Category Archives: Essential Posts

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.

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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!

Fit To A ‘T’

In ‘Three Is A Magic Number’ I suggest that as an actor, mastering three dialects that ‘fit you to a T’ is a savvy career move.

So… what makes a dialect ‘fit to a T’?

It boils down to this: A dialect that fits to a T sounds good on you—that is to say it’s a dialect that compliments your unique physical looks and energy.

When you are ready to find dialects that fit you to a T, here’s where to start:

1) Look In The MirrorLiterally. Look in the mirror. What do you look like? Which parts of your ethnic heritage show on your face? Did you get Grandpa’s Italian good looks? Or do you look more like your Irish grandmother?

2) Ask Around-Ask a wide variety of people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) “Based on my looks alone, where do you think my family originally came from?” Ask at least 25 people (more if the answers you get aren’t conclusive) and keep careful note of the answers you receive.

Armed with the above information, you can narrow down your dialect choices significantly, but you’ll need another layer of information if you want to select the dialects that will be the most lucrative for you.

Here are the next steps:

3) Look Around– Every time you find yourself at an audition sitting in a room filled with ‘you-alikes’ who are all waiting to read for the same role you are, ask yourself “What do all these actors sitting in this room with me have in common? What’s the basic /broad-stroke picture being painted here? Is everyone giving off a prep school vibe? Does everyone seem maternal? Aggressive? Innocent? Why were we the particular actors chosen to be here?”

When you figure out what everyone in the room has in common, you gain a clue as to how casting directors ‘see’ you. And by understanding how casting entities see you, you will have one more piece of the puzzle that will allow you to choose which dialects will be the most lucrative for you. For instance, if you look like you might be British, and are constantly being sent out to play blue-collar characters, it would not behoove you to spend all your energy trying to sound like the Queen Elizabeth. It would be a bit of a long-shot to bet that a casting director would call you in to ‘be’ one way (working class) and ‘sound’ another (like a British Royal). It would make far more sense for you to work on some type of working-class British dialect because that’s the kind of role you’ll be the most likely to land.

4) Study Your Resume– Perusing your actor resume can provide you with another level of information. Take a look at all the roles you have been hired to play and see if you can spot casting trends there.  Among the roles you’ve played, are there racial/ethnic trends? Socio-economic trends? Personality trends? All of these facets should play into your ultimate dialect choices.(Make sure not to consider roles you were cast in during any type of actor training course, as these roles are often given to ‘stretch’ an actor. They won’t help you find the information you need for this project.)

And then… Once you’ve finished all the steps above, one of two things will happen–either you’ll have a ‘Eureka!’ moment, and clearly see which dialects would sound particularly good on you, or you’ll discover that you could use a bit of professional guidance.  Once you’ve got your personal research in order, if you need assistance you can consult a reputable dialect coach to help you decide which dialects might be lucrative for you, or you might find that working with an image consultant is what you need.

The Voice and Speech Trainers Association can help you find a dialect coach in your area. You can find them at http://www.vasta.org

In Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, the personal branding guru is Sam Christensen. He can teach you how to see yourself through the eyes of a casting director, and then learn how to market the heck out of your acting product. You can learn about Sam’s work at SamChristensen.com. In addition there are also many video excerpts of his work available on YouTube.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with this little dialect adventure. You can contact me at dialect411(at) gmail(dot)com, or leave a comment below!

Good luck and good fortune to you!

Three Is A Magic Number

The best advice I can give about how to use dialects to bring the most earning potential to your acting career is this:

Find three that fit you to a T and learn them so well that you can walk into an audition using any one of them and everyone in that room believes that’s exactly how you talk when you are relaxing at home.

You Have An Accent

Yes.

You.

You have an accent.

No joke.

No matter what anyone has said to you in the past, I am here to set the record straight. You have an accent. I have an accent. Everybody who speaks (and even everyone who signs) has an accent. Every person, everywhere on the planet has an accent (also referred to as a dialect), we just don’t take much notice of the ones that are very similar to our own.

And…

If every person has an accent, it follows that every character in every commercial, every film, every TV show, every web series and every play also has an accent.

So…

How much have you been relying on your own personal everyday accent to fit every role?

How many more roles would you be eligible for if you took the time and did the work to really master a few strategically chosen dialects?

How many more jobs might you book?

Start From Where You Are – Voice Care

Something that has stayed with me since my training days is the idea that you can only start from where you are, and so with this in mind, I begin.

So, where am I?

Right now I’m in my office getting phone calls and emails from disgruntled actors about viruses and allergies that are irritating their vocal folds and causing them to sound hoarse. They are hoping that as a Voice and Speech Consultant, I can give them some useful advice to help them heal quickly, and to prevent permanent harm to their voices as they go about their work.

Here’s what I’ve been telling them:

PLEASE NOTE: I have collected these remedies and practices from health practitioners and colleagues over my years as a professional dialect coach. I am not a physician, so use your noggin and check with one before trying any of these ideas! You are always responsible for your own actions.

REMEDIES FOR A VOICE THAT IS IRRITATED DUE TO ALLERGENS, VIRUS, OR EXTREME USAGE SUCH AS VOCAL VIOLENCE

What To Try: Drink  Plenty of  Body Temperature Water. Aim for a 3/4 to 1 gallon per day.

