My background, and training (college and studio) is in voice and acting. The voice of the character has always been a vital component in creating a well developed, believable performance. Similarly, in life, one’s voice is a most important tool for creating a lasting impression of confidence and competence that captures attention and respect.
My teaching method begins with detective work. In the first session, I study how the learner best assimilates information. Then I bring the dialect to them from multiple perspectives; visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Together we navigate the pathway that works best for each person.
When someone finds that his/her own accent begins limiting opportunities, I bring them variations of Standard American English as new tools to add to their toolbox. I don’t use the phrases ‘getting rid of an accent’ or ‘accent reduction’. This can imply that someone’s place of birth or heritage is sub-par. Dialects are wonderful and part of what makes us unique. Our voice is as individual as our fingerprint. Actors know this and use accents to create distinctive characters. So, we learn a new dialect (SAE) to be more cast-able, more hire-able and more flexible. It does take commitment and regular use to perfect, but it does not take away heritage or birthright. Psychologically, this eases the pressure for the learner and makes the serious work of learning new ways of speaking much more fun.
Speaking of fun, I do all I can to keep a sense of it in our work. Voice study is much more pedantic and therefore often less creative than acting classes, which might be why actors avoid this study like they do the 9-5 world. So, over the years, I have developed fun, creative exercises and I bring my sense of humor always. Let’s face it, this is hard work. Why not find ways to enjoy it?
For film, I always begin from scratch. Whether I have coached the dialect before or not, I erase the etch-a-sketch and research (always with real voices) all over again. Why? Because so often bad habits sneak in. I hear it in film and tv work so often. Many times when an accent is just not quite right, it’s because of one vowel sound or inflection that has eased back in.
In summary, we find your groove, work hard and have a great time. Dialect study doesn’t have to be dry or academic. You can have fun and exponentially increase your casting options. And if there is anything worse than a bad accent on stage, it’s a bad accent on film or tv….because it’s forever. Being realistic, American acting training, even in university, spends precious little time on this very important element in creating a strong and believable character. So, get a coach and learn effective skills to help you be the best artist you can be. A good coach can help you be remembered for the character you have created, not for a less than believable dialect.
One thing to remember when doing an American accent is that though Standard American does vary from region to region, Americans do not study or learn this dialect as school children or from our parents. We learn English mechanics from those around us and from teachers who have their own accents. Elocution is not taught in American schools and rarely does an elementary teacher learn Standard American English.
Subsequently, most Americans don’t actually speak with the accent that is considered the standard. It is the very best tool to have as a foundation for all accented English. I encourage that all actors learn SAE. Yet, truthfully, it’s not the way most of us actually talk. Watch a cross section of videos on YouTube and notice how much we run words together and eliminate or shift consonants and affect vowel sounds when we speak, no matter what part of the county we hail from. So, if a director or casting director asks you for a ‘normal’ or general American accent, (sometimes even mistakenly described as Standard,) they usually want you to sound like an American truck driver or accountant or stay at home mom or therapist, etc. as they talk in typical conversation. Using SAE in these auditions might not be the best tactic. Don’t make the mistake of thinking those making casting decisions will hear SAE and think of it as the neutral voice that you can mold for the character. The character’s voice should go with you to the audition.
Invisible vegetables: Twist your tongue – it works!
Those old tongue twisters you played with in school really do help you articulate more clearly. Just type in ‘tongue twisters’ online and you can find a cavelcade of fun exercises that will help you enunciate (SO IMPORTANT) more clearly. The key isn’t to be fast when you are working on these for articulation. The key is to pronounce every sound clearly. So, slow down and have fun. Memorize a few or copy them and take them with you to auditions to warm up with. Proof that copy writers don’t read what they write aloud, I had an audition today that had the phrase ‘invisible vegetables’. Say that five times fast! It helped me to practice a tongue twister I knew that focused on the consonants ‘b’ and ‘v’. You can even make up your own twisters for the specific sounds that trip you up. They are fun and effective and FREE.
Your ears can deceive you!
Even those with the best ‘ears’ for accents should have some sort of visual aide for accuracy. Make sure you learn the sounds then mark your script so as you learn you have a visual picture of the sounds. You don’t need to use a formal system, but just something that will help you visualize the sounds in your own noggin. If you have ever listened to your own voice recorded you know that how we hear ourselves is not the way others hear us. With dialects, it’s easy to miss things if we simply listen and try to mimic. To ensure consistency and accuracy, learn rules and find a way to document them. Then mark your script. Your ears are only one of the tools needed for dialect mastery. As with any aspect of acting, use as many tools as you can!
Start as early as possible
Ideally, dialect work should begin early in the process of rehearsal or character discovery. Dialect gives the voice the background characteristics and structure, then the individual factors like family influences, social context, physiology and psychological make up factor in to create the specific voice of the character. When you add a dialect after all of the other things are ‘set’, the accent usually sounds like an afterthought, not an integral part of the character’s speech. A good coach can help you in the early development of the character by asking the best questions, then offering options, that will help you discover what makes the voice of the character unique.
Copyright © 2019 Jill Massie: Dialect & Acting Coach - All Rights Reserved