The Voice That Launched a Career

Joan Baker (Photos courtesy of SOVAS)

Joan Baker has proven your voice can not only be a powerful tool, but it can also be a viable and successful profession. She is a highly-sought after voice over actor and expert. Not only has she carved a path in the voice-over industry working for such clients American Express, Showtime, NBC Sports, ABC News, and others, she also runs, with her husband, a nonprofit that helps others get into the field.

She co-founded the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences was established in Aug 2013 with Emmy-winning producer Rudy Gaskins, CEO and executive creative director of Push Creative, Inc. The organization offers education, training and job opportunities in voice acting.

Baker, the author of Secrets of Voice-Over Success, which offers tales of intimate career journeys as well as practical how-to tips from the best voice-over talent in the business, also offers teaching and coaching services and lectures nationally at colleges, for the Learning Annex and corporate on-sites.

Baker tells more about the world of voice over acting. How did you first get into voice-over?

Joan Baker: First, there?s the why. I got into voice-over as a way to supplement my income, while beating the pavement for commercial acting jobs. Any actor, dancer will tell you how absolutely grueling it can be, but being a biracial actor made it even more difficult for me to fit into the commercial world. This is a world predicated on target marketing, known in layman’s terms as racial profiling. It?s not just race. Age, language, income, and other factors come into it, but race is the unchanging constant. Casting directors were only too happy to educate me about the facts of the industry: When marketers want to reach a particular racial group with a product, they want to use faces that can be easily identified by that group. My racial appearance couldn’t be easily determined, and that was a big deal in the ?80s and ?90s.

Nowadays, every other commercial represents an interracial family! It?s a new day. But in my day, I had to figure out a way to work. So I stumbled upon an ad for voice-over training and I jumped in. As it turns out, voice-over is a very involved and very particular skill set. I trained hard, recorded a demo reel, sent it to one of the biggest agencies in New York, Don Buchwald and Associates, and they signed me on the spot. Trust me. That is not the way it normally goes, but who?s complaining? Today, even with the Internet access and the ease of recording from your own home studio, getting an agent is as difficult as ever.? But, there I was, sitting in the office of Don Buchwald, himself, power agent behind the infamous Howard Stern, and Don is who I signed with. That’s the long answer. The short answer is training hard, developing the proper marketing tools and getting out there where the work is. What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

Joan Baker: I enjoy performing and engaging with good people who want to create the best possible work. You can feel it when everyone is invested in achieving the best, and it?s great to be in the collaborative dance with inspired creatives. I enjoy knowing that I?m delivering on the vision of the director and able to introduce my own unique point of view in ways that serve the goals of the project. It?s an overall feeling of being fully engaged in a process that?s clearly moving forward in a good way. I definitely enjoy jobs that carry historical weight and jobs that touch on relevant social issues that impact people?s lives. Selling soap and cars and diapers is fun too, but when you get to do a job that has personal relevance to your life and what you stand for, that?s pretty special.

Voicing a commercial campaign about Muhammad Ali was an unforgettable moment for me, even though it barely covered the month’s rent. Narrating a video on the creation of the William Jefferson Clinton Library and Park had me walking on air, and though it is featured in the museum?s permanent collection, it covered the other half of a month’s rent. But for years, I was the contract voice for the Court TV network. That kind of daily gig erases a lot of financial concern, and you?re meeting and networking with great people all the time. I coached Johnnie Cochran, Nancy Grace, and other news anchors who wanted to master voice-over for their TV shows. What led you to write “Secrets of Voice-Over Success?”

Joan Baker: I had an ah-ha moment while grieving over my late father, who died from complications of Alzheimer?s disease. The idea of writing a book on voice acting had already been marinating in my mind, especially given the amount of teaching and professional coaching I was doing, but when I asked myself how I could honor my dad?s memory, the idea of a book that donated its proceeds to a cure for Alzheimer?s caught fire. Then the fire was fueled by the idea of involving many voice actors, and their stories–to create a book was representative of voice acting as a community, helping the cause of a cure for Alzheimer?s and teaching newcomers what it takes to break into the industry and create lasting careers. So it was the inspiration of doing good for others that led me to write the book.

