The Tricky Bits: American Accent 2.0

I'm back, folks! I've been on the set of Berlin Station for the past few weeks, whipping some actors into accent perfection. Which got me thinking: what are the tricks that trip up even seasoned American-accent pros?

Before reading, you might be interested in my original post on Hints to Mastering Any Accent, or my post on The General American Accent ... Taught by a Real, Live, General American. But now let's get to the trickiest of American sounds ...

  1. R: The Slippery Bastard: The American "R" is a notoriously difficult sound, particularly because it appears just so f***ing much. But besides the fact that you have to pronounce the R literally each time it appears, managing the strength and length of that R sound can be difficult for UK actors. The key to sounding fully American is finding the correct "R" balance, which is usually less harsh than UK actors want to make it. 
  2. Nasality: Friend or Foe?: For some endearing-slash-annoying reason, Brits tend to automatically place the American accent in the nose, giving an overtly caricature American sound. While we do tend to have more twang than the average Brit, keep the GenAm accent in the back of the mouth to balance the levels of nasality. 
  3. Getting the "PRICE" Right: [// sound:] Most literature will say that in theory, the vowel found in the word "price" is the same in both the RP and GenAm accent. In theory, that is correct. However, when we start to look at the placement of the American accent (see my old posts linked above) it is clear that the PRICE sound is slightly different.  Start the American sound in a round, open, back of the mouth, versus the RP PRICE, which starts slightly higher, in the middle of the mouth. This tiny difference can mean dramatic changes in an accent, particularly in a character who uses the word "I" a lot ....
  4. Vowel Lengths: The Long & Short of it: Fairly straight forward, but short vowel sounds tend to be held slightly longer in a GenAm accent. This is an easy fix, but can quickly be forgotten when the accent is transitioned into acting. The main short vowels that are held are the vowel sounds found in the words LOT, STRUT, and FOOT.
    "The puppy did not understand the cook book."

    Just to make life extra confusing, we Americans also tend to shorten vowels that are long in RP, particularly the vowel sounds found in FLEECE, CLOTH, and THOUGHT. 
    Keep the fraught bee out the cream!
  5. Trick words are not your friends: Lastly, be VERY careful of words that seem straight forward, but are anything but. Even one pronunciation slip up can send you quickly back over to the other side of the Atlantic. Would you know how to pronounce these words with a General American accent? Splinter, Risotto, Herb, Lieutenant, Depot, Aluminum, Privacy, Yoghurt, Pasta, Zebra ...

Hints to Mastering Any Accent

Let's be honest: time is not always a luxury in the world of show business. So if you need to faux-master an accent in minutes, this is the guide for you. Instead of getting caught up on every sound, let's cut to the chase so that you can get back to acting.

However, before you rush into learning an accent, it might be worth reading the post 'What's in my Mouth?' to get a handle on the sounds your mouth can make. Then follow my 4 easy steps for fool-proof accents ...

1.     Where is the accent in my mouth? I find that this is the ultimate secret between sounding like a person doing an accent, and actually speaking in the accent. The Accent Kit is the best at exploring this idea, with their 'zones' ranging from 1 at the front of the mouth (an excellent spot for Irish, Welsh, or Standard British accents), 4 at the back of the mouth (giving a more American sound), and 7 in the nose (placing you square up in Manchester). Listen to find the zone of the accent, and then try speaking with your voice aimed in that area only. You'll find the sound changing, even if you aren't changing must else in your accent. Which brings me to ...

2.     Find the hesitation sound. Think of all the times in speech you pause to think, letting out an 'uhm'. Or perhaps you prefer 'erm' or 'uh' or 'eh' or 'ah'. That is your hesitation sound, and it varies widely in accents. This sound can often be found through the 'zone', which we covered in #1. An accent that likes to hesitate on an 'eh' probably sits farther forward in the mouth than an accent preferring 'uh'. You can understand this idea better by reading 'What's in my Mouth?' Vowels 101.

3.     Figure out 2-3 differences from your own accent. You're on a time crunch, so skip the phonetic analysis! Listen to the accent and think ok, what is extremely different sound-wise? Do they pronounce an 'r' when you usually usually do not? Or maybe they change their TH into Fs? Have a think, but don't bog yourself down. Go for the 2-3 most obvious changes and you're good to go.

