Listen me a Picture
by Penny Abshire
The audio example links in this article are provided through YouTube.com. While you’re reading this article, I suggest you do so without watching the videos. Just listen and let your imagination paint the pictures for you.
“Mommy, listen me a picture!”
This was a common phrase heard in our home when my two sons were little. They were asking to play their favorite game of pretend with their mom.
I’d take their little hands and we’d sit down next to the record player (yes,I actually had a record player……) and I’d put on something classical – Vivaldi, Mozart and Mussorgsky were their composers of choice even though at the time they had no idea who’d written the music.
Then we’d all lie down on the floor and close our eyes. As the beautiful and visual musical notes of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (or any other piece I may have chosen) came spilling through the speakers, we’d take turns making up stories about the images they brought to our minds.
“I see lots of baby ducks running around, trying to find their mommy ‘cuz they’re lost!”, said Ben, my 3 year old.
“I see a herd of horses running through a big field and the sun is shining and the sky is very blue has lots of white clouds. There are cowboys trying to catch them – but they can’t because the horses are too fast,” offered his older brother Tim, who was 8 years old (and had been playing this game for a while).
“I see children riding inter tubes really fast down a snowy hill,” was Mom’s contribution.
While it was a very simple game, it taught them something so critically important in life: The ability to visualize. And they couldn’t get enough of their favorite play time with Mom!
My little boys are grown now and have children of their own. My oldest called the other day to say that he’s started to play this game with his 3 year old and is amazed by the vivid pictures she conjures up in her imagination. He also told me that he still uses this “game” to help him find solutions to problems in his career as an artist. My youngest says he uses this method quite often when he needs an innovative solution for one of his large engineering projects.
My reason for sharing the story of “Listen Me a Picture” is that I have discovered this exercise can be used very effectively by voice actors when we need to visualize a scene or create a character.
Here’s the 3-step process I’ve developed to prepare for a voiceover audition or performance using music. This process obviously can’t be used at a live audition or when you’ve just been given a script in the studio – but if you are rehearsing and auditioning at home, I think you’ll find it very helpful.
Step #1: Let’s say I’ve been given a script describing the luxury and ambiance of a fine dining restaurant. First I read through the words and then I think of the kind of music I generally hear playing in that sort of restaurant.
I’ve decided that soft, relaxing light jazz will fit the bill nicely.
Then I search for what I’m already hearing in my head. I have an extensive music collection and The VoiceActing Academy has an unbelievable music library, so finding just the right thing is never a problem. But say you don’t have that resource. There’s always the Internet.
Step #2: After finding just the right piece of music, I read through the script again to get a feel for it as I listen to the melody. Then I put down the script, close my eyes and imagine the scene – no speaking, just visualization.
This is a beautiful place with soft, ambient lighting and rich, dark wood on the walls – mahogany, I think. The intimate booths are covered in a soft golden fabric and accented beautifully with dark chocolate leather. The temperature is just right for dining - comfortably cool. It is a busy evening here. There are several couples in the booths, but the sounds of conversation are intimately hushed. Lovely music from a live jazz quartet fills the room as the aroma of steaks and seafood cooking on a mesquite grill float seductively in the air.
Step #3: Once I get a very vivid picture of the restaurant in my mind, I open my eyes and read through the script again – no music. Then I turn on the music, close my eyes and imagine who I am (as the speaker of the words) – my character. I let the music inspire the images.
I can see myself very clearly as I listen to the music. I’m 35 years old, tall and dressed in a classic little black dress. It’s short and displays my curvaceous figure, long, tan legs and dangerously high black heels. My blonde hair falls gently to my shoulders and caresses my bare back. A single string of pearls adorns my neck and simple pearl earrings enhance my perfect makeup. This is my favorite restaurant. I feel at home and welcome here. The chef always makes his specialty just for me. The men who bring me here are all handsome, rich, and very successful. Tonight, I am with a CEO of one of San Diego’s largest businesses. When we walked through the door – heads turned.
