back to March 26th, 2018, the day I woke up on the floor of my voice-over studio wondering what the heck was going on. In hindsight I had the classic signs of a stroke: a sudden and pounding headache, loss of coordination, and blurry vision. One side of my body was paralyzed, my face was drooping, and I had trouble speaking.

That last symptom manifested itself in two ways: I had difficulty speaking sentences that made sense, and my speech was slurred. This usually means that the part of the brain that controls language is not getting the blood supply it needs. It was in fact dying.

As I was being transported to the hospital in a helicopter, my wife got a phone call from the surgeon who was on standby to operate on me. “When Paul comes in, I probably won’t have time to introduce myself,” he said, “so I want to take a moment to speak with you now. I’ll be totally honest. Everything we do will depend on the results of Paul’s CT scan, which will show us what parts of his brain are still intact when he arrives. Timing is crucial.”

He continued: “Be prepared that he might not make it, or that he’ll end up being severely handicapped and dependent on others for the rest of his life. If the scan looks good, we can do a thrombectomy to remove the blood clot from his brain, and take it from there.”

Since you’re reading these words, you already know the outcome. I guess it wasn’t my time to go, and I beat the statistics. Annually, out of the 1600 stroke patients that arrive in the hospital I was admitted to, only 80 are eligible for a thrombectomy.

THE RECOVERY BEGINS

So, my surgery was a success, but this did not mean that all was well between my ears. The scans showed a black area on the right side of my brain where cells had died. Those cells do not grow back. In order to compensate for the loss, the brain has to rewire itself and have other parts take over the function of the cells that are lost. To make that happen I needed at least five things: a positive attitude, a solid support system, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy.

Even though I no longer sounded like a drunkard, clear articulation wasn’t my forte in the first few months after my stroke. I suffered from dysarthria. That’s a fancy word for unclear speech caused by brain damage. It’s a weakness or lack of coordination of the muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, and larynx. On top of that I had word-finding issues, indicative of memory loss.

By far the weirdest symptom of my post-stroke condition was the fact that I didn’t sound like me. My speech had become rather robotic and monotonal. It came in little bursts of language, just like the thoughts in my head. In the weeks to come, I discovered that I had the hardest time infusing my words with emotion.

No matter the subject, I sounded as passionate as a concrete wall. After I came home, I tried my hand at a few voice-over scripts for existing clients. It took countless retakes before I was somewhat satisfied with the result, but clients were noticing that something was off. The feedback I consistently received boiled down to this: “Once more, with feeling, please.”

The problem was that I had no idea how to access those right brain feelings. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed incapable of translating instructions like “confident,” “warm,” or “excited” into sound, whether in my studio, or in ordinary conversations. This was infuriatingly frustrating. I felt like a soccer player unable to handle the ball, or a painter who can’t hold a brush to add color to his canvas.

Would I ever be able to reach these emotions again, or were they part of the right brain that was destroyed by the stroke? What would this mean for my voice-over career?

Twice a week I went to speech therapy to learn how to improve my articulation. With my therapist, I also worked on regaining memory, and on sharpening my information processing skills. Very soon I realized that all of this wasn’t going to be as easy as flipping some internal switch. It needed time, energy, and lots of practice at home.

Speaking of home, on top of her busy schedule my wife became my designated driver, my patient advocate, my caregiver, my personal chef, and my hero. She made sure I got to all my appointments, that I took all my medications, and that my recovery would be pretty much stress-free. Her delicious meals were almost always based on fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed ingredients. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.

MORE TROUBLE

In the weeks after my hospitalization there was something else about my voice that concerned me. For some reason I was hoarse all the time, and I had no vocal stamina for long conversations and even longer scripts. I was tired, and I sounded like it. Something told me that if I didn’t take care of this, my career as a professional speaker would be over.

In May I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist who specializes in working with actors, singers, and public speakers. She performed a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy whereby a small endoscope is inserted through one nostril and guided through the nose to the back of the throat. It’s a funny feeling.

This revealed a slight laryngeal tremor. That’s an involuntary tremor of the vocal folds that causes changes in the voice. My ENT also concluded I had laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a.k.a. “silent reflux.” Why silent? Because it doesn’t necessarily trigger the usual symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn. It does lead to hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing because stomach fluid travels back through the food pipe to reach the back of the throat.

