Denise Woods is an internationally renowned vocal coach. She spends her life’s work making people feel comfortable in their own skin and self expression. She started out living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and now with her current work as a producer, Woods continues adding to her skills and experiences to reinforce her reputation as one of the most sought-after coaches in the entertainment industry.
Woods knew she wanted to be an expert in the vocal coach space. She wanted to specialize in coaching of the speaking voice because she felt it was needed in Hollywood and she wanted to be a standout or one of a select few of those who have mastered the craft.
“I really wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than one of the several hundred actors vying for the same job,” she said.
She believes it’s important for an actor to be proficient in articulation. Articulation and the ability to have range in how one speaks allows an actor to transform. If an actor came to her for help, she said she would curate research and samples to figure out what their character may sound like depending on where they’re from.
Woods grew up spending time at Sylvia’s Harlem Restaurant, which belonged to her Aunt Sylvia. Because of the time she spent there, she would go to church in Harlem, rather than in the Lower East Side, which her parents had moved to in the late 1950s. While spending time in Harlem, Woods said she was surrounded by the arts and that it inspired her to sing in the New York City Opera.
Subsequently, her love for performing led her to attend schools that specialized in arts education. She attended the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. She also auditioned for The Juilliard School, a private performing arts conservatory in NYC, at 17 years old and got accepted. Through her time in school, Woods developed her ear for what she does today.
“I realized I had an ear for not just music, but classical music, which led me to appreciate Shakespeare and classical texts because I could hear the rhythm in it and the musicality of the language. I hear music in language,” she said.
The fascination with the way people spoke intensified when she would have dinner with her family after church. Each family member would pretend to be someone from the church and act them out. Woods said this informal roundtable of sorts helped her realize she could navigate between people’s worlds.
“Everyone has their own unique way of expressing. I embraced that and never judged them,” she said.
Woods has taken about three prodigies under her wing who have degrees in acting, speech pathology and more. “There are a handful of African American dialect coaches, so I have taken a bit under my wing and the jobs
I cannot take, I give to them,” she said.
Woods has largely become the success she is today because of word of mouth of her skills and reputation. Her first big, individual client was Taye Diggs, who needed a Jamaican accent, for his role in the movie “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” She also worked with Soledad O’Brien, a broadcast journalist, on sounding less like she was from Long Island. She was recommended by someone to the vice president of on-air talent to assist with helping O’Brien and other incoming talent while she was the first African American woman on the drama division faculty at Juilliard.
Woods taught in higher education for 12 years. In addition to her time at Juilliard, she later became the head of the speech department at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which she retired from in 2012.
Woods published her first book, “The Power of Voice: A Guide to Making Yourself Heard” (HarperCollins Publishers: 2021). In her book, Woods talks about problems she and some of her friends that she’s made in her career have faced with expressing themselves. Throughout her career, Woods has worked with film stars such as Halle Berry, Will Smith, Idris Alba, Queen Latifah and Taraji P. Henson.
“People don’t want to change who they are. I convince them they don’t have to. I’m just giving them the tools to expand,” she said.