I didn’t think I would be bringing up the Mario movie here, but bear with me. Since the release of the trailers there’s been a lot of comment about the voices. The most obvious is probably Mario. In the 80s he was American. Then in the mid-90s his voice was Italian. Now he’s American again.
These kinds of discussions were to be expected, but what surprised me are the comments on Princess Peach, who is voiced by the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy. And of course there’s been a lot of comment on how Peach is being set up as a stronger, more active character. They want her to have more depth and involvement than just being the damsel in distress waiting to be saved. What gave me pause are the comments on the depth of her voice. Don’t get me wrong. I think Anya Taylor-Joy is a huge improvement over how we’re used to hearing Peach. But it’s this idea that some folks feel she seems like a stronger character simply because her voice is lower (as opposed to the part where she’s wielding an axe).
As a society we seem to have a bad habit of associating depth and size with strength. It partly stems from simple physics. Larger things generally make larger sounds. But does size equal strength? Is bigger better when it comes to voice?
I’m approached fairly often by people interested in doing voice work. My first question is often why do you want to get into this kind of work? Sometimes it’s because someone told them they have a nice, big voice. Having a pleasing voice is certainly helpful, but that’s not the direction in which the business is headed. Today, people want authenticity. They want something they can relate to. Gone are the days of smooth, cheesy radio announcers and goofy character voices. These days even animated movies and shows rarely have people do funny voices. Instead they cast people whose voice and performance are naturally distinct.
This is a great time to be in this business because it’s more open to the full spectrum and diversity of the human voice than ever before. So you can see why I find it discouraging that we still (both consciously and unconsciously) perpetuate this idea that deeper voices are better. It makes people self-conscious to the point where they often hide their real voice. Sometimes we hear this in the form of vocal fry.
It’s unclear where this habit comes from but it definitely started in the late twentieth century and it’s definitely a North American phenomenon (although I’m starting to hear it in some English voices). It’s worth noting that women are often the ones criticised for abusing the fry register, but there are plenty of men who are just as guilty.
Regardless of who is doing it or where it comes from, it comes off as disingenuous and it actually takes away from one’s authority rather than adding to it. It sounds less powerful, because it is. The vocal folds are at their most compressed allowing less of your voice to come through.
But let’s move on from fry. There are plenty of people who do speak in their normal register (this is called the modal register) who are clearly self-conscious about their voice. I’ve always suspected this of Howard Stern. Howard doesn’t have a bad voice, but if you watch and listen carefully, he never raises his voice, and he always stays very close to the mic, giving himself as much bass presence as possible. This may be a vestige of his old radio days. Back then authenticity was, let’s say, not in fashion.
I may be wrong about Howard doing this deliberately, as I’m not a regular follower of his, but the habits are there.
So getting back to people doing voice work. If they make the comment about having a nice, deep voice, I tell them it’s not about sounding big. It’s about having presence. Those are not the same thing. How do you get presence? From being your best self, and by being direct and authentic.
I’m a big fan of Judi Dench, and I often use her as an example. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the sound of her voice, but she has presence. When she speaks, people listen. Why do they listen? Because she’s not afraid of them. It has less to do with the way the voice sounds, and more with the person that’s using the voice.
Your best voice comes from your best self. Whether you’re a voice performer, or just someone who’s out there trying to do the best you can in your career and your life, I urge you to embrace what your parents gave you. You are unique, and so is your voice. Be loud, be proud, and be clear. Open up and let your real (authentic) voice shine.