Tag Archives: acting

Concentration vs. Awareness

Sometimes the littlest thing can make the greatest impact.

Even a single word can make a difference.

For instance, consider the word ‘concentration.’  Many of us were encouraged as we grew up to ‘concentrate’ in order to learn new things, and at first glance, concentration seems like a stellar idea. After all, it refers to the directing of one’s attention to a single point of focus. More attention paid to something should bring about better results, right?

Not necessarily.

When we direct our attention to a single point of focus we run the risk of becoming reductive in our thinking. In other words, by paying extremely close attention to one area, we can end up encouraging our mind to only let in information which we already deem to be relevant to that area. Reductive thinking essentially cements what we already believe to be true, rather than creates an environment suited to discovery and learning.  Reductive thinking may be useful for ‘quality control’ situations such as working an assembly  line job or matching our socks, but it’s not particularly conducive to creative endeavors (learning included).

According to VisualThesaurus.com, the word ‘concentration’ bears resemblance to words such as ‘tightness’, ‘compactness’, and ‘absorption’.  Concentration reminds me of a laser beam.  Laser beams have (very) important uses, but have you for instance, ever tried to navigate the darkness using a laser-pointer? (Been there. Tried that. Epic fail.) It’s just not suited to the task. The beam is too ‘narrow’ to properly illuminate the way and lend perspective.

So, what happens if we let go of  our intention of ‘concentrating’ and embrace the concept of ‘awareness’ instead?

Things get interesting.

Awareness acts more like a floodlight that reaches well into dark corners. By intending awareness we signal our brain to let in a great deal of information simultaneously without regard for its perceived benefit. Sure, we get quite a bit of information that we may not find immediate value for, but along with that information, come gems of knowledge we would surely have missed otherwise. Awareness begets expansive thinking, and expansive thinking is the condition under which discovery and creativity thrive.

Next time you find yourself ‘stuck’ when learning something new, whether it be a dialect or any other skill, see what happens if you consciously invite yourself to make the subtle shift from ‘concentration’ to ‘awareness’. It might feel a bit awkward at first not to have access to your trusty ‘laser beam’, but you might surprise yourself with how enlightening the experience can be.

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Myth du Jour: Actors Need General American Accents

Myth: To work regularly, you need to be able to speak in a General American Accent.

Reality: The reality of this situation is that for each and every actor the rules are different. (Doesn’t seem fair, I know. Sorry ’bout that.)

It comes down to this– the way you speak is one essential component of your unique, complex acting product and if you take the time to harmonize your speech skills to the rest of your acting product, you can maximize your casting opportunities. The General American accent itself contains no magic. It’s just a tool. If the General American accent ‘tool’ fits well with your acting career, great. Use it. If there are other tools (other accents) that fit better, stop fretting over the General American accent and make sure you master those accents so that you can find yourself booking jobs more frequently.

If you are dubious about my claim, I encourage you to take a few minutes and make a list of all the high-profile actors you can think of that don’t use a General American accent very often (or ever) in their careers. There are plenty of them.  There are also plenty for whom a General American accent is indispensable. Your challenge as an actor is to figure out into which category your own acting product logically falls and take action as needed.

Here are some places to start if the idea of thinking about your acting product/image/essence/brand (whatever you’d like to call it) is new to you.

1) You may find value in this blog post I wrote earlier this year.

2) You may benefit from attending personal brand workshops such as those taught by Sam Christensen in Los Angeles and NYC. (If you live outside these cities, you can see clips of Sam’s work on YouTube.)

3) You may wish to invest in a dialect fitting with a qualified dialect consultant who specializes in such matters.

I hope you’ll enjoy this part of your journey. If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me here in the comments section or at dialect411 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Speech Class: Vowels and Consonants

I’m not going to try to hide it from you. Today’s post isn’t light reading. It’s equivalent to an hour’s worth of private coaching, or a session in an acting conservatory classroom. The upside is that this post is free which will save you anywhere from $75 -$200 in coaching fees, or even more when compared to the cost of prestigious private acting conservatories. (Cha-ching!)

If you are fairly new to learning authentic, actable dialects, it can be very helpful to know a few terms before you head off to hire a dialect coach. Familiarity with common linguistics terms will make communicating with your coach easy, and it can help you to quickly get your bearings if you find yourself in the unhappy situation of having no access to a coach and thus being limited to working with commercial dialect acquisition CD’s.

To get the most out of today’s lesson on vowels and consonants, you may find it valuable to glance back at this post explaining the difference between written and spoken language, and this post that elucidates the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds of speech, and this post which will give you a good understanding of the body parts responsible for speech sounds.