4.     When all else fails, anchor yourself in 1 sentence or phrase that you feel confident saying in the accent. When you're off track, come back to this phrase to help get your mouth and brain on the road again.


Picture from How to Do Accents by Edda Sharpe & Jane Haydn Rowles






What's in My Mouth?: Vowels 101

I've recently been doing quite a bit of American accent coaching, and it has come to my attention that we as actors are vastly unprepared when it comes to the simple question: what's going on in my mouth?

"Bah humbug!" You say. "Actors don't need to know about the aryepiglottic folds! It's all about being in the moment!" To which I say, fair enough. I don't want you to start thinking about your oral twang mid-scene. But as it is better to be informed rather than ignorant, I would argue that it's better to be so versed in the workings of your own mouth that you don't need to think about it, as opposed to realizing mid-scene that you have no idea what you are doing.

But what is this even good for you ask? For one: accents. In an accent you will be changing, sometimes ever so slightly, what your tongue, jaw, lips, soft palate, etc. are doing. Knowing your way around your mouth is also needed for character voicing, when creating a voice for a character that is distinct but also consistent. I would argue you can only do this continually by knowing what is happening in your mouth.

To start: a bit of science: vowel sounds are all created in the same way, as the vocal folds in your larynx vibrate creating sound waves. The vibration then passes through your oral cavity (known at the mouth and throat in normal-person speak) which changes shape based on the sound. It is through the position of the tongue, lips, soft palate, and jaw that changes the vowel sound.

1.     To start, spread your lips into a smile, and push your tongue high and forward. Now see what sound comes out when you out some voice through it. Chances are you will get an 'eee' sound. This is the most forward and high vowel sound we can make.

2.     Keeping your tongue forward, move it down a fraction of an inch, and you arrive at 'ey'. I think of this as the Italian exclamation "AY!"

3.     Keeping moving the tongue down but staying forward and you land on a nice, solid 'eh' sound. This sounds vaguely English, such as in the word DRESS.

4.     Now going as far down as you can with the tongue at the front of the mouth, you will find yourself square on the sound 'aeh' as in the word TRAP.

5.     Let's start to move the tongue back in the mouth, but keeping it low. A few centimeters back from the previous sound you will find yourself producing a short 'ah'. This sound comes in handy when doing Northern English (UK) accents, such as in the word BATH.

6.     Going as far back and down as you can with the tongue, you'll find yourself in new territory, producing the sound 'ahhh'. This is the sound found in the standard British BATH. For Americans, this sound is found in the word FATHER.

7.     Now let's move the tongue up again, but keeping it in the back of the mouth. Round your lips over this sound, and out pops a nice round 'awww' or 'or' sound.

Note: Americans! This sound occurs a lot in UK accents, popping up in words such SHAW, LAW, NORTH & FORCE. In General American speech it shows its face in 'or' sounds, if you pretend there is no 'r' pronounced.

8.     Moving the tongue up, you'll pass quickly over a very pure 'ooh' sound. You know the one.

9.     Finally, bringing the tongue to the top we reach our highest back vowel 'ew', as in 'u'.

Now relax everything and reward yourself with the most lazy sound you can make: 'uh'. Voila, you've found your schwa, or most neutral vowel.

There are a few more vowels that fall in the middle, but you now know where the vowel homes are in your mouth. Now that you've paid them a visit, the quicker they will open their door to you in the future.

Happy vowel exploring!

This post draws heavily on the work of Jan Haydn-Rowles & Edda Sharpe of "How to do Accents," and of Dudley Knight's Knight-Thompson Speechwork

Warm Up Your Voice: Shower Time

Fitting in a voice warm up every day can seem incredibly time consuming, but it can be as easy as 10 minutes in the shower. Try it each time you shower for a week (if only for the free entertainment), and I promise you won't go back to your old silent showers anytime soon!

1.       Release: You're already in the shower, so luckily you are already in prime release mode. However, take a minute to check in to every part of your body, starting at your toes and working up to the top of your head. Is there any tension you can let go of to allow yourself to become more grounded? 