It is likely that the laryngeal tremor was caused by the stroke. Perhaps it will go away over time. Perhaps it won’t. I’m treating my LPR in several ways. I avoid spicy and acidic foods. I limit my intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, mints and tomato-based products. I’ve stopped snacking before bedtime, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds. I’m also taking omeprazole which decreases the amount of acid the stomach makes. A new wedge pillow raises my head in bed, and keeps the acid down where it belongs.

Experts estimate that forty percent of the population may have undiagnosed LPR. If you’re experiencing hoarseness, a need to clear your throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a red, swollen, or irritated voice box, please see an ENT to get to the root of the problem.

POSITIVE RESULTS

The good news is that after months of speech therapy my articulation and ability to focus has greatly improved, and the robot voice is gone. Only when I get really tired, it becomes more monotonal. I’m relieved that my speech has become more expressive, allowing me to continue to work as a voice talent. I’m also back to doing four-hour shifts as one of the announcers at the Easton Farmers’ Market.

Twice a week I work on strengthening my vocal folds and building my endurance with my speech therapists. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’ve started recording longer scripts again.

RECOVERY CONTINUES

It takes a positive attitude, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy to recover from a stroke. Add to that a support system; a network of caring people who provide you with practical and emotional support. Reading and responding to your comments on last week’s blog post, I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of friends and colleagues!

Thank you for your kind words, good thoughts, and prayers. Your positive vibes revitalize me, and give me energy to keep on beating the odds. The process of healing goes on, which means that I have to be careful not to do too much, too quickly. So, if you don’t hear from me within 24 hours, and you don’t see me on social media, rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself.

I hope you will do the same.

Paul ©nethervoice

Important: the information presented here does not substitute for medical consultation or examination, nor is it intended to provide advice on the medical treatment appropriate to any specific circumstances.

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Getting In Our Own Way

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 4 Comments

young woman looking in the mirrorThere are two types of people who are very hard to teach.

Let me break it down for you.

The first group could care less about how the world sees them.

These people often have an exaggerated sense of self, or worse, a narcissistic personality disorder. They have a hard time registering social cues, and they’re not very open to feedback. Feedback makes them hostile and defensive because they always know better. And those who know better, don’t have an incentive to learn new things. Teaching them, is like trying to fill a cup that’s already full (of itself).

The second group is the opposite. These people care too much about how the world perceives them. They suffer from the “invisible audience phenomenon,” a sense that they’re always on stage, and that the world is watching them. Gentle feedback is often taken as harsh criticism. The fearful voice of low self-esteem tells them they might as well give up. Teaching these people is like trying to fill a bottomless cup.

Of course these are extremes, but I’m sure you know one or two people who fall into both categories. Perhaps even intimately. The origin of these behaviors has a lot to do with self-awareness. You know, that thing that is supposed to separate human beings from animals.

MIRROR, MIRROR

One way to detect the presence of self-awareness is to do the mirror test. When a dog sees his reflection in a mirror, he’ll think it’s another dog. When we see our reflection, we know we’re staring at ourselves.

If you’d let group one and two do the mirror test, here’s what you would find:

The first group looks into the mirror, and finds it irresistible. The second group can’t stand their own reflection. Group one is focused on self, and group two is (consciously or unconsciously) focused on what others might be thinking.

As a voice actor and coach, I sometimes deal with people who display various forms of narcissism and self-deprecation. Oddly enough, it’s not all bad. One thing I always keep in mind is that certain aspects of these behaviors are actually useful and necessary, if you wish to survive as a freelancer (and as a voice-over). Shall I explain?

GOOD AND BAD

Let’s start with being self-conscious. All of us have to have a sense of how we come across, and we need to be aware of how others respond to us to. How else will we learn socially acceptable behavior? It’s also good to realize that we’re far from perfect. It keeps the mind open, and our spirit humble.

Secondly, as voice-over professionals working from our home studios, we often direct our own sessions. That requires the ability to recognize when we’re missing the mark, and when we’re hitting the nail on the head. If we want to deliver our best work, we need to be good evaluators of our performance. The more self-conscious we are, the easier this is.

The narcissist has an inflated sense of self. Obviously, that’s not helpful. However, any solopreneur can benefit from a healthy dose of self-confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and in your ability to attract clients. You may have incredible talent, but if you doubt that you can deliver, you’re sabotaging yourself.

The narcissist is able to recognize the good in him or herself. People who are shy and insecure find that hard to do. If you wish to have a successful career, you have to accept that you have something special to offer. Something that is worth paying for. You don’t need to be arrogant, but it helps to be audacious!

