Monthly Archives: June 2010

I Love-Hate YouTube

As a dialect coach, I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube.

I love YouTube because (one) it has made it so quick and easy to find audio clips of celebrities as I prepare for voice matching projects, (two) I can easily access samples of my clients’ work, and (three) I can sometimes even find an interview featuring someone with exactly the dialect I’m looking for and via their YouTube account even have a means of contacting them and securing a ‘dialect donor’ interview with them. YouTube has saved me hours of work compared to what I was having to do ten years ago.

So, thank you, YouTube!

But…

I really do hate YouTube because there are so many truly terrible ‘learn a dialect’ offerings posted there.

So.

Many.

(Ugh.)

I’ve had new clients come to me sporting a rather strange sounding accent only to find that they have diligently been studying the video lessons of an unqualified ‘teacher’ on YouTube. (And now they must ‘unlearn’ much of what they invested so much time in.) (Again, Ugh.)

I know that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are probably too savvy to fall for a shoddy YouTube dialect lesson, but I’m writing this post in the hope that you’ll help me actively spread the word to the people that just might fall for the lure of a quick and free YouTube lesson but not be experienced enough to realize when that free lesson is jam-packed with fresh-minted malarky. If you love your friends and colleagues, give them the heads up!

If you know me, you know that at my core I am not a cynic. While I have yet to find any reliable dialect lesson offerings on YouTube, I am ever remaining optimistic and will let you know when I do run across something reliable. If you have already found something you think is worthwhile, please post a link here in the comments section. I’ll be sure to check it out and if I like what I see, I will share the link on my Further Resources page.

If, like me, you can’t find any reliable dialect offerings on YouTube, and you want to volunteer to help me create some free YouTube dialect lessons for pro actors, I’m open to that, too. Just say the word!

Myth Du Jour: Your Dialect Coach is Judging You…

MYTH: Dialect coaches are constantly judging others on the way they speak.

TRUTH: Probably not. Here’s why: The amount of energy and focus involved in listening to every single sound that an actor utters and analyzing those sounds in light of some particular dialect goal is enormous. Trust me, it’s intense work! If a coach were to try to judge every sound every person in their vicinity spoke every day, they’d burn out quickly. (I just read this blog aloud–including this sentence- and it clocked in at 44 seconds, during which time over 400 individual sounds were uttered. That’s around ten sounds per second…Intense, yes?)

So relax! If you see your coach somewhere and they aren’t ‘on the clock’ they are probably listening to what you are saying rather than how you are saying it.

Details: Voiced vs. Voiceless

Here’s a tech tool to put in your dialect skills box.

Voiced vs.Voiceless (aka Unvoiced) sounds.

Plain Fact: Some sounds of human speech involve the vocal folds while others do not. Being able to recognize which sounds involve the vocal folds and which sounds don’t can (with a bit of practice) provide you with effective ways of enhancing the characters you play.

Try this:

Look into a mirror, relax your face, and slide the tip of your tongue out so that it rests between your upper and lower teeth. You should be able to see the tip peeking out at you in the mirror. Let your face and tongue remain in this position throughout the rest of this experiment. (Keep your attention on the mirror to monitor this.)

Now (remaining in position) exhale some air through your mouth. You will hear a sound somewhat like a leaky tire… Try this a few times (always watching in the mirror).

Now (remaining in position and still watching in the mirror) gently bring the palm of one of your hands to rest on the front of your neck (lightly wrap your fingers around the contour of your neck for a nice fit), and exhale a few more times. (Did you remain in position? If not, try again!)

Watching in the mirror with your hand still resting on the front of your neck, and your face, jaw and tongue remaining in position, exhale again, only this time activate your vocal folds (Any single note will do. You can think of this as touching sound, humming with your tongue, singing, speaking, voicing— whatever term will get your vocal folds to start vibrating for you…).

Voila!

The sound changes from a leaky tire to a droning air conditioning unit!

Try voicing this physical position (tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth) a few more times. Remember to remain in position, or you won’t end up creating the sound I’m describing here. Notice that with your hand you can feel vibrations in your neck as you voice this sound.

Now (remaining in position, still observing in the mirror) experiment back and forth between not activating the vocal folds and activating the vocal folds.