2.       Breath: Tune into your breathing, making sure you aren't forcing anything to happen. Once you feel your breath is calm, try counting to 10 using only one breath. Then gradually increase the amount by groups of 5, going from 10 to 15 to eventually 30! See how far you can go, and over time you'll find your ability increasing. 

3.       Voice: If you don't already sing in the shower, I can tell you that you are doing something wrong! Give your voice an easy start on a humming, be it a song you already know or something you make up. See if you can experiment with higher or lower notes than you are used to, stopping if anything feels pushed. Transition the traditional hum into making sound on an 'N' or and 'NG,' as in 'sing.'

4.       Resonance: Using a similar counting exercise as before, try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your chest. Then try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your mouth, and lastly coming out only from behind your eyes. Finally, try counting to 10 imagining the sound coming from the whole of your body. 

5.       Articulation: Wake up your muscles with a nice bout of gurning, or making strange faces.  Dudley Knight of Knight-Thompson Speechwork decribes gurning as "a wonderful exercise program for your face," and you'll be surprised at the positions you can get yourself into! Once those muscles have been properly stretched, finish it all off with some good old-fashioned tongue twisters. 

Peggy Babcock (10 times fast)
Seth at Sainsbury's sells thick socks. 
You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York

Happy warming up! 


The General American Accent … Taught by a real, live, general American!

Ah, the GenAm accent, the bane of every UK actor’s career. There is nothing I cringe at more than the dulcet tones of my motherland being butchered in performance. (I know the feeling is mutual, UK friends!)

Let me fess up – General American is not a real accent. Each speaker of GenAm will have their own discreet regionalisms and differences to other speakers classified as GenAm. But generally speaking (see what I did there?) the term refers to an accent characterizing a middle class sound, which doesn’t contain any overt regionalisms other than being from the United States. The accent makes the listener go “I can tell you’re American, but I can’t tell exactly where you are from.”

Now, I realize that probably over half the people who peep at this blog are actually American (hello, compatriots!) and might think that this has nothing to do with them. Oh, how they are wrong. You see, perhaps you don’t need to learn a General American accent, but knowing the sounds and shapes of your home accent is the first step in learning a new accent. So listen up my actor friends, and let’s take a journey to middle America …

1.     See an R, Say an R. It sounds so simple, but in practice it can prove a nightmare. Every R written in the English language is pronounced in an American accent. However, the R is uniquely American in that it is produced by the back of the tongue squishing up in the back of the mouth, described by The Accent Kit’s Edda Sharpe as “slug tongue.” Practice your slug tongue:
The mirror was in the corner of the Paris court.

2.     Goodbye Ts, Hello Ds! Americans are notorious for finding language shortcuts, and Ts are no exception. When Ts appear in the middle of the world is it usually changed to a tapped sound, closely resembling a D. We also tend tap Ts at the end of words, causing them to appear cut off. Practice your tapping:
But you must give up butter to lose a little weight.

3.     Nasal? GenAm gets a bad rap for being a nasal sounding accent, and there is an element of nasal twang, addressed in Tip #4. Specifically, nasality appears in GenAm when the vowels before a nasal consonant (m, n, ng) tend to blend with that nasal consonant, causing a more nasalized sound. This can be done by lowering the soft palate a touch earlier to allow the vowel and consonant to party together. However, GenAm has less nasality than is often perceived, so careful you're not overdoing it.
His drinking friend from the bank wants commitment.

4.     Say cheese! While it is a gross stereotype that Americans tend to be constantly smiling, sometimes gross stereotypes can help when learning an accent. In this case smiling actually helps oral posture, or where the mouth tends to hang out when speaking the accent. Not only are the lips in GenAm more spread than in most UK accents, but the sounds tend to resonate (you’ll feel a buzz) around the soft palate and in the nose. Funny enough, smiling helps place the voice right in that nasal resonator.

Obviously these tips only skim the surface, but with a little practice you too can sound as generally American as I do.


Voice and Posture

I was recently speaking to Guy Michaels and Esther Wane (two excellent folks in the world of voiceover, go check them out), when the topic of posture and voice came up. Now, as a voice person I know how easy it is to get obsessed with the minute details of the larynx and the like … so why of all things do I want to talk about posture?

