New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 25: Brendan Houdek hero

New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 25: Brendan Houdek

Posted February 7, 2020 by Greg Kefalas
Speech Language Pathologist, voice impressionist, and voice teacher Brendan Houdek joins us on the air! He talks through what allows him to imitate well over 30 voices, a deeper look into the world of speech pathology, and what drew him to such a strong passion for the voice.
 

Released: 2/7/2020

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Episode Transcript

Matt
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the New York Vocal Coaching Podcast. I'm Matt.

Andy
And I'm Andy. Brendan Houdek. is a senior instructor at New York Speech Coaching. He specializes in effective business communication, executive presence, and vocal production. His teaching emphasizes control over one's speaking abilities to be utilized as they see fit in any speaking situation. His training covers not only the psychological aspects of speech productions, but also presentational performance and physiological perspective work.

Matt
In addition to his work as a speech coach, Brendan is an NYS-licensed and ASHA-certified speech language pathologist, specializing in voice and fluency disorders, and he is the head of New York Speech Pathology. Brendan also is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and voice impressionist, hosting the show Voice Breakdown on YouTube. So great to have you, my friend.

Brendan
Good to be here, thanks for having me.

Andy
Most importantly, he's our colleague here.

Matt
Yay, go colleagues.

Brendan
I know these two pretty well.

Andy
Awesome. I'm sure many of our listeners know Brendan, and have seen him on Instagram and in his famed, popular YouTube show.

Brendan
Voice Breakdown.

Andy
Voice Breakdown.

Brendan
And if you haven't, go watch it.

Andy
Go watch it, exactly. So let's just start with, since we're kind of talking about Voice Breakdown, where did that idea come from? What's going on there?

Brendan
It's an interesting story, how that one began. I've always done voice impressions, and as we all are here, we're obsessed with the voice. But it began with, I used to do this Miss Piggy impression with a good friend of mine, and he had a great Kermit the Frog impression. And truly, this was born out of jealousy.

I couldn't do Kermit the Frog and he could, and I was very jealous of that. So I said, I'm going to figure out how to do this voice. I knew the vocal anatomy and physiology and I thought, maybe there's a system that I can devise to be able to figure out exactly how to break down any voice.

And so Kermit was the very first one that I did. And then I said, let's test this a few more times. And it works. So many of the voices that you hear on Voice Breakdown, I couldn't do prior to Voice Breakdown, proving the efficacy of the system.

Matt
That's great.

Andy
So this isn't when you were 12 years old, this is as a little kid, I'm jealous of you. It was a few years ago when you kind of had this?

Brendan
Sounds funny to say, but yes.

Andy
I'm jealous.

Brendan
I was a 25 year old man at the time. Yeah.

Now voices I was always doing from a young age, but this voice breakdown system, I think it was 2014 or 15 that I developed it, yeah.

Andy
So as a young kid, were you doing specific impressions or was it just like I'm, I'm a kid and I'm doing silly voices or are you listening to things? I mean like I'm trying to figure out how to do that.

Brendan
I think like all of us here, we've had that performance bug from when we were young and when you're young and you like to perform, you like to get that attention a little bit, and so there was definitely a part of that with me trying to get to people to notice these silly voices I was doing. But it was both what you're saying. It was silly voices just to be funny, but also definitely imitating people. It was one of those things that when I would tell a story, I wouldn't just tell the story. I'd slip into that person's voice and embody them a little bit and so their mannerisms. That was a very common thing for me to do. I've always loved storytelling just in general and I couldn't help but act it out while doing it.

Matt
Yeah. It's so interesting when you're making all these silly voices and sounds and what have you, how much you can learn about the physiology and your own instrument when you're making them, and I'm sure there are so many parallels when you're teaching. Then you can bring in all these different types of breaking down these different voices and imitation and utilizing all these different characters to help out.

Brendan
It works both physiologically and mentally. How many of your singers have you experienced that it's hard for them to just get to that place? There's that mental hold sometimes.

