By Michele E. Buttelman
As the sunset bathes the nearby striking rock formations of Vasquez Rocks Natural Area in warm yellow and orange light, nearly a dozen of Dan Balestrero’s voiceover students arrive at his nearby Agua Dulce home for their weekly class.
Balestrero’s Azzurra Media Ranch is a warm Tudor home decorated with film memorabilia and movie posters. It is also outfitted with top-of-the-line studio equipment.
His Wednesday evening professional voice-over training class includes students of all ages.
“We just had a 75-year-old recently record his demo tape,” Balestrero said. Students must be age 18 or older, but occasionally minors will be allowed if accompanied by parents.
Moving to Agua Dulce
Balestrero moved his business, masteringvoiceover.com, to Agua Dulce from Marina del Rey seven and a half years ago.
“This is more of the environment I wanted for my own creativity and a setting to teach people,” he said.
He discovered Agua Dulce by chance.
“I came up here to shoot some stock footage at Vasquez Rocks,” Balestrero said. “I had never been here before. We started looking around the area, it’s not that far from L.A. and it is up at 2,500 feet and the air is clean.”
Balestrero and his wife of 15 years, Dagmar Liepa, MD, bought the home on five acres and Balestrero set up his studio.
“We were in Marina del Rey for five years, we had a lovely condo by the water, but found that even though West Hollywood is only six or seven miles away, it would take people an hour to get there. The idea was to live close to everything, but nobody could get there,” he said. “We thought it was time to do something different. I was worried that people wouldn’t want to come this far out but I’ve discovered that people from the San Fernando Valley enjoy coming up here from the valley.”
Balestrero grows fruit trees and a vegetable garden on the property, which is also home to five pet goats, adults Sheldon and Leonard and kids Crimpy, Stuart and Raj. Fans of the “Big Bang Theory” television show may wonder why there is no Howard.
“Crimpy was going to be named Howard, but he was born with a bent ear, so he had to be Crimpy,” said Balestrero.
His fruit trees produce peaches, nectarines, apricots, apples, pears and figs.
“When the fruit is ripe everyone shows up to class a half hour early and we pick fruit that people can take home,” Balestrero said.
He also offers up his bounty of cherry tomatoes and zucchini.
“This year I’m growing giant pumpkins so people will have a pumpkin to take home in October,” he said.
Balestrero was born in Palo Alto, Calif. and graduated from San Jose State University with a Master’s in acting and directing.
“I sang for a number of years, I did Shakespeare plays for years and by the time I was 35 I had done 50 different productions in various places,” he said.
He lived in Chicago for five years and taught opera and musical theater singers and was a master voice coach and acting coach at the San Francisco Opera for six years.
Balestrero said he quickly knew that “if you’re not working in film or television, it’s just a hobby.”
“I met a lot of really lovely people, but in the end, you have to find an acceptable way to turn what you know into money,” he said.
Balestrero said he realized that he knew how singing, speaking Shakespearian text and voice development intersected.
“I sort of backed into teaching and have been teaching voice, in some version, for 40 years,” he said.
The voice-over business
Balestrero said the opportunities for voice-over work have exploded exponentially in the past few years.
“When people ask, isn’t it competitive? I answer, yes, it’s incredibly competitive, but what isn’t?” he said.
When the average person thinks of voice-overs they think of commercials, movie trailers, cartoons and animated films. But voice-over work extends to many areas of modern life, said Balestrero.
“Everything is being digitized and somebody is narrating it. This is the great age of voice-overs for me. There’s never been a better time than now,” he said. “Companies hire a voice-over artist to accompany PowerPoint presentations. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions on in-house pieces that are never broadcast and they are all narrated. On hold messaging for small companies needs voice-over talent.”
Voice-over work extends to videos made for in-flight airline safety presentations and other “industrials.”
“Human Relations Departments are not personally telling each of their hundreds or thousands of employees about their health care benefits,” Balestrero said. “There are instructional videos to employees on how to use equipment.”
Voice-over work includes books on tape and nearly every recorded voice you hear, including background voices on film and television.
However, voice-over work means more than being able to read a script.
Balestrero worked for the California State Franchise Tax Board before the financial collapse of 2008 to determine why so many users were bypassing the interactive voice recognition system and demanding to speak to a live person.
