Sunday, June 10, 2007
I See You Hear Me
There are two voices we hear throughout our lives: the one inside our heads when we speak; and the other one that we hear when are played back through a recording. “Who the hell’s that?” is a common question the first time out.
I always preferred the one coming from my skull. It sounded good and manly to me. Until the day I heard it hissing and mumbling from a primitive tape recorder. I clutched my heart and thought “No . . . no . . . that can’t be me . . . it . . . just . . . can’t!”
That was not the voice I heard dulcimer-ing in my skull. Not the voice of my much much older and much much ultra-manlier brothers: Men whose voices gonged from the mountaintops, voices that cracked, boomed and echoed off of cliffs from miles away. Men whose shouts of “Gimme a beer!” “Shut the fuck up when I’m talking!” and “Get out of the goddamn way! I’m watching TV!” denoted power, authority, intelligence, wisdom and, of course, maturity.
My voice conveyed none of those things on that tape. The words are forgotten, but the sounds and my discomfort are not: I sounded high, soft and fluty, an octave or two above the macho baritone I thought I had, almost a soprano. I sounded mumbly, weak and ineffectual. My voice lacked diction, resonance and grown-upedness.
I had a “girly-man’s” voice.
This distressed me for many years. I avoided pain by avoiding tape recorders. Yes, I liked the sound of my own voice, but only from within the padding of my head, where it belonged. I could always fool myself that I sounded smarter than I was.
In college, I majored in theatre. (Put those eyebrows down. Thank you.) With stage acting, you never have to actually see or hear yourself as others do. I saw myself act maybe two or three times, and each time, my vanity curdled like old milk, until finally I decided to give myself the hook and find another gig.
From what I remember, mine was a minority opinion. I was praised quite often and generously as a neophyte thespian. Some said I might make a go at it, maybe playing light-comic Jimmy Stewart parts, professors and grandpas or good-‘ol boy villains. (Secretly, I always wanted to be Lee Van Cleef, but that’s not a dream you share during a production of Hamlet.)
But my opinion was what counted and it was not positive. But this has never stopped anyone from praising the sound of my voice, calling it “unique” and “distinctive.”
Last Thanksgiving, my nephew Mark joined the chorus, after hearing my famous diabolical Dracula cackle: “You’ve got a cool voice, Uncle Thomas. You oughta do radio commercials.”
Suddenly, a traitorous thought whispered from the darkened coils of my brain: Maybe what I think in this matter, doesn’t matter! The rule is (hand solemnly over my chest): “A man only does what he believes in his heart he’s good at!” But sometimes, people think we’re better at something than we think you are. Maybe, sometimes, we should listen.
Lately, the household has been needing a bump in its cash flow (My novel, The Vampire of Alpine Canyon—which, of course, you will all read when it comes out--remains a work in progress). The splash of that little pebble that Mark tossed into the water barrel of my skull was echoing when I later grabbed an issue of The Learning Annex (The College of Continuing Education for Cheap Yuppies): and found an ad I’d seen before: “How to Make Money With Voiceovers in Radio and TV!”
Since January, I’ve been taking lessons to become a voiceover actor. Right, I’m training to sell weight-loss products, medical devices and Viagra. The money is promising, at least on a per-gig basis. My superb and patient instructor, David Rosenthal, a twenty-plus-year veteran of over 600 voiceover commercials (and many other forms of narration), is one of the hordes, who, mysteriously to me, seems to think so much more of my potential than I do. (David has also authored a novel called Simon Plays.)
The best part is, voiceover acting is fun. (And, in its way, it’s serious. Selling aspirin requires as much intensity as “To be or not to be.”) Acting is always fun: I recommend you all try it at least once in your life . . . but here’s the strangest notion to come out of it all—and it's coming as I write this—What does the trail to this decision say about me? If it’s true that I’m a better actor than I give myself credit for, does the opposite hold? Am I—and believe me, I tremble—not as good a writer as I think I am? (Again, my dear patient public will be the ones who provide that answer.) No matter how wise we get, the capacity for self-delusion remains.
Whatever happens, if they want to pay me for a pirate’s voice that sounds only like Burchfield imitating Walter Matthau imitating Robert Newton in Roman Polanski’s Pirates, if they want me to play a Viagra-pushing Henry Morgan, then, by God, they’ll get the best pirate I've got, eye-patch, peg leg and all. Someone’s gonna pay. 'Arrr, they will . . . !
(Photo by Elizabeth Burchfield; mouth by Cartier)