Andy
Right.

Brendan
But when you're screaming your head off as Gilbert Gottfried for example, you lose those egotistical hangups and you're able to access some of these sounds. And so I always encourage my singers and my speakers to be willing to just make silly, stupid sounds and just don't care who's listening. Right?

Matt
So how many episodes do you have out currently for voice breakdown?

Brendan
I think we've done 32.

Matt
That's great. And how many in the works?

Brendan
I want to hit at least a hundred. I think we need to at least hit a hundred. I think we'll surpass 50 something, 55 or so, by the end of this year. And it's tricky because the number of episodes doesn't necessarily correlate to the number of voices. The very first episode, there was no voice.

Andy
Right.

Brendan
And I have short episodes in the future that I might put more than one voice in a video. Sneak peek for the podcast. There's a Pokemon series coming up. They only say one word, Pokemon. And so I thought maybe I could squeeze more than one into an episode. So you might hear "Squirtle, Squirtle," and "Bulbasaur," in the same episode. We'll find out, but I want to hit at least a hundred voices. I'd love to be the man of a hundred voices. I think it would be fun.

Andy
So three things about the voices you've done so far. What was the easiest, what was the most difficult and what was the most fun?

Brendan
The easiest was probably some of the ones I was already doing. So Ms. Piggy, was she and Kermit were the start of this whole thing. So Ms. Piggy was probably the easiest. I also have been doing Gilbert Gottfried since I was very young and so I just love that man. The most difficult was one of the questions? One of the things you'll find about these voices is some of them, they're easy to get into when you have a catchphrase, but then extending it to other words is hard. So there's a few that were hard. Believe it or not, Ray Romano is one that I can do, and then I had to really work to be able to do it in more than just one word. "Oh," is easy. But talking to you like that is difficult. But we got it. We got it done. Yeah, the system works. The third one was...

Andy
Most fun.

Brendan
Most fun. Love Stitch, love Stitch "ohana means family". Love that. All of those squeezed ones, the Yoshis of the world, all of those are really fun to do and people, you know, the thing about it being fun too is there is a very particular smile that comes across someone's face when you do a voice impression in front of them. They just love it. They love it. And so the real talking about making a joyful noise, it's also making a joyful noise that makes a joyful face in other people. And there's something about when I do that Yoshi, people smile. And that is just one of the funnest things you can do.

Matt
Yeah, it is. You know, I find myself just, I'm sure we've all done that where it'll be on Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or something where it's like you see a famous person doing an impersonation of something and then you're like, gosh, that's really funny. And then you, and then I, the other day I was on a Bill Hader kick. I don't know why, but I was watching, I was just watching YouTube clip after YouTube clip and it just hilarious. Just, yeah, I don't know.

Brendan
He's just, he's a master. He's a voice impressionist master. Fun fact about Bill Hader. Did you know that he is the voice or at least was consulted for the sounds of bb8 from Star Wars - the little droid? That's Bill Hader. Yeah. Also in the newest Star Wars D-O is J.J. Abrams and being a voice person. First time I was watching the movie, I've seen it a few times now. Star Wars nerd over here. The first time I saw it, I immediately heard, I said, that's J.J. Abrams. I know for a fact and looked it up. J.J. Abrams. So Star Wars voice impressionist trivia for all of you.

Andy
Have you had anyone come to you yet? Not seeking your speech, executive services, but your voice impersonate you have.

Brendan
Yep.

Andy
You have?

Brendan
And one of the things that's interesting about my job here as you both know is I have a few different hats. There's a speech pathology hat, speech coaching hat, the vocal coaching hat, and even within speech coaching, you have these hats of someone's coming in for executive work. I'm not going to do a Yoshi voice. Someone else is coming.

Andy
Not going to lie, I'd kind of like to see it though.

Brendan
All these CEOs wanting to learn to sound like Stitch, but then within back-to-back lessons, I'm doing executive presence work and then I'm teaching somebody how to sound like Kermit the Frog and it's very fun to bounce back and forth. But yeah, definitely had a bunch.