I continue to listen to the music until I am fully in the scene and I am completely in character. Sometimes it happens quickly – other times it takes a few minutes – but it always happens. Now that I fully understand (and feel) where I am and who my character is, I can pick up that script and give a truly inspired performance.
Can you see why? Because it’s no longer me saying the words. My character is so real to me at this point, that what she is experiencing and what’s she’s describing is completely real. She knows exactly what to do with the words that have been written for her. And it was the music (and the visual message it inspired) that took me there.
As a further example, click HERE to hear an example from the web site of Mr. A’s – one of San Diego’s most exclusive restaurants. The copy on the web site lends itself to a well-written radio spot so give it a try while you listen to the music.
Let’s say you’re asked to voice a commercial for a sports equipment store. Soft jazz definitely won’t give you the feel you need for a high energy, in-your-face commercial. For this you’ll need something to match the tone. The Fight Song for your favorite team may be a good choice (Go Chargers!). And here’s a great one for getting the blood pumping. I’m so excited! by the Pointer Sisters. Or perhaps a rock song, dance music or even exciting and a majestic soundtrack like Independence Day might be good for discovering this type of character and scene.
The same can be said for scripts that call for a great deal of compassion or emotion. Perhaps it’s a piece for a hospital, or a cancer treatment center, or a promo for a new child abuse prevention program. Anything with lots of strings is generally good for emotional content. I’ve found the soundtracks from Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time and Missing are especially nice for evoking powerful emotions.
Or maybe a it’s a script where you need to capture the innocence of a child. I can’t think of a better example than the Theme from Forrest Gump.
Need great suspense? How about the theme from Jaws?
If you need the mood of complete happiness – anything by Jean Jacques Perrey will do, but Baroque Hoedown is probably the most familiar (especially if you’ve ever seen the Electric Light Parade at Disneyland)
Steven Spielberg is a genius when it comes to the music he chooses to compliment his movies and evoke emotions in his audiences. His composer of choice is John Williams, who has written the majority of musical scores for Spielberg productions - including, ET. If you’ve seen it, you know how much the music told the story. Mr. Williams has scored many other films that have all left me with an emotional memory. Movies like Superman, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones, to mention just a very few. In many ways, it was his music that made the movies so enjoyable. Just imagine any of those films - without a musical score! It is a very important part of how we connect with a story.
Listen to the piece you’ve chosen – really feel what the music is saying to you, apply that feeling to the words, and you’re on your way.
A couple of things to consider:
- If you choose soundtracks that are extemely familiar (say the theme from Star Wars) and it’s impossible to hear it without seeing R2D2, C3PO and Luke Skywalker popping into the forefront of your mind, it’s probably better not to use it for your visualization. You’ll need your own, original thoughts, images and emotions for the best results.
- You may find such an exceptional piece of music to express the emotion for an audition that you may be tempted to include it in the audition when you send it in. I would strongly advise against it. Just because the music speaks to you does not mean it’s the same music that might be running through the mind of the copy writer or that the final production will even include music. Besides, in most cases, they just want to hear your dry voice track. Use the music to capture the emotion but don’t include it as part of your audition.
Although it may seem to take an enormous amount of time to complete this process that’s not so once you have a collection of music you go to regularly. All together, it may take 5 or 10 minutes to process. And isn’t it worth 10 minutes of your time before you do an audition if it will increase your chances of actually landing the job? There are so many beautiful pieces of music in this world! And they are all right there, at your fingertips – waiting to inspire you. The more you listen to the music before you record your tracks, the more chance you’ll hit a bull’s eye on your very first read through.
Using music to discover emotion and character for a script is simply another technique for you to try. It’s one of the most powerful tools I have. I know it’s only logical that it may not work as well for everyone as it does for me. But you will find that by adding this tool to your VO tool box, and giving it a try, you may just find yourself an even more versatile and well-prepared actor.