Rebecca Gausnell on mastering an American accentMar 23, 2022
‘Meet accent work with openness, and confidence will follow’
Accent work is notoriously difficult, and many actors feel daunted by the task. It is not always obvious how to learn an accent. Some people are good mimics, but most require structured practice to hone the skill.
And yet, during this work, actors can run into opposing objectives. The muscles of the mouth must move precisely, but without undue effort. The rhythms and melodies of an accent must be attended to, but not to an extent that overpowers the words being spoken.
The accent is drilled tirelessly so that it may eventually be invisible in performance. Ultimately, the actor aims to embody an accent in every way – weaving pronunciation, muscular action, vocal musicality and an awareness of culture seamlessly into character and performance.
In my book, Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, I hope to dispel misconceptions around learning a new accent. You can learn a new accent – and the process can be fun.
Save 20% and get your copy for just £7.99 when you order direct from the NHB website here.
What is ‘General American’?
In the entertainment industry and linguistically speaking, ‘General American’ is the term used to describe a group of vowels, consonants, grammar and vocabulary typical of many people from the United States. General American is often abbreviated to ‘GenAm’. General American is a purposefully vague term because the accent is considered to be non-regional. Bizarrely, this means that General American is an American accent from nowhere. This is different to other accents in the United States that tend to be classified based on region or by the ethnic group from which the accent originates.
Because of its non-regional features, General American is often considered a standard accent in the United States. In fact, the accent is sometimes called General American or Standard American interchangeably. That is not to say that the accent is neutral or more valid than other American accents. However, the accent does carry a level of prestige in the United States. A General American accent is typical of most-likely educated, often white, usually middle- to upper-middle-class Americans from around the country. But that doesn’t mean that all General American accent speakers fit neatly into those boxes.
The key here is the regional ambiguity of the accent. The accent expresses that the speaker is American without saying where they are from in the United States. A person could be from California or Vermont yet still speak with the universal features of the accent. In fact, the accent has been referred to as a ‘newscaster’ accent because TV anchors, regardless of the state, often speak with the accent. The accent also dominates American film and television today and is often called upon for American auditions.
You might notice as you listen to the accent that there is a range of voices that fall into the ‘General American’ category. Indeed, the accent is more of a continuum of accents, not a single unified sound. It is an umbrella term that encompasses the most widespread American accent.
Different speakers of a General American accent may sound slightly different from one another. This is because a person’s voice is influenced by many factors, including age, gender and lived experience. Keep in mind that the perfect American accent does not exist. Every speaker is different, and it is the actor’s job to find an American sound that suits the character. Instead of searching for perfection, I would much prefer that the main features of the accent are present and that the accent sits comfortably in your mouth and voice.
Understanding an Accent
When working on an accent there are three distinct areas of practice:
- The mouth setting of the accent. This can be understood as the shape and position taken by the muscles of speech when speaking in the accent.
- The sounds of the accent, made up of vowels and consonants.
- The music of the accent, which includes the rhythm, the stressing, the melody, pitch, volume, pace, vocal quality and the intonation patterns particular to an accent.
All three of these elements combine to form the technical side of learning an accent and each can be actively trained.
An accent’s mouth setting is the foundation of the entire accent, and a good place to return to if you hit roadblocks. I can assure you that if the accent’s mouth shape is off, the desired accent will be difficult to achieve with ease. The mouth setting is comprised of the muscles of the mouth and face. It includes how the muscles shape the voice and sounds coming out of the mouth. The mouth’s setting forms the basis of the entire accent, so I encourage you to give time and space to finding it in your own muscles. The next step is explore the consonants and vowels or the sounds of the General American accent.
The final technical step involves the music of a General American accent – the rhythm, stressing, melodies and intonation patterns of the accent. Admittedly, the music of any accent can be difficult to practise as there are few definitive rules. However, our ears tend first to identify accents based on the overarching music of a voice. This is why mastering the music of an accent can go a long way in convincing your audience. It can also be vital to feeling confident when performing in the accent.
There is one final piece of the puzzle to any accent, which is the inherent culture of the accent. This includes consideration of the people who speak with the accent, along with the accent’s geographical and historical background. We always hope that this element is already embedded in the character through compelling and accurate writing on the part of the playwright. However, it is the actor’s job to bring that character to life in a truthful manner. Keep in mind that in order to sound fully American you will also need to embody an American character in performance. An accent is more expansive than the sum of its parts. The lived experience of a character should always be considered when developing your performance.