Andy
For those who have not yet watched Voice Breakdown, you have your own system. What are the tiers of that system? What topics do you look for in a voice that allows you to imitate it so well?

Brendan
Yeah, the system works for about 98% of the voices. There's always going to be some voices that have an extra step to put in there, but by and large, the system works like this. I have, what are the body parts doing? Right? How are they positioned? And those body parts being the vocal cords. And even within that, there's a whole bunch, right? But I like to look at this system as a whole and I say that's the sound source. We start there. What are the cords doing? What's their length? What's their levels of compression? Is there any distortion happening there? Vocal cords only. And as you start to listen to voices, you can go, oh, let me block out all the rest and just hear what the cords themselves are doing. Then we start to get into some of those more resonance-based things, right? So you have your sound source.

Then you have the space within which that sound vibrates. What is that doing and what body parts manipulate that. So the second piece would be the larynx. What's the larynx height? What's going on there? Then we talk about the soft palate, talking about that and nasal resonance versus the oral resonance and what the palate is doing to help with that. And then the tongue, the tongue can do a whole bunch of different things. And actually I think we think of the tongue a lot more for articulation, but its position, its clenching. All of this, as you know, can affect the resonance. And so a lot of these voices have tongue clench and that affects the whole resonance of the thing. So first I look for that and then I look for some of those less anatomical features and more of how are they, obviously everything is anatomical in one sense, but how are they articulating specific sounds? So is it, "I tought I taw a puddy cat." So how are they articulating specific speech sounds and then the prosodic patterns, this is their inflection, the rhythmic patterns, the melodic patterns, and then just any idiosyncrasies, they have catch phrases and things of that nature. But it all begins with that anatomical understanding, at least for me. I know for other voice impressionists, it's more so getting into that character that happens second for me, but I do get there.

Andy
Yeah.

Matt
Right.

Andy
Yeah.

Matt
Right.

Andy
And maybe you don't want to answer this, but has there been a voice that, that or a sound that you're like, I cannot figure out how they're doing that and maybe you don't want to tell us cause you're still trying to figure it out for a, for a breakdown in the future, but...

Brendan
Well I think it's great to be honest with our viewers here. Of course. Of course.

Andy
I thought you're going to say it's going to be, I'm going to be honest. No, no.

Brendan
Never one time. I am perfect at what I do.

But the beauty of this is the system. I won't pretend that it's necessarily infallible and I have created this perfect system, but it's pretty good. And I have to pat myself on the back there, but it has helped me. I'm going to say at least half of those voices I totally could not do before the show. And that should be an encouragement to those who are trying to do this kind of work. I think people see voice impressions as well as singing as a gift that you just have or you don't. Right? And I think they see it as you're either a great mimic or you're not. And mimicry is great. It's good for people who have that skill and that gift. But the truth is that only goes so far because if you can't mimic it, you're done. You have no recourse to correct that.

There's no other option. It's either I can do it or I can't. This system is, you can do anything, right? I'm not saying it's easy, but you can do anything. And so I'd say about 50% of those voices I couldn't do, and now I can. And so there's some voices that I am still struggling with, but every couple of weeks there's a new voice I'm trying to do. And I like to challenge myself for the viewers so that I have that authenticity. I am in the trenches with them trying to do this stuff.

Andy
It's a vulnerability.

Brendan
It's a vulnerability. And some of those voices I look back and I go, I can do it a hundred percent better now. But you know, that's, that's the authenticity I'm trying to have with the listeners and the viewers.

Andy
Yeah. That's really important. That's something that I'm sure all three of us talk about often in our voice lessons where someone comes in and says, are people born with a singing voice? Is it a gift? Is it a talent? Blah, blah, blah. I say blah, blah, blah. Cause we get it all the time. And all of us are like, Oh yeah, we all get that all the time. And the answer is, yeah, there are some of those people who are just amazing and we hate those people. But for the most part it comes from the fact that we all have the same stuff. For the most part, the three of us all have a larynx. We all have vocal folds. We bring in Meredith, we bring in Julie, we bring in Beyonce, we bring in whoever. It's all the same stuff. And so like you're saying, you can do it because it's not like you Brendan have something anatomically different from someone else.