Leaky tire. Air conditioner. Leaky tire. Air conditioner. (Repeat to your satisfaction)

OK, so now you can say that today you have successfully transformed from a leaky tire to an air conditioner and back again…

….Or if you can read written English and happen to speak with a General American accent, you might say that you isolated and observed yourself changing from a voiceless ‘TH’ sound to a voiced ‘TH’ sound…

…Or if you can read the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) you might say you examined and practiced the difference between uttering the sound [ θ ] and the sound [ ð ].

…No matter what, you can clearly feel with your hand that the second sound involves your vocal folds vibrating, and you can clearly hear (and see in the mirror) that you were able to make two distinctly different sounds using only one physical position (your tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth), merely by alternating between activating your vocal folds and not activating your vocal folds. One position. Two sounds. (Call the two sounds ‘cognates’ if you want to be fancy.)

Wrapping up– Voiced vs. Unvoiced Sounds

***When your vocal folds are vibrating as you articulate a single sound, you can refer to that sound as a ‘voiced’ sound.***

***When your vocal folds are at rest as you articulate a single sound, that sound is either referred to as a ‘voiceless’ or an ‘unvoiced’ sound.***

If you ever have a question about whether a particular (single) sound is voiced or unvoiced, just run that (single) sound through the exercise above. If you can feel vibrations in your neck through the palm of your hand, you can say with confidence that the sound is voiced.

Post Script

So, why as an actor is it useful to really know (at a personal, physical level) the difference between a voiced sound and an unvoiced sound? And why all the mirror work?

One reason is that the more familiar you are with these terms and the more adept you are at being able to isolate sounds, the quicker you will be able to learn any new accent. My favorite reason though, is this –Within an accent group (let’s say ‘General American’) there are accepted variances that while still recognized as the dialect in question, actually transmit additional information about a person’s status and authority. You can learn to make very subtle changes in your speech (such as voicing and un-voicing certain sounds) that will dramatically improve your ability to embody the character you are playing. Your character won’t be perceived as ‘having an accent’ but your performance will be kicked up a notch. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.

As always, please send me your comments, questions and suggestions.

If you’d rather not post a question publicly, feel free to write to me directly at dialect411(at)gmail(dot)com.

I’m here to help.

–Pamela

A Beginner’s Mind

When we are infants and toddlers we utter every spoken sound our little mouths can muster. We squeal, pop, trill, tap, and blow raspberries with reckless abandon.  It’s glorious the sounds we experiment with as we seek to communicate with those around us.

It’s not quick nor easy work, but soon we learn which sounds get us something we want, and which sounds do not.

Then time passes and we mentally discard the ‘useless’ sounds and devote all of our energy to mastering the rest.

The ‘useless’ sounds fall to the wayside, neglected.

Eventually most of us even stop being able to ‘hear’ these sounds. We simply forget how to recognize them as distinct entities.

But that’s OK, because we don’t really need them.

Unless of course, we have to act and sound like someone we’re not in order to earn a living…

Unless we happen to be an actor…

Then we’ll need to actively reverse the process…

We’ll need to go back to the beginning and start again…

…with reckless abandon.

***

Today I invite you to hear with new ears.  Exactly how does your neighbor say ‘hello?’ How is the way your barista says her ‘S’ sound different from yours? Listen for the subtlest of differences, try them out yourself, and save them for when you need them.

Because you probably will.

Don’t Let This Happen To You

Casting Directors, Directors and Actors — Here’s an example of why it’s a good idea to develop an ongoing relationship with a dialect coach…

I once was hired to coach a play just before the first read-through (late) at a prominent AEA theatre. The theatre company had interviewed me intensely via telephone as the play required not only several accents, but the use of several languages as well.  The company wanted to be absolutely certain that I spoke Italian, as one of the characters in the play spoke only Italian. I was honest with them and told them that I lacked the vocabulary to be considered fluent in Italian, but that my pronunciation was excellent, and I had an understanding of the grammar as well. In my professional opinion, as long as the play was entirely scripted and no last minute changes or improvisational elements were involved, I felt I could handle the job competently. I assured the theatre company that there were several native Italian speakers that I would consult  with for the project to ensure that my work was accurate and authentic.

I was hired, and since the first read-through was imminent, over the next day I put in long hours consulting my Italian experts, marking my script and preparing written and recorded materials for the cast.