From an acting perspective, I think it is also useful to have the ability to imagine what it’s like to be a self-absorbed jerk, as well as an insecure mouse, and anything in between. The wider your emotional range, the greater your chance to land more demanding and interesting roles.

PARALYZED

Now, being overly self-conscious can have a paralyzing effect in everyday life, and in the recording studio. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why some people have such a hard time sounding natural. They’re constantly over-analyzing what they’re doing, and usually not in a positive way. They’re busy thinking about how they will be perceived by others, and whether or not they can live up to certain expectations.

In a way, that microphone in front of them is like a camera. You’ve seen it happen. People are perfectly spontaneous, and they’re having a great time, until someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they become very aware of themselves, and start acting in strange, stilted ways.

What’s really happening is this:

Without a camera pointing at them, most people focus on each other. They’re in the moment. In the flow of things. They act like no one’s watching. Naturally. As soon as a photographer or a cameraman comes in the picture, that changes. People start wondering: How does my hair look? Did I iron my shirt? Do I look fat in these clothes?

The same thing can happen in a studio. People are having a nice conversation. They’re animated and relaxed. Until the recording starts. All of a sudden the enthusiasm and the quiet confidence is gone. The voice becomes flat, and the text is not spoken but read. The narrator has become self-conscious.

In that moment, the focus on the script is replaced by the focus on self. That’s a shame, because as voice-over professionals, we get paid to let the script speak. In order to do that, we need to get out of our own way.

CAR TALK

I remember the day that Tom Magliozzi, one of the presenters of NPR’s Car Talk, died at the age of 77. For more than 25 years, Tom and his younger brother Ray entertained millions of people every week with car repair advice and comedic banter. People who didn’t care about cars, tuned in to Car Talk, if only to hear the brothers laugh.

What made these guys such a pleasure to listen to, was the fact that they talked to one another and their guests as if there were no microphones. In fact, the Magliozzi’s would be the first ones to admit that they knew nothing about radio. All they did, was be themselves. Their long-time producer Doug Berman told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air

“What you heard on the show was absolutely them. And when you finish the show and went to get a cup of coffee it sounded the same, you know. I mean, the topics would change, but that’s what they did. They sat down and they enjoyed themselves and they found humor in whatever was around them. And they made each other laugh and they made us laugh. So it was not an effort to be funny about anything. That’s how they approached everything.”

FORGET THE MIC

Of course there’s a difference between doing a semi-live radio show and narrating a voice-over script, but I think many of us could benefit from forgetting that there’s a microphone in front of us. Just imagine there’s a dear friend or close relative to whom you’re telling a story. There is no audience. There are no critics. You have nothing to prove.

Imagine how freeing that would be!

Imagine what that would do to the way you sound!

From time to time you might slip into old behavior, and invite that inner voice to start critiquing you again. As soon as that happens, STOP, and bring your attention back to the text. Be script-conscious, instead of self-conscious. Let the focus be on the music, and not on the musician.

Instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake, be soft on yourself. It’s no big deal. Correct it, and move on.

Eventually, you’ll notice a shift inside. A shift from that self-disparaging voice, to a self-accepting voice, to a self-respecting voice.

It’s something that’s almost impossible to teach.

It must be experienced.

Inside, and outside of your recording studio.

Are you ready for your lesson?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: gonzalo_ar via photopin cc

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5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 106 Comments

voice talent“Millions of dollars paid out to voice actors globally.”

“Audition for your dream job now.”

“Instant access to amazing opportunities.”

“New job postings every day.”

It sure sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Especially when you’re young, idealistic, and impressionable. It’s the way online casting sites throw out their net, hoping that loquacious people will bite.

Well, bite they do, and day after day an ever-growing army of hopefuls is eagerly looking at their inbox, waiting for the next “amazing opportunity” to arrive. It comes at a price, though. 

If you’re taking part in these online cattle calls, be ready to be milked!

Of course these casting sites won’t tell you that you have to spend between $349 and $399 per year to take part in a crapshoot. They’ll feed you success stories about people who claim to make a six-figure income by winning audition after audition. Anecdotal evidence always trumps independently verified numbers, right?

Believe me: People believe what they want to believe.

So, today I’m not going to give you the golden formula to online voice-over success. Sorry to break the news, but it does not exist. Instead, I will give you a few reasons why you probably should stay clear of this business. I’ll start with the most important one. 

1. The world doesn’t need you.

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We have enough people talking into microphones, thank you very much. What this world needs is less talk and more action. We need teachers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We need experts in conflict resolution; people who know how to fight global warming, and first responders to natural disasters.