Brendan
Exactly.

Andy
We all have it, including our listeners. So if you can learn how to manipulate or use them in a different way, you can kind of do what you want or make the sounds you want.

Brendan
And you know what else? We all have limitations. We all have limitations that we're trying to get through. We won't tell the viewers, but you both know what is that part of your singing that you are not so good at and you're trying to make better. Right?

Andy
Exactly.

Brendan
And it's important to say that to give people clarity on this, that it's not that we have some magical gift and they don't have it. As Justin says in the video, don't let anybody tell you you can't sing and you and I both know that's not true. You can! It takes some work and that's something for my viewers. The system works if you put in the work.

Andy
Yeah.

Matt
Right, right.

Andy
Well, you mentioned as well that some of the voices that you've made for your videos have continued to improve and I think that's another important thing to consider that we as teachers with all the work that we do, are still learning. We're still honing our skills. And when we go into work at the beginning of the day, it's not, Oh, I have to do the same thing every day.

It's no, we get to keep on learning with our students, trying new things and making different sounds and it's really exciting to be a part of. That we are not stagnant, we're always looking to move forward.

Brendan
And I think to get into the idea of goal setting is important. I just said I set this goal for a hundred voices. I didn't have 30 a couple of years ago and now there's 30 and there's probably about 60 but 30 that have been shown to the world, right?

Andy
Yeah.

Brendan
Set some goals and work and if you show up, put in the work every day with a few days rest here or there and you'll do it, they'll do it.

Andy
Cool. So another big part of your job, where you kind of began academically is speech and language pathology. So first of all, what is it? What does that even mean?

Brendan
Yeah, speech pathology. It's helpful to compare it to speech coaching.

Speech pathology is dealing with speech and language and swallowing by the way, disorders, conditions or pathologies, things that are outside of the accepted medical healthy norm, right? So for example, if you have vocal nodules, a voice therapist, which is a speech pathologist, will help you remediate and heal from those. If you just quote "don't like the sound of your voice," you would go to a speech coach. So a speech coach is dealing with those non-pathological situations, whereas the pathologist is dealing with disorders, conditions and pathologies. It's a very, very wide field. We call it speech language pathology. Speech disorders are those that deal with the actual sound production. For example, if I cover my mouth, I now have a speech problem, not a language problem, right? Language disorders deal with that expressive and receptive understanding of the systems of language. So that's a whole 'nother area that we cannot get into today.

And then we also deal with swallowing disorders. There are tons of conditions where people are impaired in their swallowing and as we know as voice technicians, the swallowing system is closely tied to the singing system and the speaking system. That's why we also learn about those.

Andy
Yeah. Now it's clear that you have so many interests with the imitations, with Star Wars, with speech pathology, all of that. What led you to go to school for that to begin with?

Brendan
The multiple interests come from not sleeping and being a nerd. Well, why did I go for speech pathology? One, I've always been obsessed with sound and obsessed with talking. Everyone used to say to me growing up, you should get a job where you talk for a living cause you never shut up. And I did, folks. I got a job where I talk for a living and I talk about... That's right.

And I talk about talking for a living. But the real, the real motivation for me was when I found out about this field, I was actually at a college fair and they were a career fair at the college. And I saw this speech language pathology and it said, you can learn all about talking. I said, great and you can help people. And for me I went... I can do the thing I love to do. And do the other thing I love to do, which is help people. And then I found out that singers need this and I went, I can do the third thing I love to do. And then I learned about speech coaching and there's a lot of philosophy that goes into speech coaching. And I don't know if you know this, I also have a philosophy and religious studies degree and I said, Oh, I can do the fourth thing I love to do. And I combined all of those together. That's why I chose to do what I do.