Flash forward to the first read-through: The actors are assembled and the first read begins. Pencil in hand and script on my lap desk, I listen intently to every sound of every word that each actor speaks, marking my script (using the IPA) every time there is a mismatch between the intended dialect and the actor’s pronunciation. I will base my individual coaching sessions on these notes, so it’s imperative that they are detailed and accurate. All is going better than I had hoped. The actors have prepared well and except for a few missed sound changes here and there, I can see that the bulk of my job will be to help them with dialect integration issues and not with dialect acquisition. I am relieved. We’re getting a very late start with the dialect, but if every single actor works on the dialect as if their career depends on it, we just might make it.

Then something happens which to this day I cannot wrap my head around. The actor hired to play the Italian-speaking role begins to phonetically sound out the lines as if they were in the second grade.

Slowly.

Very badly.

The cast and crew seem to stop breathing. Except for the actor struggling to sound out their lines, there is tense silence. People begin glancing nervously at the director, and in my direction too.

This actor’s pronunciation is so far off that I cannot even begin to take notes on it. I hold my pencil, but I am frozen in disbelief. I feel terrible for this actor. They are clearly out of place, utterly miscast and actively humiliating themselves.

The director (now pale) calls a break at the end of act one and he and I go into the hallway for a private conference. He tells me that he is shocked. He doesn’t understand why the actor can’t read any of their lines. I ask him how the actor managed it during auditions. He explains that originally the actor was called in to audition for a British dialect role and so he had only heard the actor read the English language lines.

Here’s the gist of our conversation from there:

“How did this actor come to be cast in the Italian role, then?” I asked.

“They seemed right for the part, and we realized that they could act as understudy for the British role as well. –We did ask them directly if they spoke Italian.”

“And what did they say to that?”

“They said –Speak Italian?!? — I AM Italian!”

Ack! This actor was miscast simply because the director and casting director did not have the expertise to properly audition people for dialect roles. They were unable to see that the actor’s response to their question was not adequate enough to base a casting decision on, and now the production was about to pay the price. If the theatre had hired a competent dialect coach to consult during the casting process, this problem could have been avoided entirely.

How did this story end? Much to my dismay, the theatre made the choice to keep this actor in the cast. Having a soft heart for the rest of the actors in the cast and knowing how one bad performance can absolutely kill a show at the box office, I comped the theatre dozens of extra hours of private coaching for this actor in trying to bring them up to speed. Our work together brought significant improvement, but even at the end of the run, the actor never sounded truly Italian. The show’s reviews were lukewarm and the crowds stayed away. One actor’s poor dialect performance not only reflected badly on the actor in question, but also threw other actors off, contributed to an uneven performance overall and hurt the theatre’s revenue.

And what about the actor?

Why did the actor opt to mislead the director and CD in the first place?

It turns out, they didn’t really mean to. They were mostly just trying to be pleasant and funny in the audition. They wanted to be memorable.  (As you can see, they were…) They felt they were ‘good at accents’ and because they had never studied a foreign language they didn’t see much of a distinction between the two. They had no idea the amount of work it would take to master the requirements of this role. They were simply inexperienced. They were so inexperienced that they didn’t even realize that their British dialect  (the one they needed to know as an understudy) was not very good either.

They were sure it must have been…

Why?

Because they got cast!

Written vs. Spoken Language (Tech Talk)

Ask most English speakers for a list of vowels and they will offer up “A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y.” And they’re right. In a way. They do know what they’re talking about, it’s just that they’re not really giving you the complete picture… The letters A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y are known as vowels, but more specifically they are six written symbols that attempt to represent many more spoken sounds of speech.

Take for instance the dialect known as Standard American English (the dialect you may have learned in your acting conservatory–the dialect popularized in the mid-twentieth century by Edith Skinner).  In the ‘Standard American’ dialect as taught by Edith Skinner there are fifteen pure vowel sounds a.k.a  monophthongs (MAH-nuff-thongz), and seven blended vowel sounds, the latter being referred to as diphthongs (DIFF-thongz) or triphthongs (TRIFF-thongz) depending on the number of pure vowels that make them up.

Six written letters.

Twenty-two spoken sounds.

And if you examine the consonants, the pattern is similar. There are 21 written consonants in the alphabet (I’m including ‘Y’ in the count.), yet in Skinner’s ‘Standard American’ dialect there are 26 spoken consonant sounds.

By now you may be starting to get the idea that Spoken English and Written English (while related) might just be two very different entities.