“I listened to their messages. It was all very authoritarian and very disapproving,” he said. “I explained that if they changed a few things and talked to callers as if they were best friends it would reduce opt outs by 10 percent.”
In the end, the changes Balestrero recommended reduced opt out calls by 20 percent.
Listening to Balestrero’s melodious voice it seems impossible he once had a severe speech impediment.
Yet, that experience set the stage for his work years later as a voice-over coach.
“When I was 9 I remember being in the speech therapist’s office and her face is burned into the rods and cones of the back of my retina I liken a damaged tattoo from a nuclear blast,” he said. “I remember her leaning forward and saying, ‘NO! NO! Can’t you hear that you are doing it wrong?’ I remember at age 9, thinking to myself, there has to be a better way. And that was the beginning of me hunting around and learning to find that better way.”
Balestrero said his teaching techniques include “support, feedback and laughter because that’s how people retain information.”
There are no “beginning,” “intermediate” or “advanced” classes taught at masteringvoiceover.com.
“This is not elementary school,” he said. “It’s my personal point of view that if you want to learn, you learn from people who are better at something then you are. That’s how people learn, they learn from each other.”
Balestrero compares the spoken word to music.
“The whole gig for us is to use variations of cadence and melody to solve problems of meaning and articulation,” he said. “We have to become masters of that skill.”
Just because someone has told you that you have a “nice” voice doesn’t mean you can be successful in the voiceover business.
Most people need training which includes voice development and breathing exercises.
“If you want to go to the Olympics you have to train like you’re going to the Olympics,” he said.
Balestrero said he tells students that having a good “demo tape” may get you the job, but only your ability to perform the required tasks will allow you to keep the job.
“If you want to make A-list money you better have A-list skills,” he said.
Balestrero believes learning is more conducive in a supportive setting.
“Life is enough work so coming to a class like this should be fun,” he said. “Humiliation is not a learning tool. Psychological abuse doesn’t do anything but make people more afraid.”
None of which makes Balestrero go “easy” on his students.
“It is important to be supportive but also be relentless on what the standard needs to be so you are not enabling delusion,” he said. “You have to be able to read like your demo when you show up on the job.”
His classes include a “pizza break” where students enjoy a snack, visit and network before heading back before the microphone.
A stuffed animal mascot, “Dufus” watches from a nearby desk as does a dragon perched atop a recording booth.
“I’ve seen people hired in this business who might not have the best voice, but they are easy to work with and deliver clean ‘reads’ consistently,” Balestrero said.
He said it is important to teach not just the mechanics but also the jargon and social skills involved in the job.
“If they don’t know how to navigate the industry all the classes in the world won’t get you hired,” he said.
Among his insider tips:
No one in a recording session is going to be upset if you flub, but they will be annoyed if you write an opera about it.
Don’t complain, don’t explain, just shut up and fix it.
“None of it is rocket science, but someone has to show you,” he said. “Someone might say A,B,C that for me. That means give me three versions of something and those three versions have to be more related to each other than not.”
Another rule: Don’t talk too much on the job.
“When you’re in a work setting and you see everyone laughing and telling jokes, that doesn’t mean you can tell your jokes,” he said. “Laugh at their jokes and wait until it’s time to roll. An astonishing number of people don’t know that. You have to learn how to behave on set.”
At a recent class Balestrero listened carefully as each student stood before the microphone practicing the voiceover craft. He carefully explained the vocal subtleties and differences of reading ad copy for financial institutions versus copy for childcare centers.
He was quick to give praise where due and constructive criticism as needed, many of his comments were delivered with a wry and casual sense of humor.
“I tell the people that are studying here to be voice-over artists that the most important work you’ll ever do is the first time you talk to somebody on the phone who might hire you. They are calculating, friend or foe?” Balestrero said. “Over 90 percent of communication has nothing to do with the actual words you’re speaking. It’s all about the harmonic geography of one’s tone of voice and how that’s used. Your voice is the engine that carries your ideas to everyone else on the planet. It’s one of the most important things we do, yet tone of voice is astonishingly overlooked.”
Balestrero is the author of “Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Hell: Some Thoughts on Turning Darkness Into Light, or How To Escape The Mess You’ve Made.” His 103-page book is available on Kindle and Amazon.com. It is a guide to overcoming self-defeating mindsets and a reminder everyone is responsible for their own success or failure.