Because voice over artists tend to have bad posture!

Ok, now that’s out in the open, let’s talk about why.
Often when we speak in real life our bodies tend to want to come towards the person we are speaking to, leading to the head and neck poking out and the shoulders rounding. However, in real life, the person we are speaking to responds to what we are saying, and our bodies register that they are listening to us. A studio with a microphone is an entirely different situation.  In the studio there is only you and the microphone. And it is quite easy to start poking the head and neck forward and rounding the shoulders in order to bring yourself (intentionally or unintentionally) closer to the microphone. This is lovingly described by Yvonne Morley as the ski jumper position. Don’t be a ski jumper in the studio!

Why is this not desired?
Because use affects function! If the head and neck are dropped too far forward, the muscles in the head and neck constrict to help hold the head up, and the area around the larynx is compromised. If the shoulders start rounding that can affect breathing, which powers the voice. Now imagine forcing your body to work in that position for many hours without rest. I would call it body abuse.

How can I develop better posture & alignment?

1.     Sit or stand in front of your microphone and start registering the relationship between your body and the room. What is the difference in space between the top of your head and the ceiling? Between your right shoulder and the right wall? Left shoulder and left wall? Your feet to the ground? See what you notice, and adjust if something feels off.

2.     Step your feet in closer to the microphone if you start to feel yourself becoming a ski jumper. There is absolutely no reason to stand so far away.

3.     Lay down on the floor for a few minutes, allowing yourself to release into the ground. Make a mental note of the feeling of your back on the ground. When standing in front of the microphone, keep imagining that sensation on your back, allowing yourself to come into your back body.

4.     Try placing your feet one foot forward, one foot back in order not to get stuck in one position and to help stabilize your body over a wider base.

As you develop habits of good posture and alignment, the voice will become freer and more accessible, leading to some damn good studio sessions. I can guarantee it.

For more information:
STAT: The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
The VoiceOver Network UK

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Voiceover Demo Reel)

I can in no way claim to be an expert in the world of voiceover (for that, check out voice-over extraordinaire Nicola Redman). However, I have now spent some time in a studio recording the dulcet tones of my decidedly American accent, and learned more about my own voice in a few hours than I probably did in an entire year getting my masters in voice. Yes, I just wrote that. In any case, a few things you should know before going in and making a demo reel:

1.     Energy! I realize this sounds fairly obvious, but in a voice-over reel you are not seen. All of the normal physical habits you use daily to enhance what you are saying are not part of the audio file, so you must rely only on your voice to do the job. Because of this, vocal energy needs to be at a place that just isn’t used in real life. At times you may feel over the top, but often that is the recording that will sound the most interesting. Experiment to find the sweet spot for your voice.

2.     All ears on you. Perhaps you already know who will be in the studio with you as you record, but be prepared to face more people in the room than you perhaps initially expected. There may be a director, producer, sound engineer and more  all working to create the best reel for you. Besides having a small audience, know that the team will all have their own set of directions to give! Take direction with grace and humility, it’s usually not personal.

3.     Silence. To do your takes you will go into a sound proof booth and be outfitted with headphones so you can be in contact with the team outside of the booth. However, between takes those outside the booth may be discussing things, leaving you in the booth to sit with your own thoughts for a few minutes. And let me tell you, sound deprivation is a known torture device. Be prepared to sit with the silence, or find distraction by re-reading the text before you do another take. Just know they haven’t forgotten about you … as eerie the silence may be.

4.     Chugging water like there’s no tomorrow. When was the last time you spoke for multiple hours straight, out loud, at full vocal energy, with limited breaks? Exactly. Bring your own water and drink it down between takes. The combination of a dehydrated & overused voice is deadly, especially if you are using your voice in a professional context.

5.     Exploration! Making a demo reel can be fun if you allow it to be, and a lot of that comes from exploration of your voice. You will have quite a few takes of each text, so experiment and see what works best. You might just find out something about your own voice that you never knew … 

Where to find more information on the world of voice-over:
The VoiceOver Network UK
Gary Terzza Voice-Over Blog Blog