Curtis Gibson of Odenton had a voice that was deep and grainy, like actor Vin Diesel reading Shakespeare. Maya Wilcox of Severn sounded like the most riveting Scripture reader at church. Derick Jones of Gambrills is someone you wouldn't mind having read to your kids at bedtime.
For years, they'd been told that they had the kinds of voices that could earn them money.
So they decided to explore the possibility.
They and more than two dozen others showed up at Anne Arundel Community College recently for an adult-education class titled "Getting Paid to Talk." They were interested in a second career or post-retirement pursuit in a field best known for broadcast commercials, but that has other lesser-known opportunities, such as the recorded voices that announce floors in an elevator or the words uttered by a toy.
"The field has broadened in terms of the acceptance of voices," said David Bourgeois. "It used to be that you had to have 'the voice.' Now, you just need the voice for the particular job."
Bourgeois is president of Voice Coaches, a Schenectady, N.Y.-based voice-development company that ran the class at AACC, one of more than 500 high schools and colleges it visits each year. He projects that the industry may grow fivefold within the next couple of years because of podcasting and other Internet audio. Five years ago, none of the voiceover work he performed was Internet-related, he said. Now more than half is.
Those who seek to go beyond the company's introductory class can try out for its professional training program, a $3,200 course that requires a voice evaluation for acceptance and includes one-on-one training, commercial and narrative demo development and a personal Web site. About 450 clients are enrolled in that program, up from 30 a decade ago.
"This experience helps the individual who has the talent and just needs that push," said David Wengernuk of Pasadena, a mortgage broker with a rich voice like the narrator of the Lexus car commercials. The introductory class persuaded him to pursue the field.
"Let's face it," he said. "About 20 percent of the people who come to these classes have the talent, and the other 80 [percent] are wasting their time."
At the introductory class, participants took turns reading scripts for imaginary advertisements into a microphone as if auditioning for a radio spot. As each student spoke, Voice Coaches senior creative director John Gallogly manipulated a console of round knobs and switches, blending their voices with background music for a crisp, professional sound.
"Here's the thing," Gallogly said before the students began. "I'm going to tell you what you did well, what you didn't do so well and what you need to work on if you want to get into this and make money.
"I'll even tell you what kind of work I hear you doing, if any, based on your voice. And if I don't think this is something you should do, I have absolutely no problem telling you so."
Apparently, the students had no problem receiving criticism, because nearly all of them signed forms for Gallogly or another Voice Coaches representative to contact them the next morning about their voice quality.
The next classes scheduled for this area are Feb. 18 at the First Class learning center in Washington and April 10 at AACC. Professional voiceovers for training exercise videos are particularly in demand in this region, which is laden with government jobs, Gallogly said.
Bourgeois said many students discover that to make it in voiceovers, you must treat your voice like a product, improving upon it through training, then marketing it tirelessly.
Wilcox, a part-time AACC student and stay-at-home mom, decided two years ago that she would pursue any voiceover opportunities that came her way.
"I feel that the gift I was given from God is my voice," she said. "I have always used it in church, reading Scripture and singing in choir. My husband says I'm a Disney soprano."
Jones, 26, an AACC student and manager at a video-game store, grew up enamored of the voices of characters in children's movies and TV shows. "I want to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, Jim Henson, Mister Rogers and Raffi," he says. "I want to do stuff for the little kids." He was slightly younger than most of the students enrolled in the school's $35 class, who are in their 40s and 50s.
After the session, Gallogly said that the AACC class was typical of what he hears in classes around the country: About one-fourth of the students have what he believes are professional voiceover potential. But only about two from each class go on to pursue the field, he says.
"If you market yourself, and I mean truly market yourself, for a year and a half, I cannot fathom you not being in the field," he said. "But most people don't do that. They market themselves for three months and never send another demo out."
Gibson, an active-duty Army officer, said he had hoped the class had more hands-on training, but said it still interested him to possibly pursue voiceover work.
Gallogly told the class about those who did pursue the field with impressive results. They included local talent Evan Farmer, a television actor and voiceover professional from Rodgers Forge.
Farmer is best known as the host and voiceover actor of the former Learning Channel series While You Were Out. Before that, he landed voiceovers on two MTV series, Daria and Celebrity Deathmatch, where he portrayed the voices of three Backstage Boys.
"I just basically said 'yes' to every job possibility," Farmer said. "For the MTV voiceovers, I called the MTV casting line, which had an answering machine message that said, 'At the tone, leave an audition.' That's how I got the job."
Farmer says that during the 10 years he's been in the profession, he's honed his talents to where he can do voiceover for a one-hour, prerecorded show within 20 minutes. And he's made good money for his efforts.
"I once did a radio spot for a one-hour session and got $100,000 over two years," he said. "Commercials are where the money is. The dream commercial is a pharmaceutical commercial. McDonald's commercials go away every two months, when they change the prizes and the menu.
"I once did a Midol commercial and a Tagamet commercial, and those two commercials took less than a day of shooting per commercial, but I easily made $400,000 combined for them, including several years of residuals."
A striking voice is only half the story, said Sara Kozak, senior executive producer for the Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications, which produces Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet. Voice timing is essential, particularly in entertainment, when the visual elements are prerecorded and voiceover actors must tailor their words to image sequences.
"It's a basic rule of thumb that it takes one second to read three words," she said. "To get timing right, you look at your gaps [pauses], and if it's 30 words then you know it's going to take 10 seconds, as simple as that."
Jones was told afterward that he had a voice for children's literature or PBS children's shows. That was more than enough for him to begin raising money to release a demo tape in the spring.
"When they told me about my voice, I started laughing profusely," he said. "It was a nice little bonus that they said I would be good at what I wanted to do."
Listen to some of the recent voice-acting auditions at baltimoresun.com/voice