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Singing Advice

A Cautionary Tale

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A Cautionary Tale
Stephen Tobolowsky is one of the busiest character actors around, with more than 200 films and TV shows to his credit, including "Glee," "Californication," and a scene-stealing turn in the movie "Groundhog Day." A few years ago, however, it looked like his career might be over when he completely lost his speaking voice due to bad vocal habits. Since regaining his voice through surgery and rehabilitation, Tobolowsky has become a passionate believer in maintaining vocal health and in helping others learn the things they don't teach you in acting school.

"I can't think of another profession where what they teach you in school is so completely different from what you have to do in the professional world," says Tobolowsky. The main reason for this, he believes, is that "actors are generally taught by other actors, and usually unemployed actors. It's difficult to get the real scoop as to what you need to do in the professional world."

As a student, Tobolowsky learned various warm-ups and consonant and vowel exercises, but he feels there was something lacking in the big vocal picture. "In school, they never tell how important your personal life is to your professional life," he says. "When you have to use your voice professionally, you can't drink or smoke; you need to sleep; you need to be in shape and to eat properly. Your personal life is your professional life."

It's Alive!

When Tobolowsky was in school, he found that the voice (as well as acting) was treated as if it were a switch, to be turned on or off as needed. "They considered it one of the signs of being a professional," he says. But once he became a working actor, he discovered the opposite to be true: "Your vocal instrument is not a light switch but is something that is very much alive and has to be treated as if it has a life of its own. Some days it responds very quickly to what you want and need, and other days it doesn't. You have to be sensitive as to where you are that day."

Tobolowsky has specific routines depending on the demands of the show. For example, "If I'm doing a song on 'Glee,' I know I have to treat my voice differently on those days," he says. "I've learned not to schmooze backstage or to talk in crowded restaurants. I've learned never to smoke. On days when I have to perform vocally, I know the night before not to drink alcohol. I go to bed early and drink plenty of water. I've learned to take care of myself…. None of that you learn in school."

Tobolowsky pays close attention not just to the vocal demands of a scene but to its emotional and physical demands as well. "If you have a stressful scene where you need to be running and then have dialogue," he says, "if you don't breathe properly going into that scene, you can throw your voice completely out of whack. That's another thing they don't have a clue about in school. They're doing scenes from 'The Seagull' and 'The Master Builder.' They have no idea you're going to be auditioning for a show like 'Southland,' where you're running from the police, jumping over fences, and then you have to deliver your big speech."

Auditions can be another area of vocal stress. "Auditioning can bring on nerves and tension," Tobolowsky says. "Just that can make the vocal cords swell and not respond. If I have an audition, I know I have to take special care that day."

Vocal Trouble

His lack of vocal preparation for the real world of acting contributed to his serious vocal problems, Tobolowsky believes: "I think it began on 'Deadwood.' We always started around 5 in the morning. I would either not get enough sleep or not warm up properly and then sling coffee down my throat—one of the worst things you can do, because it's so acidic." Vocally, the scenes were particularly strenuous. "You're either yelling over gunfire, yelling in a crowded saloon, yelling over a cattle stampede on horseback," he says. "Yelling is not something you can take lightly as an actor."

The stress of shooting "Deadwood" led to a vocal nodule, a type of callus on the vocal cords, which Tobolowsky initially tried to ignore. "I didn't have it checked out by a doctor," he says. "I just kept on speaking. Eighteen months later, I couldn't speak at all, as the growth on my cords had grown so large they couldn't close." Trying to force the vocal cords closed soon led to one of them rupturing. "My career was over; I couldn't speak at all. Fortunately, through surgery and through rehabilitation, I have my career back. I had three months of no work and absolute silence. It is well worth it to take care of your voice. It's your best friend."

One thing that Tobolowsky did learn in acting school is to stay committed to education and growth. "It's very important to remain a student as long as you possibly can," he insists. "When I came to L.A., I continued to take acting classes. I regret I didn't do the same thing with my voice. I've found that the vocal training I am getting now has been essential for getting my career back under my feet. I think people neglect the voice like it's a secondary tool, when it is primary."

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