If you want to make a real difference on this planet, don’t hide behind soundproof walls selling stuff no one needs. Get out there and start helping the poor, the homeless, and the ones without a voice. They need you more than Disney does.

2. There’s no money in voice-overs.

The cost of living goes up every year, while voice-over rates are in steady decline. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Even the union can’t stop it. Thanks to online casting services and ignorant amateurs, your voice has become a commodity, sold by the lowest bidder to the cheapest client.

VO has become a game of averages, and here’s how it works.

The bottom feeders choose lowball sites like Elance, Fiverr, and freelancer.com to sell their services for beer money. The top end of the market consists of A-list actors making millions voicing cartoons and commercials. If you’re average, you’re forever stuck in the middle. You have enough integrity to leave the crumbs to the idiots, but you won’t get the big gigs for the big money.

Don’t be fooled by voice-over veterans posting on Facebook how well they are doing. Some of them confided in me that they’re just keeping up appearances. No one wants to hire a loser, so you’ve got to tell the world you’re still an important player. Yay for social media! Everything people post is 100% true. 

3. You are a social being.

Unless you enjoy going to expensive conferences to hear VoiceVIP’s talk about themselves and plug their books, you’re pretty much on your own in this business. I mean, who likes being locked up between the four carpeted walls of a 3.5’ by 3.5’ whisper box all day long?

You have no one to talk to but yourself, and you’ll never see a response from the people you’re supposedly entertaining. If acknowledgment is what you’re secretly longing for, go to a nursing home and read to the residents. Tell stories to kids in the cancer ward. It will make their day, and yours!

The sedentary lifestyle of a typical voice-over is unhealthy for the mind, body, and soul. If you’re an extrovert, you crave contact, and you thrive in the company of others. I can tell you right now that you will curse the day you decided to isolate yourself from the world, just so you could narrate some third-rate novel for a royalty share that doesn’t even pay this month’s water bill. 

4. You’ll spend at least 80% of your time trying to get work, and 20% doing the work.

Voice-overs spend a lot of time being busy without being productive. How rewarding is that? Regardless of what voice casting sites want you to believe, most jobs you audition for will go to someone else, and you’ll never know why. Don’t you love it?

But what about agents, you may ask. Once you have an agent or two, things will get better, right?

No they won’t.

The pickings are slim, and these days, all the agents in North America will send the same Quilted Northern audition to every talent with a potty mouth. That really makes you feel part of an exclusive club, doesn’t it? (Quilted Northern is a type of bathroom tissue)

5. It may take many years before you see a return on your investment.

A voice-over career cannot be bought. It has to be conquered. Slowly.

You may think you’re going to be successful because of your unique sound. Dream on! The only way you’ll stand a chance is if you stop treating your pipe dream as a hobby. This means you’ve got to invest in professional gear and in a quiet place to record. Then you have to get yourself a few top-notch demos, plus a website to tell the world what you’re doing. And this is just the beginning.

Having all of that in place is no guarantee that you’ll make any money with your voice. Thousands of people all over the world are doing exactly what you do, and they are giving up within a year. The only money they’ll ever see is when they’re selling their stuff on eBay. At a loss. 

When you really think about it, you have to be a fool to become a voice-over.

I was foolish enough to choose that as my career, and guess what?

I’ve never been happier!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you believe I’m being negative for no reason, you should read 5 awful things nobody tells you about being an actor. Then we’ll talk, okay?

photo credit: Sound Design: ADR Recording via photopin (license)

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Are You Suffering From Mike Fright?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Social Media 3 Comments

Candid MicrophoneWhile listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, I discovered an interesting fact.

Before legendary producer Allen Funt created Candid Camera, he experimented with a different show based on the same premise.

It was called The Candid Microphone, and it first aired on June 28th, 1947 on ABC Radio. Funt came up with the idea while producing radio shows for the armed forces at Camp Gruber.

One of the shows he worked on was called “The Gripe Booth.” Funt asked soldiers to come into his studio and talk about things that bothered them. Here’s what he found out.

During the pre-interview, most of his guests were at ease and happy to talk. But as soon as the red light went on (indicating that the recording had started), the soldiers became extremely nervous and tongue-tied. This phenomenon is called Mike Fright, and it doesn’t make for good radio.

Luckily, Funt found a way around it. He disconnected the red light, and started recording his guests secretly. He pretended to do a practice interview during which most soldiers were… themselves. And when it was time to do the real thing, he told them he already had what he needed. It was a great gimmick to get spontaneous reactions.