Why It Might Help: The fluids help your body to fight the virus or infection. In addition, your vocal folds (aka: vocal cords) must be hydrated in order to function at their best. Ironically, the vocal folds are among the last of the body parts to receive the hydration you ingest. Why? Because as far as your body is concerned, survival is king. Believe it or not, being able to speak like an angel just doesn’t rank very high in terms of survival.  If you don’t drink enough water, your vocal folds will be compromised. It’s as simple as that.

What To Try: Throat Coat Tea (by Traditional Medicinals) and slippery elm bark lozenges (by Thayers Natural Remedies)

Why It Might Help: Slippery Elm Bark, a major ingredient in both Throat Coat Tea and Thayer’s lozenges, makes a soothing substance for practically anything it comes in contact with.  It is particularly effective in soothing mucous membranes. If you opt for the tea, be sure to follow the steeping instructions properly so you’ll get the full benefits of it. (And do be warned that it has a ‘slippery’ texture). Most people I have talked with enjoy the lozenges, which also have the advantage of ease of use during rehearsals. (I like the cherry flavor in particular.)

What To Try: Roxalia (by Boiron)

Why It Might Help: Roxalia is an FDA regulated, over the counter homeopathic medicine, which means that each tablet contains a micro-dose of therapeutically active mineral, botanical, and biological substances. Roxalia in particular contains ingredients that relieve sore throats. The tablets are sweet tasting and pleasant. They have a long shelf life, and are easy to take on the road.

What To Try: Complete Vocal Rest

Why It Might Help: If you are experiencing scratchiness, hoarseness, or even ‘loss’ of voice, these symptoms are happening because your vocal folds are somehow irritated, inflamed, injured or compromised in some way. To sing, speak or even whisper can potentially cause further irritation and slow your healing process.

You wouldn’t walk on a broken leg, right? Doing so might keep the leg from healing properly, right? Think about your voice in the same way. If you continue to perform stressful activities on vocal folds that are compromised, you risk permanent injury or change to the voice, the most common being a loss of vocal range. At the very least, you slow the healing process.

What To Try: Avoid Environmental Stressors (such as car exhaust, theatrical fogs, construction dust, paints, shellacs, hairsprays, air fresheners and cigarette smoke)

Why It Might Help: This one is easy to understand. If your vocal folds are raw and irritated, exposing them to further irritants will only slow your recovery. I have some clients who wear personal air purifiers around their necks if they find that they must be exposed to one of these irritants during rehearsal.

What To Try: Wear A Cozy Scarf, Even Indoors

Why It Might Help: By wrapping a cozy scarf around your neck, your body doesn’t need to use it’s energy to maintain it’s normal temperature. It can instead use it to help your immune system function at it’s best. (It feels nice, too!)

What To try: Change Your Eating Habits: Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, Sugar, and Dairy Products

Why It Might Work: Caffeine and alcohol are considered to be ‘drying’ to the body, as they are diuretics. If you drink 8 glasses of water per day, but drink 5 cups of coffee, the coffee ‘cancels’ the water out, and the effects on your body are essentially the same as if you drank practically no liquid at all. Remember, your vocal folds can only operate well when your body is fully hydrated.

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, many people assert that eliminating dairy products reduces the formation of the thick phlegm that can irritate vocal folds.

As for sugar, recent studies are showing that ingesting the amount of sugar found in two 12 oz cans of soda-pop suppresses the immune system by up to 50% for as many as five hours.  (I’m suddenly thinking about how many colds are caught on airplanes—100 people in close quarters, sharing their germs, and all ingesting cup after cup of soda pop…yikes!!!)

What To Try: Use A Neti Pot

Why It Might Help: Essentially, a Neti Pot is a tiny teapot shaped vessel that you add a purified saline solution to and then pour through your sinuses — in one nostril and out the other–while bending over a sink with your head tipped slightly forward and to the side.  Many people swear by a weekly nasal lavage using a Neti Pot, as it is said to wash out allergens that might be trapped in the sinuses.  Be sure to check with your physician and to read the instructions that come with the pot. (The pot can be found at health food merchants such as Whole Foods, as well as online.)

What To Try: Strategic Rehearsals

Why It Might Help: If you suspect your vocal irritation is being caused by overuse during rehearsal, especially for roles which require extraordinary vocal usage, such as vocally violence, make a plan with your director to only rehearse the vocally violent sections of the piece once or twice per day, and ‘mark’ them otherwise. (‘Marking’ means that you rehearse the scene normally, except for the section where the vocal violence actually occurs. During that section, you remain engaged and connected as an actor, but refrain from actually screaming, yelling, etc.) It may seem like an inconvenience, but marking vocally violent scenes can save you complications in the long run. After all, who wants to be the actor that disrupts the shooting, rehearsal, or performance schedule because they have laryngitis? To my way of thinking, prevention is the best option here.

What to Try: Be Aware

Why It Might Help: Your best defense against vocal trouble is to remain in tune with your body, so that you can take action quickly against vocal troubles. Don’t wait until you sound particularly squeaky or hoarse to try remedies. You’ll get the best results by taking early action.

Enjoy!