Voice work for actors is a key component of training, and part of the long term acting career for many. There are so many differences, however, from person to person with how they take on accents. The differences can exist because of where someone is born, how lyrical they are, and even just how and where they grow up later on.
‘My friend went to Australia for a year and came back sounding completely Australian.’
‘My dad has lived in the States for 10 years and still sounds completely English.’
‘My brother in law is Russian and sounds totally British after just 5 years.’
‘A British friend of mine landed a role in an American film after no coaching whatsoever, he could just do it naturally. How come I find accents it so difficult and need so much training?’
So firstly let’s understand a little bit about the why and how of learning an accent:
- MIRROR MIRROR – How strongly do you see the reflection? There is a rule of thumb with accents: If you can’t hear it you can’t do it. Accents come naturally to some, but once adulthood is reached, present a huge challenge to many. Children up to the age of 7 can usually pick up new accents because they listen, receive, mirror and mimic what they see and hear with an open mind and without fear. As we get older the mind starts to close and we become set in our ways. A few people keep that open window to the mind, but most shut it, and the tighter you shut the window, the more difficult it is to open later. Hence the more difficult it is to pick up an accent, and why more coaching and practice is needed to get it perfect.
- DEPENDS ON THE PERSON – Why do some people shut the window in the mind and not others? I believe it has do with the acoustic perception of a musical ear combined with our ‘Mirror Neurons’*, the discovery of which gives further support to the “Motor Theory of Speech Perception”** which varies between people and is a very individual thing. On top of this, interest and confidence play a role too, as well as the willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone.
- TWO STEPS AHEAD – An accent involves a complex jigsaw of voice placement, sounds, rhythm and intonation, and how they are embedded in our subconscious speech reflex, which is in turn knitted in with our physiological and emotional selves, as is our own native accent.
Learning a new accent can be a long process of training the subconscious to naturally reproduce non-native speech patterns just as a native does. The speech organs in English are actually preparing for oncoming sounds one or two phonemes (speech sounds) beforehand. ‘Co-articulation’ is the phonetic term describing the knock on effect between neighbouring sounds. So the learner has to perceive the sounds coming up two steps ahead in the new accent in order to prepare the speech organs and overlap the sounds correctly, which may be different from that of their native accent.
An example of this might be a British actor in the early learning stages of the General American accent where they will need to learn that the /r/ in ‘tarnish’ /’tɑrnɪʃ/ actually starts to form during the release stage of the plosive consonant /t/ and by the time /ɑ/ is reached, the body of the tongue should have ‘bunched up’ with the characteristic ‘mid-tongue muscularity’ of the General American accent, and the tongue tip is already pulling back in close proximity to but not touching the hard palate. However the natural thing to many British speakers would be not to pronounce the /r/ in ‘tarnish’ at all. Literally sticking an /r/ after the /ɑ/ if the mouth has subconsciously been told to prepare for the British word with no /r/ then the speaker remembers only at the last minute just doesn’t sound right. The tongue would not have sufficient mid-tension as it had prepared for the British version.
In essence, the mind needs to be two steps ahead or it could send the wrong signal to the speech organs to prepare for the oncoming sound sequences. Of course these processes are subconscious, but they need to be practiced consciously in order to get used to them.
So how much coaching should you have and how much practice do you need to do?
Once you’ve found the coach that’s right for you, covered the coaching sessions (the amount needed depends on the person), achieved your goals, produced a great voice or show reel with several excellent deliveries of accents, a year passes by, then what? Can you deliver?
What happens when someone takes a break from their fitness regime such as running or attending the gym regularly? They get unfit. And sadly, exactly the same goes for accents. A year later after taking “time off” you suddenly you get an audition for the American role you always wanted based on the great performance the show reel made over a year ago, or a voiceover job based on a voice reel you made several years back. If you haven’t regularly practiced since the coaching sessions, maybe you can deliver to the same level. But maybe not. It’s all going to depend on your unique personal make up of acoustic perception and the ability to mirror other, as well as your memory of the accents’ unique pattern. You can have a great coach, practice hard and get great results but unless you keep up regular practice, your skills can go rusty and the accent may slide out of place when you try to produce it on demand after some time has passed.
Routine practice is the key! Try to create a realistic practice routine that ties in with your daily schedule. How much time could you realistically devote to practising your new accent(s)? Even if it’s just 20 minutes every couple of days, there’s so much you can do and it’s worth its weight in gold. Run though your accents in a methodical way and keep those valuable listening and mirroring skills alive and active. Remember to work on all the components that make up the jigsaw of an accent.
- VOICE PLACEMENT – put on headphones, listen to the audio and speak simultaneously with the native speaker. Where do you feel the jaw, neck, lips and tongue tension, plus the degree of nasality? This is the accent’s placement. Then keeping this placement say “Uh huh”. It might be a filler phrase or a casual agreement but it reveals a lot more about the accent than this. It is the schwa sound, the weak, reduced vowel that is so reflective of voice placement.
- BREATHING AND RHYTHM – focus on how the accent saves and spends energy with breath distribution over the sounds and rhythm as you talk simultaneously with the native speaker.
- PHONOLOGY AND PHONETICS – know the system of VOWELS, DIPHTHONGS AND CONSONANTS and the processes of ‘co-articulation’ (how the sounds overlap with each other) and create some practice lists and sentences to encompass them.
- INTONATION – practice the unique musical pattern of the accent, the rising and falling tones, natural pauses etc.
- WORD LINKING – it is important to link words as a native speaker of the accent does, but it also teaches you to produce the actual sounds more accurately as it is where they rest between each other that helps us to start and finish sounds correctly, as well as making the accent natural and flowing.
- KNOW A BIT ABOUT THE CULTURAL HISTORY BEHIND THE DIALECT – the climate, landscape, history etc.
- AVOID TYPECASTING – don’t overuse the typical features without first establishing correct voice placement (the key point of tension or resonance in the mouth and vocal tract that shape the accent as described above). A classic example is when Cockney becomes ‘Mockney’ (its typecast name) when actors overuse ‘h’ dropping and glottilization to such an extent that the accent becomes a caricature.
- GET A KEY PHRASE THAT GETS YOU GOING IN THE ACCENT – Write down five different emotions and try the phrase in all of them in them to see what it brings out of the accent.
- LAST CALL – Auditions are so last minute you could need to call your skills up almost immediately. Make the most of those coaching sessions you invested in, so you can make sure you deliver.
GOOD LUCK! KEEP PRACTICING AND KEEP THOSE ACCENT SKILLS IN SHAPE. YOU MIGHT JUST NEED THEM TOMORROW!
*1. Reference Article: ‘The Role of Mirror Neurons in Speech and Language Processing, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2813993/)
**2. Reference Article: http://www.ling.fju.edu.tw/phonetic/motor.htm