Matt
A match made in heaven.

Brendan
A match made in heaven or at least in New York City.

Andy
Yeah, exactly. It's, it is lucky that you know, you can have that crossover between all of these things. Speaking of crossing over, you are also a voice teacher. So first of all, my first question is if you have a singer who says, Oh, I went to the laryngologist and you know I have a vocal situation, I have a node, I have a polyp, I have blah, blah, blah, whatever it is. And they were recommended to come see you, what is your job? What do you do for that singer per se?

Brendan
Yeah.

Andy
And it depends on what the situation is, but as a, from a singer perspective, I guess.

Brendan
Yeah, I do first want to say that crossover really could only happen here. It could only happen at New York Vocal Coaching. What I do, this is again, not patting me on the back but patting New York Vocal Coaching on the back. There just really isn't a place that combines all these areas and so I'm just indebted to this company. But secondly, if a singer is coming in, you're right that it's going to be different per situation. The speech pathologist's job is, we do prevention, assessment, diagnosis, treatment and advocacy for voice disorders. Prevention means let's just have these things not happen to begin with, right? These injuries, but if it's already happened, my job is to assess it, which means what's the severity of it? What are the symptoms, the perceptual correlates that are happening to that meaning, what do they sound like as a result of this?

And in certain cases we can diagnose it, but in this case the ENT has already done that.

Andy
Right.

Brendan
And then we're learning how to treat it. Treatment, there's tons of different treatment strategies. For me though, as you might imagine, I always work with that big system in mind. Just like Voice Breakdown, I'm saying, "what in the system is impaired and what can I do to fix that?" And frankly, it's very similar to what we're doing in the singing world. The distinction is that in speech pathology, we're learning more in depth about what those disorders actually are. So you would know if doing a g,g,g is going to exacerbate that issue or if it's actually going to be helpful to it.

So yeah, in a nutshell, assessing the severity of it, providing treatment strategies so that they're not doing greater harm and so that they're rehabilitating that. Sometimes I'm actually prepping them for surgery. Sometimes they've done some damage to their voice. If they get surgery to remove the polyp, say, and they keep going right back to those vocal habits, they're just going to get the polyp again. I have people who have done this, not that have seen me for voice therapy, but friends, have done this. I have a good friend got a polyp. I said, "hey, let me give you voice therapy." He said, "I'll be fine". I'll see you in a couple of years. And he did. He got another polyp and so sometimes I'm prepping them for that. So the pre post op surgical stuff.

Andy
Yeah. This is a cool thing that people don't, don't know that the team of people who handle voice users and especially singers, it's, it's not just the ENT, it's not just the speech pathologist. It's not just the voice teacher, it's everybody.

Matt
Absolutely.

Andy
You know, one thing that I went to this workshop several years back where a great laryngologist, Dr. Sulica, he teaches at Weill Cornell, but anyway, amazing in New York City here. And he said, the first thing that you have to do when you find out there's something going on, one, don't catastrophize. It's not a catastrophe. He said having terminal cancer, that's a catastrophe. That's scary. Having a node is not catastrophe and the thing that people do is they panic and say, gosh, this is never going to be fixed.

It's like, no, it will be fixed and there are solutions and it's okay. The second thing he said, the cool part and tricky part about the singer and things is that the laryngologist can't give a voice lesson. The voice teacher can't diagnose the speech. The voice teacher can't correct, you know, habits, daily speaking habits. I mean there are some crossover as you know, but you know, he said it's kind of, it's cool that everyone's job is so specific that you need kind of all three because they can't do each other's job, you know.

