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Feb, 2011
Vol IV, Issue I

How Old Did You Say?


Defining Vocal Age

One casting consideration I find seriously misunderstood is notion of Vocal Age.  Strictly speaking, it is how old you make me think you really, credibly are when I hear you speaking, but do not see you. On the one hand, employers often see grey hair and think they “hear” grey hair, not realizing that it’s the person’s looks that have influenced their perceptions (the same goes for ethnicity).  On the other hand, actors often perceive themselves to be castable from age nine to ninety, which may work on stage, but which certainly doesn't on-camera and is limited to only the most versatile on mic.

How does this disconnect happen?  Well, neither group is dealing honestly with what’s actually in front of them, vocally. Chronological age does play a part in the sound of our voices, but careful actors will have more longevity before the all-but-eventual rasp or “creakiness” sets in. (I know more than a handful of folks in their 90’s who sound 45 or 50.) And, by pitching the voice upward and acting less mature, more innocent, or na´ve, we can just “sound” younger. But the key words here are ‘how old you make me think you really, credibly are.” Just like film work demands that we credibly look the age we play (with all the help that make-up and special effects can offer), audiobook work demands that we provide vocal realness.

Notice that the voice takes on age characteristics in 2 major aspects:  the sound quality itself (the pitch, timbre and vocal clarity--so we only have but so much control over this part), and in the speaking style including, musicality, speed, and the intonation of emotional expression. If you’ve taken care of your instrument and are blessed with good “vocal genes,” good sound quality can keep you in the employment landscape of younger voices. What actors (and employers) both need to consider is how individuals express themselves across age groups and at different points in history. 

As a casting director, I find most mature actors (let’s say 45 and older) perceive themselves as very versatile, vocally capable of playing a teenager, child or a granny. Especially, when they have a lot of professional acting experience. Yet, those same actors often play their idea of a youthful voice. The often lack the emotional range of a younger age group, a realistic reflection of their concerns and feelings. What one has to do is spend time closely, non-judgmentally observing how kids, teens, and 20 to 30-somethings communicate, the range of emotions they use and how they use intonation to express themselves. Frankly speaking, kids from 20 years ago sounded different from those of today, and way different from kids 50 or more years ago.  That’s because our speech, as a cultural phenomenon, constantly incorporates new words, idioms and intonation patterns, while eliminating ones that sound too much like the preceding generation or that don’t seem to fit a current feeling.  It’s not just the vocabulary that changes, it’s how we say what we say, or not say, as the case may be.  As the social/political/technological landscape changes, so does an entire generation’s response to it. It is crucial that you learn to walk in shoes vocally the right size, shape, color and style that fit a given vocal age and time period.


Societal Factors.

             Think about some of the things that separate much of the Baby Boomers from Generation X and Generation Y (the Millenials): Millenials grew up communicating at lightning speed via cell phone, email and more importantly, texting. The latter groups are growing up with Facebook and Twitter, where any thought or image can be made public in a matter of seconds, with or without your consent. The latter 2 generations also grew up with the reality of incurable sexually transmitted diseases and a safe sex imperative. Boomers had the sexual revolution. Starting with Gen X, kids experienced record high divorce rates, were latch key kids and dealt with helicopter parenting. Generational groups encounter and react to political events (i.e., the assassination of a president, Sept 11, etc.), financial phenomena (the great depression, the “greed is good” ‘90’s, restricted access to loans), social phenomena (AIDS, mobile communication and social networks), educational trends (trade school focus, college degree competition) to name just a few. All of these produced changes in the generation of youth that experienced them. And reactions to phenomena get into the speech patterns of the day as variable degrees of cynicism/optimism, sense of familial stability, shame or empowerment, etc.



                   That is not to say, any narrator, regardless of age, should use stereotypical patterns of expression, either.  There still has to be specificity, honesty and intimacy vocally released in the narration.  (That’s what makes the difference between simply reading a story aloud, telling a story to someone, and the more actor-centric “performing” a story.) For example, one of the worst habits I encounter from all corners of the entertainment and non-entertainment worlds, is the constant upswing mid-phrase and at sentence ends.  Younger narrators (teens, 20- and 30-somethings, really), use it out of habit (like, you know, like using “like,” …I think you get the picture) and it practically defines the speech cadence of Gen X (born 1964-1982) into the Millenials (1982-1998). It’s that musical upswing that makes everything sound like a question or like the speaker isn’t sure of themselves of what they are saying.  Sure, add a dollop for verisimilitude, but beware of crossing the line into caricature. For accuracy’s sake, you may want to include a bit of that as the narrator of a young adult piece, or to add definition to a particular character. The problem is that overusing it in the narration creates a repetitive vocal pattern that undercuts emotional meaning and distracts us, usually creating a droning quality. (How’s that for a value judgment.) It’s fine in a 15, 30 or 60 second commercial, but it becomes exposed, pattern-like and therefore more noticeable, in long-form work. 


Living in the Present in the Past

                         It starts to get really interesting when you play a 16 year old, say, in 1870 or 1945. We don’t know what folks sounded like in the 1870’s, but you can be sure that their speech was very different; we know that from the writing of the period (newspapers, letters, documents, even plays). Thoughts (i.e., sentences) were often longer, the grammar more structured and word choice more proper, at least that of certain classes. And we can research what would have been considered acceptable behavior. Using our contemporary, more colloquial intonation patterns from today would sound out of place in such a setting. You will want to reflect period differences in your diction, cadence, and quite possibly pacing. In the case of 1945, we have plenty of examples from old films and radio of speech cadence from all over the world. “Historical speech” is a more accurate description, and I’ll cover that in much greater depth in a later issue.  For now, download, stream or check resources out of the library, but remember that the point of doing this work still ultimately serves the storytelling. You may find you are perfectly true to the speech pattern: but lose your connection to the honest emotions in the text and subtext.  As with all projects, the listener stays with you because you create intimacy, share truths about how people feel and the significance of events. Lose that and you’ve lost me, no matter what your age.

Feb, 2011
Volume IV,  Issue I
Copyright 2011 by Robin Miles