The Art of Learning an Accent
I encourage you to approach learning an accent in four ways:
1. Conscious Listening
The act of Conscious Listening comes into play because you cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear. It is only through listening that you can begin to approach an accent and understand it fully. Often the accents to which we have been most exposed prove the easiest to recreate. Even your own natural accent developed due to listening to your environment, your parents and your peers. Conscious Listening gives you exposure to the target sounds and music of the accent in order to reach this level of mastery.
2. Conscious Feeling
Accent work concerns the muscles of speech, so Conscious Feeling develops awareness around these muscles so they can move with ease and precision in the accent. Take notes as you go on how the target sounds feel in your mouth. You may even want to assign a shape or picture to that feeling so that you can recreate the sound in the future. You could also find it useful to use a small personal mirror or a smartphone camera on selfie mode to see the mouth at work when making a new sound. Having those shapes in the mind’s eye will help develop and clarify an accent so that you can hit the target sound every time.
3. Conscious Voicing
Conscious Voicing might also be described as mimicking or copying the sounds aloud with heightened awareness. Speaking in the accent aloud is important in order to begin rooting the accent in your own voice and body. A big mistake actors can make is practising the accent in silence. Although it may seem safer to stay quiet, you will master an accent by taking it on the road. Practise out loud in order to make strides towards a fully realised accent.
4. Conscious Visualising
Conscious Visualising allows you to see and feel the accent at work in your own body. It may also give you the space to create your own images to aid the Listening, Feeling and Voicing work. Conscious Visualising will be different for everyone, but it can be an imaginative process that connects the accent to the body, breath, and voice. Perhaps you consider the elements of character – such as movement, pacing or breath – and begin marrying these with accent work. The ways into Conscious Visualising are infinite, and are explored in the book.
To be clear, you are not responsible for thinking about all of these points all of the time while practising an accent. There may be certain ways of working that you favour, and the preferred way will be different for everyone. Having an idea of your own learning styles can go a long way when undertaking a new skill. I suggest you experiment with all four approaches in order to create a well-rounded way in to learning an accent.
Practising an Accent
Mastering an American Accent contains drills and exercises to allow you to practise each new concept in isolation. These concepts are gradually expanded and applied to longer extracts from American plays.
There are many artists who may be opposed to the idea of drills. This is usually out of a fear that the drills will be done in a rote way and will lead to bad habits. However, you can avoid this by approaching the drills with attention and connection. Using drills wisely will free you from thinking about the accent in performance. Not unlike an athlete doing reps in a gym, drills build and prepare the muscles to work with ease. And just as the athlete completes their workout with alertness and precision, I encourage you to attend to the accent drills with the same level of aliveness. It is through conscious drilling that the muscles learn to respond.
I’m inviting you to think of a new accent as choreography for the mouth. By working on foundational movements, the dance becomes easier to the dancer. Speech is equally physical. What is different is that you speak every day, and these are muscles that you use and engage with ease already. You have reason to be confident when working with the muscles of speech through the technical sections. The biggest mistake I feel actors make in performing with an accent is a lack of technique to solidify the work. I promise that technique will only strengthen your ability to integrate the accent into your voice and your performance.
Accent work is best approached little and often. There are many moving parts to an accent, and the brain and mouth muscles can easily get tired. Ten minutes daily over the course of a week can be more effective than a single one-hour practice session. Do not discount the role of repetition in voice work. It is only through repetition that we achieve mastery.
Embrace a sense of play and discovery in the work ahead. Children mimic voices all the time and have no hang-ups about getting them right or wrong. I encourage you to take on this same mindset when practising. Through play comes ease and freedom – freedom from self-doubt, from judgement and from self-critique.
A native speaker of an accent has found ease in their speech through years of practice. If you are beginning your journey, the best place to begin is at the beginning. Do not worry if a concept doesn’t click on your first try. Try a new approach or return to the exercise later with fresh eyes. Meet the work with openness, and confidence will follow.
This is an edited extract from Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide by Rebecca Gausnell – out now, published by Nick Hern Books.
Save 20% and get your copy for just £7.99 when you order direct from the NHB website here.