Brendan
And I got a little greedy trying to do everyone's job, but I'm not an ENT, right? And I think you're spot on with this. Back to the nodes versus the cancer. I want to say this for everybody listening to this podcast, vocal nodules, AKA nodes, are probably the most benign, non-serious voice disorder you can have. Let me say that again. If you have vocal nodules, relax. Come see me, we'll get rid of them. They are 99% treatable with voice therapy. In the 1% that surgery is required, people are pretty good at the surgery. You're not going to have a problem. People would rather have cancer than nodules and I need everyone to know, that is silly. I also need you to know, here's a little confession, I have had some vocal injuries in my life, pre-Voice Breakdown, just so everyone knows. That inspired me to want to do this. I've hemorrhaged my voice. I have a pseudo cyst on my right vocal fold. Fun fact, my right vocal fold is partially paralyzed. It's paretic. I have horrific acid reflux some days and I have a professional career in speech coaching, vocal coaching, speech pathology, voice impressions. You will be fine. I just need to say that.

Andy
Yeah, no, it's super important that it's, it's okay. Even the most careful people, it stuff happens and that's okay.

Brendan
And then you learn and get better and since I've found this career, I haven't had a single problem. Right? You can get help, you can get better. I just want really people to be encouraged because I know somebody is catastrophizing over that. I did when it first happened to me and just want to give everyone hope out there for sure.

Matt
Yeah. I never knew that about you and I love that you bring that up too because I feel like a lot of people say, Oh no, I'm going to damage my voice, and then they don't do the craft or passion that they love to do that brings them joy because they don't want to overdo it. But the chances of that happening as long as you have a good team surrounding you are so slim.

Brendan
That's right.

Matt
Yeah.

Brendan
And that mental battle though, there's obviously true physical pathologies going on here, but that mental battle, I'm going to say it's at least 50%, it really is.

Matt
Absolutely.

Andy
Yeah.

Brendan
It really is.

Andy
We're, we're about running out of time, friends, we all have to get into the studio to teach. We thought we would have one quick moment to challenge you, Brendan, if you are up for it. So if you want to go willy nilly and if you want to use our closing remarks, feel free. We're going to challenge you to some different voices.

Brendan
Oh boy.

Andy
So we're going to shout them out and, and then you are going to either just freestyle for a second or if you need a little inspiration, you can do our, our outro, whatever you kind of feel like.

Brendan
I'm going to freestyle a bit. Let's see.

Andy
All right, so go for it, Matt, what do you want to hear?

Matt
We've got to start with Mickey Mouse.

Brendan
Mickey Mouse? Okay. Oh boy! I love this podcast!

Andy
Animal.

Brendan
Animal. Animal love New York.

Andy
Mario.

Brendan
It's me, Mario.

Andy
Let's go for Stitch.

Brendan
Stitch. Matthew and Andy are family.

Andy
Cave of Wonders.

Brendan
Cave of Wonders. Who disturbs my slumber?

Andy
That's awesome. Elmer Fudd.

Matt
Elmer Fudd.

Brendan
You scwewy-scwewy voice teachers making me do this podcast.

Andy
How about your first one? Kermit.

Matt
Kermit.

Brendan
Hi, ho, Kermit the Frog here at New York Vocal Coaching. Yep

Matt
Gilbert Gottfried?

Brendan
Gilbert Gottfried. This is the worst podcast I ever been a part of. These two are terrible. I am not coming back.

Andy
Oh my God. Do we need to end on that one? Yeah, that's perfect.

Andy
That's amazing. We are the worst podcast you've ever been on.

Brendan
Not at all, this has been wonderful. A true joy.

Andy
So yeah, we've been, this has been in the works for for quite a while. We've been trying to go back all of our schedule's so busy and so you know, I'm glad we were able to get you in here on this, on the podcast.

Brendan
Yeah, happy to be a part of it.

Matt
Yeah, such a joy. Thanks so much Brendan.

Brendan
Of course.

Andy
Thank you.

Matt
Thank you for joining us for this episode of the New York Vocal Coaching podcast. If you like what you hear, please subscribe, like, leave a review, and share the podcast with friends and family. And we thank you in advance for that.

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We're looking forward to seeing you again two weeks from now for another episode of the New York Vocal Coaching podcast.