Sight reading is an important skill for voice actors, particularly where long-form narration is involved. Many professional engagements allow very little in the way of preparation time, and even if whole months were available to memorise an entire book, what would be the point? In the seclusion of the vocal booth, nobody can tell if you’re holding a script or reading from a tablet as long as you don’t drop it, or wave it wildly about.
Yet the last thing you want is the plodding, school-room sound of a text being spelled out word by word. In the case of characters’ lines, it’s literary convention to pretend that the conversation being reported as it was actually spoken, while prose must be read as though the reader understands the sense of the words and wishes to communicate them. Mere modulation of the voice regardless of the content makes for an excellent sleeping aid, but little else.
The skill of sight-reading involves the eye and mind anticipating the sense of the sentence to come, while the voice follows behind, modulated to convey that sense. Pre-reading, rehearsing, and annotating the script naturally play their part, but in the same way that athletes train at high altitudes so that lowland marathons seem easy by comparison, voice actors should be prepared to read on first sight so that any rehearsal is only a luxurious bonus. This is quite difficult, as the anticipating eye may only be able to give the voice a few seconds’ notice of an unfamiliar word, or the need for a character accent. The trick is to engineer as many encounters with as many of these kinds of surprises as possible in the safety of a practice session, rather than when you’re being paid by the hour.
Enter the Great Sight-Reading Game. I’m sure plenty of voice actors do similar exercises; for me, it has the following main virtues:
- It’s quick to do
- It ‘gamifies’ sight reading, so you’re motivated to do it often
- You’re exposed to lots of unfamiliar material, including new words and characters.
Record yourself reading a previously unseen text, holding a dog-clicker in one hand and something like an abacus, a doorman’s mechanical counter, or simply a pencil and paper for a tally chart in the other.
Practicing while actually recording is important to help you get over ‘mic fright’; the phenomenon that sees one make far more mistakes in front of a hot mic than anywhere else. The means of counting is important to keep your mind free for reading. The clicker is important so you can identify your mistakes visually on the recorded waveform.
Whenever you make a mistake—mispronounce a word, pause too long, or otherwise just mess up—click the clicker and count it. Stop when you make your tenth mistake. When you’re done, enter these two data into two columns of an excel spreadsheet like the one below:
- Seconds before your first mistake
- Minutes before you tenth mistake
My interpretation of these measures is that the first records a improving ability to relax and not allow the fear of making a mistake…make me make my first mistake. The second tends to test the core sight-reading mechanic of scanning ahead while speaking.
Once you’ve got your first data point as a baseline, you can set up a target for improvement. Is 10% improvement every try too optimistic? Find out!
Entering a ‘predicted value’ column for both data allows you to see on a graph what 10% progress each time would look like, while plotting the ‘observed’ values tells you whether you’re doing better or worse than this prediction.
So a finished graph might look like this: