Ellie Miller coaches announcers on how to improve their voices. But her career didn’t start that way.
She’s been a practicing speech and language pathologist for 15 years. Her clients range in age from 15 months to 65 years old with many different diagnoses. She says,”Since graduate school, voice therapy has always been an interest and passion of mine.
Seven years ago, Miller was lucky enough to be introduced into the world of broadcasting by Steve Herz and his team at IF Management which later merged with The Montag Group. The mission of Herz and his team was to help their clients improve their vocal performance. Miller engaged and now works with several agencies, networks, and clients world-wide.
Announcers, top-line and otherwise, are always sensitive about their voices. Ask Brian Anderson, a Herz client. He says, “When I was just starting out in the mid 90’s Steve Herz recommended a book, “Change Your Voice, Change Your Life” by Dr. Morton Cooper. “At the time, I had a bit of a Texas drawl and spoke in a high register with very little breath support. I read the book in a day. I started on the breathing techniques and mechanics of proper placement of my voice. I could hear a noticeable change in the resonance of my voice with proper breath support.”
Anderson, Voice of the Brewers and basketball for CBS and Turner, says, “It all felt like work in the beginning. Over time, the processes became habit. My career changed course after reading that book.” Brian says he was able to finish sentences with better authority and, “punch the big calls better.”
You see lots of Adam Zucker on CBS Sports, an authoritative voice in the studio.
Zucker told us, “A coach named Marla Kirban advised me to “think of the microphone in front of you as someone’s ear and she would have me listen back immediately to my recordings to hear how much more I needed to ‘put the lid on the tuba.'”
But Zucker adds a caveat, “It’s great to get some pointers for sure, like breathing techniques but we shouldn’t be homogenizing people who have a unique sound and speak with genuine energy. I think of it as ‘over-coaching someone’s golf swing.’”
Then there’s Mike Corey, a constant on ESPN during the college football and basketball season. “I actually worked with Ellie Miller for a few months straight a couple years ago,” he says. “The best thing about Ellie was that she brought things to my attention that I didn’t notice and it got me to understand how it was coming across. She helped me slow down, become clearer and eliminate words or phrases I didn’t need to sound stronger.”
Formally, for business Ellie goes by Stacey Ellie Miller. Otherwise, she’s simply Coach Ellie Miller who is known for her passion about her role as a voice coach.
Ellie got into the granular when it comes to voice. In our Q&A, she covered a lot that will serve the young, embarked and even veteran broadcasters.
Who are a couple of sportscasters you’ve coached and how were you able to help them?
I keep my client list confidential but, I’ve worked with many sportscasters over the years and I will say that, with beginners, it’s all about trying to help them find their authentic sound, build breath support, and gain confidence. For experienced sportscasters who already have successful careers, voice therapy is a way to practice and maintain their craft. I also work with some retired athletes who are trying to break into the broadcasting arena and their therapy focuses on helping them figure out how to deliver their knowledge and experience of the sport. I’ve also had broadcasters referred to me because of medical issues such as chronic hoarseness, nodules, and vocal fold paresis or paralysis. In those cases, vocal maintenance, breathing exercises, and reducing harshness are key.
What are some common tendencies people ask you to correct or improve?
In general, clients want to develop a richer, deeper, more authoritative vocal sound. They want to decrease nasality and inject energy. In many cases, though, therapy has to focus on the little details to make a big impact. Improving articulation and overall diction, building vocabulary, and focusing on sentence structure and phrasing are important. Another common thing I hear from all sportscasters is their desire to master the “big plays.” They want to be able to spontaneously convey excitement in a seamless and infectious way but so often, inexperienced sportscasters end up screaming in a high-pitched voice instead of building suspense with pausing and inflection.
In the old days of broadcasting, voices meant a ton. Stations, teams and networks considered a strong voice a requirement for the job. Would you agree that today it’s less so?
A deep rich, baritone vocal quality was everything back in the day. But just because you are born with a deep, baritone voice does not mean you have what it takes to be a successful broadcaster anymore. While some may start with the upper hand of a naturally deep voice, an engaging and charismatic voice requires warmth, confidence, and authority. Having a unique sound and authentic delivery are crucial. Even content and knowledge are more important than just vocal quality these days.
Which on-air specialties approach you more to improve their timbre, play-by-play announcers or studio hosts?
Each mode presents its own set of challenges and distractions, on top of which we still need to focus on getting that authentic vocal quality and rich timbre. Play-by-play in itself is an art form and each sport requires a different form of that art.
Think about the difference between the stamina required to call a fast-paced hockey game versus the softer, yet authoritative quality needed for a golf tournament. A radio sportscaster is tasked with having to paint a constant picture for their audience, which takes an enormous amount of attention to detail and eloquence. A studio host on the other hand has the challenge of creating intrigue and interest about past and upcoming games reading off a teleprompter. Being an approachable interviewer is also a huge challenge that requires an engaging and warm tone. Being able to ask questions, listen to answers and spontaneously respond with thoughtful follow-ups is not easy and takes a lot of practice.
Not everyone is blessed with the voice of a Ted Baxter or Kevin Harlan. Announcers must play the hand they’re dealt. So I guess there’s a limit to what you can do. What is it?
There are breathing techniques and strategies that can help anyone improve their voice. As a speech therapist first and foremost, I always stress the importance of a client understanding their anatomy and vocal mechanism in order to even begin focusing on the quality of his or her voice. In many cases, the first session of a client’s vocal journey is a breakdown of the anatomy, diagrams and all.
We discuss how the vocal cords work, why sufficient breath support is crucial, and the importance of vocal hygiene and maintenance. The idea is if one fully understands their vocal mechanism, understands that they can have control over it, they will be able to change it. In most cases, even in the first session, clients have an “aha” moment and realize they have the ability to manipulate their vocal power, depth, and richness. So, while it’s wonderful to admire an infamous sportscaster’s voice and be inspired by his or her career, the first thing I tell potential or new clients is that I want to help them find their own authentic voice. All broadcasters have their strengths and weaknesses, but the goal of vocal therapy is to not only help create a strong vocal foundation, but to empower clients to feel confident in their own vocal skins. It would be boring if every sportscaster sounded the same.
I imagine that you teach announcers to work within the ranges of their voices? What’s the secret?
I use a number scale to help rate different characteristics about the client’s vocal baseline. It makes it easier for the client to recognize abstract characteristics like pitch, tone, power, and intensity with tangible numbers. I teach clients how to listen to old recordings of their voices and rate each characteristic based on what they hear. We then record a similar sentence implementing proper breath support, script edits, volume changes, pausing and inflection, and “poof,” clients hears themselves in a whole new way, while still maintaining their own authentic sounds in their vocal ranges.
How important is energy in speaking and is there a trick that you suggest?
Energy is very important. A broadcaster holds the responsibility of conveying the excitement from a stadium, field, court etc. to an audience watching at home. The television audience depends on broadcasters to give them that “almost there” feeling. Many characteristics are needed in order to generate that kind of intensity without sounding like an infomercial salesperson. Many broadcasters make the mistake of relying heavily on volume, high pitch, elongating syllables (ex. He shoots, he scoooooooores), in order to create that energy, but they just end up being too loud the entire game, talking too much, getting distracted with the theatrics and totally missing the “big plays.”
Sportscasters have to develop their abilities to spontaneously control their volume, speed, phrasing, pitch, inflection, and pausing. Vocabulary and coined phrases are just as important in creating energy and building suspense throughout the game. A big tip is to keep your thoughts short and concise, which makes it easier to control the authority and inflection.
How can people learn more about their own voices and what they’re doing right and wrong?
Many times there could be a medical explanation for why a person presents with a hoarse or nasal and thin vocal quality. Broadcasters in general do not take the necessary precautions to protect and maintain their vocal instruments and as a result experience, hoarseness, dry throat, and even develop nodules. Find a good E.N.T. (Ear Nose and Throat doctor), get a good baseline and figure out what’s going on because even the best vocal therapy will not stick if there’s a chronic anatomical issue. Once there is the okay from the doctor, one of the most effective ways to listen to your voice and practice is to watch old games you once called in the past on mute and re-record your play-by-play.
Listen back to the new recording and compare it to the old one. Take notes, see how they differ, and do it again. The more you hear yourself saying the same sentence different ways, you’ll learn what you like and trust your ability to manipulate your own vocal range.
There are distinct voices like: Jim Nantz (warm), Al Michaels (cheerful and reassuring), Tim Brando (uplifting), Bob Costas (confident and commanding), Curt Gowdy (manly), Joe Buck (gripping),Tony Romo (bubbly), Greg Gumbel (pleasant), Chick Hearn (charismatic), Johnny Most (raspy) and of course the golden sounding Vin Scully (melodious and sugary)
Halby’s Thunderous 35, (Robust, husky, rousing, sepulchral or booming) pipes of past and present.
- Mel Allen (Yankees, NBC)
- Jack Buck (Cardinals, CBS)
- Bill Campbell (Phillies, Eagles +)
- Paul Carey (Tigers)
- Don Criqui (NBC, CBS, Notre Dame)
- John Facenda (NFL Films)
- Ron Franklin (ESPN, Houston Oilers)
- Marty Glickman (Giants, Jets, Knicks)
- Kevin Harlan (CBS, Turner)
- Merle Harmon (ABC, Jets, Brewers +)
- Ted Husing (CBS)
- Dave Van Horne (Expos, Marlins)
- Keith Jackson (ABC)
- Mark Johnson (University of Colorado)
- Charlie Jones (NBC)
- Harry Kalas (Phillies, NFL Films +)
- Paul Keels (Ohio State)
- Les Keiter (Giants Ftbl, Knicks)
- Dan Kelly (Blues, CBS)
- Duane Kuiper (SF Giants)
- Ralph Lawler (Clippers +)
- Verne Lundquist (CBS, ABC, Turner)
- Clem McCarthy (NBC Boxing, Horse racing)
- Jon Miller (ESPN, Giants +)
- Larry Munson (Georgia)
- Van Patrick (Notre Dame, Lions +)
- Chris Schenkel (ABC, CBS)
- Ray Scott (CBS, Twins)
- Lon Simmons (Giants, A’s, 49ers)
- Dewayne Staats (Tampa Bay Rays +)
- Pat Summerall (CBS, Fox)
- Chuck Thompson (Orioles, Colts +)
- Gary Thorne (Orioles, ESPN)
- Al Wester (Notre Dame, Saints)
- Bob Wilson (Bruins)