As a former professional soccer player and Olympic athlete, Danielle Slaton '11 MA was used to training her muscles. But Slaton, a FOX Sports color commentator for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, needed to get her voice in shape. This was new territory.
To prepare for the role, Slaton worked with Northwestern University’s Linda Gates, a voice and dialect coach. Using theater techniques, Gates helped Slaton eliminate her “upspeak,” or the tendency to say everything as a question, and the dreaded but trendy “vocal fry,” which occurs when the voice sits on the vocal cords and sounds like creaky vibrations.
“Vocal fry is common; all my students have it,” said Gates, the head of voice in the department of theatre in the School of Communication. “But you can’t just say, ‘don’t do it.’ You have to start by learning how to breathe, stand, how to place your voice and work with range.”
Trained in acting, voice and speech, Gates has coached Placido Domingo in the Metropolitan Opera production of “The First Emperor,” and she was the voice and dialect coach for productions at Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight, Remy Bumppo, Lookingglass and other theatre groups in Chicago and the region.
Gates has also run vocal workshops for the Royal Shakespeare Company and for voice conferences around the world. She is the author of the user-friendly book, “Voice for Performance: Training the Actor’s Voice,” and has trained people from a variety of backgrounds, from veteran actors and singers to hedge fund traders and nuclear engineers.
Gates and Slaton, a former Northwestern assistant soccer coach, met about a dozen times over four months to prepare for the first broadcast on June 6. Working to connect the breath to the phrasing of words, they read scripts and the opening of novels, and analyzed soccer matches. Though Slaton had no acting or formal broadcast or journalism training, she picked up the techniques quickly, said Gates.
“She’s very, very smart, very focused and a great athlete,” said Gates. “Like anything in the arts, it’s muscle memory, so you have to literally change the way you breathe. But her muscles are so responsive to training and memorize almost instantly.”
Breath support is the foundation for all professional speaking or singing. But “most people talk until they run out of air and then take another breath,” said Gates. “Then it’s too late. You have to keep the air support under you.”
Slaton practiced by lying on the floor and lifting a book with the lower abdomen or epigastrium, which helps to build breath support for the voice. This quick intake of air has to become automatic, as the speaker must breathe in quickly before each new phrase, letting the breath support the voice without exhaling.
“I also needed to learn to use my voice in a way that didn’t strain my vocal cords, “ Slaton said. “And raising the pitch of my voice helped make sure that people would unconsciously respond to the sounds and tones I was using to help tell the story.”
Slaton was an assistant coach for the Northwestern women’s soccer team from 2006 to 2008 and received a master’s degree in sports administration from Northwestern. She began working as a women’s soccer analyst for the Big Ten Network in 2010.
One of the most talented defenders America has produced, Slaton played for the U.S. Women’s National team from 2000 to 2005, earning a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games and bronze in the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She played professionally in the Women’s United Soccer Association and also in France.
“When you’re an athlete you learn how to be coached, how to listen and you’re very aware of your body,” Slaton said. “All those things proved useful in an avenue I never could have imagined. When I talk with kids, I tell them ‘athleticism is a transferable skill. Put it on your resume.’”
Slaton is working as a match analyst through the quarterfinals, alongside John Strong with FOX Sports. Previously, she called games for FOX Sports’ coverage of the 2014 Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association (CONCACAF) Women’s World Cup Qualifying and the 2015 Algarve Cup.