And, as it turned out, it was the start of a realizing a childhood dream of becoming a humanitarian in the world. As a child, my focus was always on being a movie star and I was especially impressed by those who were known for their humanitarianism. I wanted that deeply, but it never occurred to me that it would show up out of losing my father. What has been your biggest challenge?

Joan Baker: My biggest challenge is the stuff of therapy sessions and martinis. Like most people, you have to come to terms with how you get in your own way. What do you do that stops you from fulfilling on the promise of your aspirations and goals. I have always made an effort to work on myself through various forms of psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, energy healing, and generally seeking to look inward for strength. Looking inward is the biggest challenge, because you?re not always going to like what you find. If you take it on in a healthy way, you will find peace but it?s easier said than done and it often takes a great deal of serendipity and intuition to find the right people and methods that resonate with you personally. What has been the best business advice you have followed?

Joan Baker: Be unstoppable in your pursuit, avoid putting limitations on what you can achieve and avoid putting limitation on what others can achieve in working with you. Spiritually, I was advised that my purpose to enable strength and beauty in the world meant being clear that my only connection to impacting life is action. Don?t try to go it alone. First, if you want to do anything with groundbreaking impact, you need people. Find ways to bring people into the sphere of what you want to accomplish and allow them to grow and accomplish great things in the process. What?s next for you?

Joan Baker: What?s next for me is to put the power of the human voice back in the spotlight, center stage. My husband, Rudy Gaskins, and I founded a nonprofit organization called the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences. Its mission is to elevate the stature of voice actors, and the content creators who produce the work on which voice actors perform. We do this through the longest running annual voice-over conference in the world, providing education, training, job creations, professional networking, and awards acknowledgment. Acknowledgment is where we struck spiritual gold, by creating the Voice Arts Awards. This led us to take stock of the best work being produced within the vast voice-over community, and to look more critically at the human voice as an instrument of positive change in the world. So the myriad of awards celebrating the industry craft, expanded to include the human voice as a metaphor for recognizing inspired living.

We reached out to Muhammad Ali, prior to his passing, by working with his wife and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, to create the Muhammad Ali Voice of Humanity Honor. This annual award was first given to Barack Obama and Lonnie Ali. In the second year, it was given to Ken Burns, who is doing a documentary on The Champ. We also created the Environmental Voice Arts Award with which we first honored Erin Brockovich, and the Vanguard Award which honors global influencers in a variety of fields, where their excellence, creativity and imagination have raised the bar for other pursuing a similar path. What?s next is that the sky?s the limit. Wherever voices are being raised for good or where they can be inspired to do so, that?s what?s next for me. What advice would you give others looking to enter the voiceover field?

Joan Baker: People often define professionalism as a matter of whether you get paid or not. That?s the tiniest part of it. Professionalism is a state of mind and a way of being. With voice acting, and any other skill, there is trained and untrained. Get trained. Be a great student and honor the person teaching you. You can?t really put a price tag on knowledge, so keep your focus on what you?re learning and not on the nickels and dimes you?re spending to learn it. Find new ways to open yourself up to learning and self-expression as you train. If you can’t identify this aspect of your process, stop and listen until you do. Talk to your teacher about how to do it, because it?s essential. You pay for what you don?t know. That?s the cycle of commerce.

Voice acting is a very specific medium and very unique set of skills. Like acting, it draws on your emotional and psychological life, so be prepared for a bit of a roller coaster ride as you ride the learning curve. Be cognizant of the fact that the training breaks down into various areas: speech and diction, acting craft, technique, acting, and my favorite–the letting go of mental and emotional barriers that keep your voice small and suppressed, especially under the glare of the spotlight. In fact, one of my specialties as a teacher, is to expand the student?s freedom of self-expression, which is always mirrored in the performance.

Another aspect of the training is the development of a unique awareness of your body?s movement quality and the specific anatomy of the vocal apparatus.

You get the best results when you use your whole body as a support for your thoughts, feelings and vocalizations. The voice is a blueprint of who you are. The breath is a blueprint of your vocal expression. Children breathe through their diaphragm–they do it instinctively. Children are the quintessential expression of ?breathe easy.? As they grow up, they accumulate fears and blocks, all of which are reflected in the voice. In a sense, we spend our adulthood trying to get our breath back, trying to recapture the wonderful way we had of looking at the world with the innocence of mind, body and spirit.