Voice Lessons

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Chuck Cooper and I are both capable of reading English aloud; but he is more resonant, more animated, more confident -- and he goes a whole lot longer between green slashes from Lin Coffman.

Yet get them he does, those pesky little electronic stop signs, thanks to the countless titles under his belt and about eight years as a volunteer reader in the Indiana State Library's Talking Book service.

About 1,000 digital books-on-cartridge are shipped daily to blind and otherwise disabled Hoosiers from the library's vast inventory, and the bulk are produced elsewhere. But the recording studio that Coffman manages turns out custom-made renditions of books and magazines that have Indiana authors and/or connections. Indiana Voices, as it is called, is funded by the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation.

Hewing to pristine standards of the Library of Congress, the process is an exacting one. I tried it out as a reader and was physically tired and close to demoralized after a few paragraphs about the artist T.C. Steele from Nelson Price's Indiana Legends. No fault of yours, Nelson.

Lin Coffman, one of the recording studio managers, sits at his controls. Coffman watches for spikes or dips in volume and mispronunciations. - PHOTO BY DAN CARPENTER
  • Photo by Dan Carpenter
  • Lin Coffman, one of the recording studio managers, sits at his controls. Coffman watches for spikes or dips in volume and mispronunciations.

"Sensing Steele's talent," I recited, "wealthy Hoosier benefactors, including Herman Lieber and members of the Fletcher family of Indianapolis, offered to send the painter and his family to study with master port-a-tusts - uh, portraitists ... Oops."

"Start over at 'study.'"

"I'm sorry, at 'sensing'?"

"No, 'to study.' "

"OK."

And so it goes for Coffman outside the tiny booth, following along with the text, listening with headphones and watching the jagged black band of sound waves cross his computer screen like a lie detector readout. When there's a mispronunciation, a pause that lasts too long, audible breathing or any of a myriad other flaws in the flow, he keys in the green mark and we go back, now or later.

The recording booths have a list of dos and don'ts to make recordings easier.  - PHOTO BY DAN CARPENTER
  • Photo by Dan Carpenter
  • The recording booths have a list of dos and don'ts to make recordings easier.

"I can be pretty dramatic," the former high school audio-visual director says. "Sometimes I'll hear 'You've been pounding on the window!'"

With volunteers coming in an hour or so a week apiece, it takes four to five months just to get a book read. With the painstaking preparation, editing and general production work Coffman must do, plus reviewing by another corps of volunteers, it takes on average eight months to bring a Kurt Vonnegut novel or Susan Neville essay collection from conception to birth.

"I love the geeky part of the job that others might find tedious," Coffman confides. "If I do my job correctly, people won't notice what I've done."

For Chuck Cooper, a retired computer tender and businessman, the reading satisfies a lifelong love but often lays a minefield -- foreign expressions and rustic dialect especially. He takes the precaution of underlining potentially troublesome words and phrases before he takes his water bottle into the booth. Today, it's the comic novel The Road to Many a Wonder by David Wagoner.

"... Some said everyone was sick or dying in ... Oh-rare-ia?"

"Yeah, that's what I'd say. 'Oh-rare-ia.'"

"OK. Some said everyone was sick or dying in Auraria and Denver City from having et their mules in the winter."

Teamwork. Both know it's "et," and only the man with the headphones is allowed to laugh.

"I couldn't ask for a better bunch," Coffman says of his dozen volunteer narrators, whose ranks include longtime Indy arts communications figure Carl Henn, noted Zionsville speaker and former TV anchor Jean Heck and the state library's own catalog specialist Doug Conrads.

"They're pretty eclectic, which you'd have to be to want to sit in a box and read," he says. "They all have a heart for giving."

Chuck Cooper, a volunteer reader, sits with the text of David Wagoner's The Road to Many a Wonder.  - PHOTO BY DAN CARPENTER
  • Photo by Dan Carpenter
  • Chuck Cooper, a volunteer reader, sits with the text of David Wagoner's The Road to Many a Wonder.

Technology is changing how the Talking Book program works. Coffman is phasing in a new software system that will increase efficiency by essentially pushing more editing to the front end. Meanwhile, the use of postal mail -- with each of about 6,000 eligible Hoosiers being loaned a player machine -- is giving room to direct downloading. There's an app for that.

The library has 13,000 digital titles on mailable cartridges and 40,000 on the BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) system of National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Last February the first talking book from Coffman's shop went up on BARD; and another, on the Indy 500, debuted in spring.

What this means, of course, is that those Indiana-related books Coffman's volunteers are pouring their hearts into can reach beyond Indiana to infinity.

The essence, says Margaret Ansty, head of the Talking Book and Braille Library, will not change.

"We have patrons who get as many as 30 books," she says. "They'll be calling us -- 'Send me more books.' I have letters from people who say this has literally changed their lives."

Sounds like a heavy responsibility. I'll leave it to the likes of Chuck and Lin, and retreat to do my best George Plimpton.

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