What American Idol taught me about voice acting

American IdolI admit it, I love American Idol. Not the first few episodes where the weirdos and freakish fame seekers crawl out from wherever they lurk and attempt to be “unique”, but anytime after the top 12 are chosen. It’s during this time in the show’s progression that one can truly see and hear talented individuals. Having a music background myself, I love to pit my opinions against those of the judges.

But just recently while envisioning myself in a battle of opinionated wits with Simon Cowell, I discovered a very close connection between the musical performances and voice acting…

Yo, man. It was a little pitchy

Randy Jackson is probably most famous for saying the line “It was a little pitchy.” Not an episode goes by that he doesn’t say this to at least one contestant. If you are unfamiliar with that expression, it means that the performer was singing “off key” at times or that the pitch (tonal frequency) of the musical notes wasn’t perfect all the time. By the time we get to the top 12, most people can’t hear when the pitch goes slightly awry (the contestants are usually that good.) But to the trained ear, it can sound like a cat’s screech.

In voice-over acting, it’s the same. We, too, can be “pitchy” at times. Maybe in an attempt to bring out or emphasize a word or a phrase we send the intonation of our voice out of a normal conversational pitch. If we really botch it, we can usually hear it ourselves and make corrections. In other instances when it’s just a touch off, only the ears of a trained voice acting coach, director, or producer can detect the fumble. (That’s another example why becoming a voice actor requires rigid training from a qualified coach.)

The rhythm was off at times

Another oft-spoken critique from the judges is about the rhythm. Just like above, most people won’t catch the rhythmical stumbles if they have no musical training and the stumbles were minute. They will simply feel in their gut that the performance was off or didn’t “groove” well (you don’t have to be musically trained to hear the difference between a bumpy performance and a smooth performance.)

In voice acting, too, we can screw up the rhythm of a script. It can happen at any time — making the read sound unnatural. But it often happens when we try to “billboard” the product’s or company’s name (billboarding is the technique of bringing out an important word or phrase related to the product or company by either emphasizing the words or adding a small pause before and after the words.) Just the right amount of billboarding will make the important words stand out. Too much will make the read sound fake and announcery. Too little and the client will be decisively dissatisfied.

I just didn’t believe what you were singing about

The undisputed nemesis of all of the contestants is Simon Cowell — and rightfully so. He often slashes wide open the most subtle and most important part of a performance: the emotional impact. He, more so than the others judges, slams the contestants for not putting their whole heart into the meaning of the song. Often he will ask: “What were you thinking about when you were performing just now?” or he might quip: “What do the words of the song mean to you? Because I certainly didn’t hear you had any connection to the words.”

I can already hear your neck muscles creaking as you nod your head in understanding.

In voice acting, a performance with a slight pitch variation on a word or a nanosecond rhythmical hiccup can still pass as a good read. But if your performance has no emotional foundation then it will crash and burn. Above all else, your read must come from an emotional understanding of the script and those emotions must be heard in your voice.

Becoming a “voice-over idol”

When you have the time, tune in and watch American Idol. Listen to the contestants and the judges critiques. Listen for the “pitchy” performances and the “rhythmically off” performances. But most of all, listen for yourself to hear which performers actually sound like they mean the words they are singing. Then during your practice sessions, apply all three of these critical elements (pitch, rhythm, and emotional impact) to the scripts you are working on.

Final thought:
I pray with every fiber of my being that there will never will be a TV show called “Voice-over Idol.” I simply can’t take any more talent competition TV shows. And just imagining Ryan Seacrest announce “This… is Voice-over Idol!” sends shivers up my spine. (Maybe they could get Philip Banks to do it instead…)


  1. Who ever would have thunk it? Voice-over inspiration from a reality TV show! 😉


  2. Great article!

    I believe voice overs and singing performances are certainly involved with on camera/on stage acting. I’m a film-maker myself, and found this very interesting in regarding the work you need to get done with on camera actors!

    Thumbs up! 😀

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