The awkward art of voice coaching your uncle
As a first-timer when it comes to voice coaching, I'd heard from other producers that it could be a pretty challenging endeavour. Trust me: It's even more challenging when the person you're coaching is a family member … not to mention one who's tasked with reading his late brother's memoir, which documents a harrowing escape through the Himalayas to flee Tibet.
I chose to feature my uncle, Sonam Wangkhang, in my documentary Fleeing Tibet because I had a feeling that his deep, authoritative voice was perfect for capturing what I had envisioned. Though he had never spoken on air before, I was confident that he could help carry the whole story, reading my late father's memoir as if it was my father reading.
In 1970, Tsering Wangkhang was one of the first two Tibetan refugees to arrive in Canada. His son, Rignam, was 10 years old when his father died. Rignam doesn't have many memories of his dad — but he has his father's unfinished memoir. A memoir Rignam has never read … until now. Listen →
I'd imagine that if you're voice coaching a stranger or colleague, it's mutually accepted that you can push each other to get exactly what you're looking for. With my uncle, it was a more delicate balance. In our Tibetan culture, we are to respect our elders and do as they say, so the fact that I was teaching and coaching my uncle felt very strange to me. I was extremely hesitant to push or pressure my uncle into anything that might make him uncomfortable. It didn't help that in the back of my mind I knew I would be seeing him and the entire family for the rest of my life, so I didn't want to seem too aggressive or leave a bad impression.
Adding to the difficulty was that the story involved his brother and other family members who are close to him, so I had to navigate how he would deal with this task emotionally.
Thankfully my uncle was gracious and cooperative, but we still had to overcome our collective inexperience. The first taping session, I could tell he was a little tense. Though getting him to take some deep breaths helped, I had also made a rookie error: making the type on his script too small and grouping it into massive blocks of text.
I also made my own last-minute edits to the script in red ink, which added some confusion. In the end, our first session dragged on for longer than it should have, leaving both of us weary and rushing to finish a taping that was good, but not great.
The second time, I came better prepared. I made sure my uncle's script was large, double spaced and split up into manageable blocks. I also slashed the length of his script and included ellipses and bolded font to show him where he needed to pause and emphasize. And ... I'll admit that I resorted to flattery. I told my uncle (truthfully!) that a few producers loved his voice, and that maybe this could be the start of a new career, which made him chuckle.
I encouraged my uncle enthusiastically after every segment and made sure he knew that mistakes were fine. The difference was incredible. He was much more confident and we flew through the script, sharing some laughs throughout the process.
Voice coaching my uncle was such a unique experience, and ultimately it was a great opportunity for the two of us to bond. Will I be doing it at the next Wangkhang family reunion?
Well … maybe I'll stick to Charades.