Funt knew he was onto something, and when the war was over, he pitched the idea to ABC, and The Candid Microphone was born.

FEAR THE MICROPHONE

It might not surprise you to hear that Mike Fright is a very common condition. Just as some people become very self-conscious as soon as they spot a camera, you’ll find that folks who are normally very eloquent, will freeze up when you put a microphone in front of their mouth.

It’s tough to be natural in an unnatural situation, even for professional communicators.

I’ve worked in radio since I was seventeen years old, and in that time I have seen veteran-broadcasters hyperventilate, and wipe the sweat of their foreheads before they were about to go on air. The live broadcasts were the worst, because there are no retakes when you go live.

Even though I believe the public doesn’t really mind that much when people mess up on air (who doesn’t like bloopers?), I’ve seen colleagues who were utterly devastated after they misspoke. I’ve often wondered why they would beat themselves up over something that’s entirely human, and here’s what I came up with:

Many of us want to be perceived as being perfect in public.

That’s why we select the best selfie, and use photo editing software before we post it on social media. We treat the world to the highlights of our life, and we don’t expose our darker side. We love sharing our successes, and we carefully hide our failures.

PRIVACY PROTECTION

I completely understand that, by the way. “The world” doesn’t need to know everything about us. We have to protect our privacy and our reputation. The way to do that, is to control and manipulate the message.

Cameras and microphones scare us because they create a situation we can’t predict or control (unless we call the shots). They have the power to expose the private, and make it public. That’s part of the success of a show like Candid Camera. People who don’t know they’re being filmed are much more fun to watch.

Audiences all over the world prefer spontaneous over studied. We want raw emotions instead of rehearsed responses. But there’s something we conveniently forget: in the media, there is no “reality.” At best (or at its worst -depending on your viewpoint), it is “enhanced reality.”

Allen Funt found out pretty quickly that reality in and of itself was pretty boring. That’s why he ended up putting normal people in abnormal situations to see how they would react. I’m sure it wasn’t all comedy gold, and much of the footage ended up on the editing floor.

THE VOICE-OVER STUDIO

In a way, our recording booth is part of the “enhanced reality.” It is an artificial setting that can be quite intimidating, especially to newcomers. Some of my students have admitted that they too are sometimes suffering from Mike Fright, especially during live recordings. Their perfectionism might be part of the problem. They want to do so well that they tense up, and become like the self-conscious soldiers in “The Gripe Booth.”

One of the techniques I use to relax my students, is taken straight out of Allen Funt’s book. As we prepare for the session, we go over the script a couple of times and have fun with it. Unadulterated fun.

What my students don’t know, is that everything is being recorded. In their perception, there is no microphone, there is no right or wrong, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. They’re “just” talking to me, and there is no pressure to perform.

That’s when the magic happens, because people start sounding like themselves. They’re by no means perfect, but perfection is never the goal. Perfection is a perverse illusion, anyway. 

WINNING AUDITIONS

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want people to do their best. I just don’t want them to overdo it. 

One of the reasons why some people aren’t winning auditions is because they sound over rehearsed. They focus too much on the microphone, and they forget to have fun. I will often ask them to position the mike above their head, practically out of sight. That way, it doesn’t distract. It’s one of those small changes that can make a big difference.

Sometimes I go bit further.

A few weeks ago, I asked one of my students to print out a life-size picture of a human ear, and tape it to her microphone.

“Why should I do that?” she asked puzzled.

“To remind you that you’re always talking to a person,” I said. “Not to a mike. It might look a bit eerie, but you’ll get used to it. I promise.”

Soon after my request she said her Mike Fright was practically gone, and when I listened to one of her auditions, she sounded so much better!

To celebrate the achievement, I proposed to take a picture of her in the booth. “It has to be spontaneous,” I said. “So, I’m not going to tell you when I’m taking it.”

Even though she knew it was coming, my snapshot took her by surprise.

“Smile,” I joked.

“You’re on Candid Camera!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please Retweet.

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Turning Resistance Into Results

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

push upEvery January I see them walk in.

The men and women who told themselves: “I can do this!”

They’re sporting brand new workout clothes, and are wearing fancy gym sneakers that have yet to be broken in. Water bottles in hand, they flock to the eight o’ clock spinning class lead by Helga, a platinum blonde transplant from Germany. Her voice is as muscular as her thighs.

As the newbies adjust their exercise bikes, the regulars look at each other knowingly. We’ve seen this sad ritual many times. Give it a few weeks, and it will all be over. 