If you would like further evidence, try cold-reading aloud this poem written by Lord Cromer published in ‘The Spectator’ in 1902.

Our Strange Lingo
When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose,and lose
And think of goose and yet of choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.

Ummmmm….see what I mean?

Written English is not very successful at accurately representing how a word is intended (by its writer) to be spoken.

Oddly enough, there are very few writing systems in the entire world that accurately reflect how the writer is intending one to pronounce the words s/he has written.

(Does that surprise you, or is it just me?)

One written system that does aim to accurately reflect spoken language (all languages, all dialects, all accents) is The International Phonetic Alphabet, a.k.a. the IPA.

Many actors learn to use this writing system in order to accurately be able to mark dialect changes in their scripts, and to years later be able to pick up their dialect notes and still know exactly what they mean.

A firm grasp on the IPA is an incredible tool to have as an actor. It can save you valuable time, allow you to become accurate with a dialect more quickly, and help you discuss your work with your dialect coach.

I will tell you honestly that the IPA looks daunting at first. I will tell you also that some of the people who will offer to teach you about this system are firmly rooted in a normative mindset, and so may try to convince you  that certain ways of speaking are superior to others. (You’ll have to kindly remind them that you are an actor and that for your career flexibility is the best option.) Please don’t let either of these little challenges inhibit you from learning how to use the IPA. If you put in some research time, you will soon find there are many dialect coaches out there who are competent teachers of the IPA that also have a keen understanding of the demands of acting. Besides, what  is more refreshing for the mind and soul than a good challenge?

So—-would you like to see a little of the IPA?

If you’ve never had exposure to it before, or have unpleasant memories about it from some former training program, you might wish to start with the University of Iowa’s Phonetic Flash Animation Project This project does not show you all of the IPA symbols in chart form. Instead, you  select a language (American English, German, Spanish–language, not dialect) and can then choose vowel or consonant symbols that you would like to see demonstrated on video. My personal opinion is that this project needs a few tweaks and video re-do’s here and there, but for the most part this is a solid introduction to the IPA.

If you are already familiar with some of the IPA and would like to see the complete IPA chart including all of it’s modifiers (and promise not to let it intimidate you!) then go to my ‘Further Resources‘ page and scroll to the third section which is marked: ‘Regarding Phonetics and Phonetic Description.’ The first entry there contains a link to the International Phonetics Association’s PDF of the complete chart.

Immediately following is a link to dialect coach Paul Meier’s pronunciation of the symbols of the IPA chart. You simply click on an area of the main chart, and then select which individual sound you would like to hear. (This project is the joint effort of dialect coaches Paul Meier and Eric Armstrong. Paul voiced the piece, and Eric provided the flash animation.)

Hey, can you tell that I’m nervous I might scare you off if I show you the whole chart before you’re ready? I’m so nervous that I’m not even providing you a direct link to the chart here. I’m asking you to take an extra step just to see it! I really hope that seeing this chart won’t dissuade you from learning dialects. Knowledge of the IPA is wonderful and can put you ahead in the game, but a good dialect coach can help you achieve your dialect goals even if you have no IPA experience. (Just be prepared to invest more time and money to the project.)

Whether or not you decide to visit these IPA links, simply knowing that ‘written English’ and ‘spoken English’ are two different things might save you some confusion when learning dialects.

As always, send me your questions! I’m here to help!

Real Housewives of New Jersey

Yesterday there was so much hubbub on Twitter about little Gia’s accent on ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ that I Hulu’d (Hulu.com) the show (Season 2, Episode 6) this morning to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Now I’m hoping that you will do the same because regardless of your opinion of the show, there’s a scene that as an actor, agent, manager or dialect coach, you simply need to see. I’ll explain a bit here, but truly you will get more from watching 90 seconds of this show than my words alone can ever reveal.

Starting at 16 minutes into the show, housewife Teresa takes her young daughter to visit with the child’s manager and the manager explains “There’s a couple of areas that we need to improve right now, um… the main focus being the Jersey Accent. She’s got it. You’ve got it. I’ve got it. We all have it. She is not booking things. For instance, you know…the Christian Slater movie, she didn’t book that. I think she could do better, you know if this situation is remedied at this point.”

She then goes on to request that the child pronounce the word ‘dog’ and when she does, the manager criticizes her pronunciation and states that ‘in reality’ it’s pronounced differently than Gia is pronouncing it. You can see the discomfort on both Gia and Teresa’s faces as they contemplate their need to be ‘remedied.’ They are then sent to work with a dialect coach who continues in a similar vein.

This 90 second clip is wonderful, as it clearly illustrates a difficult situation that plays out every day in the entertainment industry.

***An agent or manager wants to help their client book more jobs, and they see that adding a dialect might help, only their personal bias regarding dialects coupled with a lack of effective wording inadvertently leaves the client feeling attacked.

***The client also wants to book more jobs, but upon hearing that they need to be ‘remedied,’ becomes closed and defensive. Even if they do seek the help of a competent dialect professional, they will not be in a very good frame of mind for adding a new dialect to their skill set.

***The dialect coach approaches the target dialect piecemeal, teaching a sound here, a word there, in whatever order the coach decides might be effective. The client can’t ‘hear’ what they are trying to teach and becomes frustrated.

Clearly, this system is broken.

Everyone wants the same thing–They want the actor to book more jobs–but the means being used to try to reach the goal are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Change is clearly needed.

Personally, I am a firm believer that change starts with the individual. I believe that each of us who can see a problem, must contribute to a solution if we expect to actually reach one. For today’s problem, my contribution is to continue to write this blog, and to network like crazy in order to make sure that every single day at least one more actor, agent, manager, casting director or director reads it and learns something that helps their career run more smoothly. My absolute dream is that every actor in SAG has a subscription to Dialect411.com and learns all they need to know about how dialect work fits into their career, as well as how to prepare to work with a dialect professional privately or on set, so that every production has an even better chance of becoming a true work of cinematic genius than it does today.

If you too would like to contribute to improving communication and outcome in the arena of voice and dialect work, but don’t know what you can do to help, here are some suggestions:

If you are an agent, manager or casting director: When you suspect that an actor might benefit from learning a General American (or any other) accent, resolve to use positive words to express this to them. Keep in mind that ‘losing’ or ‘permanently modifying’ an accent is generally not a lucrative move, and that General American speech is not superior to any other dialect on this planet. The manager on ‘Housewives’ would have done better to say something like “The reason I brought you in today is because I realized that we can make Gia eligible for more roles if she learns a General American accent in addition to her fabulous New Jersey accent. What do you think of that idea?” (I am quite confident that if the manager would have used words similar to these, the result would have been an excited young actress, rather than the sullen one we see in the show.)

If you are an actor: First, my advice is to make an effort to become educated about dialects, because they will almost surely come into play in your career at some point. Of course if you are making time to read this blog twice a week, you’re off to a good start. In addition, work at developing a long-term relationship with a qualified dialect coach(My May 4, 2010 post will help you know what to look for). Lastly, learn to ‘translate’ for the people (agents, managers, casting directors and directors) that may be well meaning, but might phrase things a bit negatively. Work hard not to take it personally. Try to look past the unfortunate choice of words and hear that these people are just trying to help you.

If you are a dialect coach: Remember that a normative approach to speech does not serve the acting community. You may personally prefer a particular dialect, but that doesn’t mean that that dialect will necessarily suit a particular actor’s career.  As I discussed in last Thursday’s blog post, there really is no single ‘right’ way to speak. Good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want. In addition, when working with a client who may have had an experience similar to the one this young actress had on ‘Housewives,’ be mindful that they might be arriving to you a little emotionally ‘beat up’ and they may have the idea that something is wrong with them. Help your client to be as creative and responsive to the dialect sessions as possible by always being clear that you are teaching them to add a skill rather than to remove a problem. It can also help to be very mindful of your coaching language. I go so far as to try to avoid using the word ‘right’ when giving a client feedback on their pronunciation attempts. I endeavor to say ‘good match’ instead, just so there is no question about one dialect being superior to another.

To all of you who are willing to pitch in to make this part of our industry run more smoothly– thank you, thank you, thank you!!! If you have more ideas that you think might help, please post them in the comments section!

Lastly, I never imagined I would be saying this, but ‘Thank you, Real Housewives of New Jersey! You really gave me something to think about!’

******** Oh! Remember that each week in June I’m giving away complimentary dialect fittings to three lucky subscribers! To be eligible, all you need to do is subscribe via e-mail (see subscription button at upper right of screen.) For more details, go here.*********