BAILING OUT

February has barely begun, and half of the new recruits have already given up. “It wasn’t really my thing” they tell their friends with a faint smile. “But at least I tried, and that’s worth something, right?”

Luckily for them, they only paid for a trial membership. It’s the ultimate cop-out for those who can’t or won’t commit. How do I know?

A few years ago, I belonged to this group of dropouts, and I’m not proud of it. But last year I made a courageous comeback, and today I feel like I’m part of the LA Fitness furniture. To me, a gym workout is the ultimate stress-busting, fat-burning, energy-boosting experience. Here’s something else I discovered along the way.

The microcosm of the gym is a powerful metaphor for the real world. In fact, there are lots of parallels between my professional life as a voice-over, and what’s happening on the gym floor. Do you think this is a stretch? Let’s talk about machines!

1. The best equipment does not guarantee results. It’s how you use it that matters.

People hurt themselves on the gym floor all the time, because they don’t know how to use the equipment. They start lifting, pushing or pulling, without adjusting the machines first.

Willful ignorance leads to lack of results and could be damaging.

This is true in so many contexts. Whether you’re a professional photographer, a graphic designer, or a musician, you need good tools to get the job done. But owning a million-dollar violin means nothing if you don’t know how to play it well. 

In our tiny voice-over bubble, we love to talk gear. Some colleagues seem to be forever searching for the Holy Grail of microphones or preamps. What they’re currently using is perfectly fine, but somehow they think that getting that shiny new mic will give them a tremendous leg up over the competition. 

In my opinion, it’s much wiser to spend your money on a coach who can help you get the most out of your equipment and your performance. But how do you know which coach is right for you? 

2. Effective coaches are role models who practice what they preach.

Let me ask you a question. While you’re at the gym, would you want to be guided by an overweight, uninterested, uninspiring coach? 

Of course not!

I’m sorry to say that many “personal trainers” at my gym just seem to phone their sessions in. There’s no enthusiasm. No encouragement. No pride in the work they do. They’re merely going through the motions, counting the hours until their shift is over. Some seem way too young and inexperienced. That’s probably because they are.

The word “mentor” means “wise advisor.” It comes from the Greek noun “mentos” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, and passion.” A great coach or mentor embodies all these notions. Wise people are much more than an experienced source of information. They know how to apply that information with purpose and with passion. And they’re not afraid to give you a hard time and hold you accountable for your progress, or lack thereof! Here’s why:

3. Resistance makes you stronger.

Fans of the diving board know that they need the resistance it offers to jump to the right height. In the gym, resistance training increases muscle strength by making the muscles work against a weight or force.  

If you’ve ever tried to get into shape, you know that you sometimes get to a point where you run up against the limits of what you believe is possible. Your body cries out: “no more,” and your mind tells you to quit. Those moments are critical. During those times you need to push through what feels uncomfortable in order to gain strength and grow. Otherwise you’ll always remain in your comfort zone and coast.

Success doesn’t come naturally to those who are always playing it safe. 

Now, as you’re reading these words, something in your personal or professional life may seem to work against you. This leaves you with a choice. You can see these moments as threats, or as opportunities. Obstacles can become stepping stones, although you might not directly see it that way. Here’s some good news.

At certain times you don’t necessarily need to feel discomfort to know it’s time to up your game and go to a higher level. Here’s my rule of thumb (and I use this in the gym as well):

If it becomes too easy, it’s time for a new challenge, and time to raise the bar.

There’s one last thing I learned from going to the gym:

4. Use others as your inspiration, but never as the measure of your success.

It’s human nature to contrast and compare. When I first entered the gym, I was a bit intimidated by all these lean bodies pumping iron. I wondered how long it would take me to get into shape. I had no desire to look like a bodybuilder, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more muscular definition, and a lower number on the scale.

Then I realized that these guys and gals were once just like me. Over time they developed a routine that worked for them, to get into the shape they wanted to be in. They made changes in their diet and lifestyle, and they had trainers who held them accountable.

Above all, they consistently kept coming, rain or shine. They used persistence and resistance in combination with the right equipment and the best mentors.

If they could do it, I could do it.

And I’ll tell you what:

If I can do it, you can do it!

There’s only one question:

How soon are you going to start?

Or will you be walking out the door within a month?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Interested in working out? My colleague Rick Lance has published a series of “Fitness Tips from a 32 Year Fitness Novice.”
photo credit: Zac Aynsley Natural Fitness Models 1 via photopin (license)

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The Perfectionism Trap

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal 9 Comments

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)

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