Today I want to share with you a few things about vowels and consonants—exactly what they are, how you can tell if a sound you’ve never heard before is a vowel or a consonant, and I’ll even a throw in a bit of acting theory related to these two groups of sounds.

First, a basic definition: In the arena of spoken language, linguists consider a speech sound to be a vowel  if it is comprised of an uninterrupted, unimpeded voiced stream of air.  On the other hand, a speech sound is considered to be a consonant  when that sound is a voiced or voiceless stream of air that is stopped, impeded, or interrupted in some way by the articulators.

If you are not keen on wordy definitions, here are some more ways to think about these two groupings:

Vowel= unimpeded or uninterrupted voiced stream of air.

Consonant = voiced (or unvoiced!) stream of air that is somehow interrupted, impeded or stopped.

We could even go out on a limb and say that vowels are more static in nature, and consonants are more dynamic…

Here’s why:

When you happen to speak a sound that has been classified as a vowel, you’ll find that you can do so without moving any of your articulators during the creation of the sound, and you’ll also notice that your articulators aren’t constricting your breath channel enough to cause audible friction.

I want you to try a little experiment, but you’ll need to learn a tiny bit of the IPA (The International Phonetic Alphabet) to do so, so here is the International Phonetic Association‘s Vowel chart which shows all of the vowels  that are used in the many languages on Earth.

If you are curious about exactly what sounds each of these symbols represent, you can go here and listen to dialect coach Paul Meier pronounce them for you using a nifty interactive version of this chart that he and coach Eric Armstrong co-created. There are also other interactive versions available on line. If you listen to several, you’ll begin to notice where the IPA chart leaves off and the human element comes in…

For now, merely notice the very first symbol in the upper left-hand corner. It looks like this —>[i].  If you happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, this symbol represents the sound you’d use in words such as ‘flea, me, sweep, greedy, and easy.’ (If you don’t happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, now might be a good time to check out Mr. Meier’s/Mr. Armstrong’s interactive vowel chart and listen to this sound.)

Now for the experiment: I want you take a few moments to speak the sound [i] in a sustained way…sort of like a monk chanting…any note you want to use is fine…just speak [i] in a sustained way for as long as your breath allows. Then do it again and as you do, allow your mind’s eye to focus on your articulators (your jaw, your tongue, your teeth, your soft and hard palate, your gum ridge etc.). Notice how they don’t have to change position at all while you are making this [i] sound? That’s one of the hallmarks of a vowel sound. You can take up the position of a vowel sound and then remain in that position as you send a voiced stream of air through the shape you’ve created with your articulators. No moving necessary speech-wise. (You will of course have movement within your body in order to exhale the air you need to vocalize, and so that you can engage your vocal folds, but we can safely categorize these as movement needed for vocal production rather than movement required for speech.)

See? Vowels have a sort of static quality to them.

Consonants on the other hand will involve some combination of articulators to be moving, or to be placed in such close proximity as to cause audible friction.

Here comes another chart from the International Phonetic Association…This one is dedicated to consonants (not all of them, though). I’m sharing it with you not to overwhelm you, but in an attempt to be as precise about our discussion as possible. (This blog has readers from around the globe, so it would be folly to assume that everyone’s idea of how to pronounce a particular written word will be similar…Please don’t get scared off by this chart!)

Again, let’s start by looking at the upper left hand corner. See that lower-case P sort of symbol —>[p]? If you happen to speak General or Standard American English this is the unvoiced sound you’d speak in words like ‘promise, pepper, apt, sleepy and deep.’ If you’d like to hear this sound pronounced, Paul Meier can help you out here.

Experiment time again: I’d like you to try pronouncing this sound and sustaining it like you did earlier with [i]… Go ahead… Give it a whirl… Try to chant like a monk using a [p] sound…Can’t do it, can you? Me neither. It’s just not possible. The speech sound [p] can’t be sustained because it is a sound that is ‘stopped’ ‘impeded’ or ‘interrupted.’ Say [p] a few more times. (You might find that you end up adding  a voiced ‘uh’ kind of sound right after it out of habit. Don’t worry too much about that right now.) Instead, send your mind’s eye to what’s happening with your lips… Say [p]… Can you say it without moving your lips? Nope.  [p] is a consonant alright. A voiceless, stopped consonant that ends in a little mini-explosion of air. Pretty dynamic!

Take a look back at the IPA consonant chart. Near the center of the chart you will find something that looks like a lower case ‘S’—> [s]. If you happen to speak General or Standard American English, this symbol represents the voiceless sound you’d use in words such as ‘sea, storm, essay, east, and less.’ (Check with Mr. Meier here if you’d like to hear this sound.)

One more experiment: Try to speak a sustained [s] sound. How long can you sustain it? As long as you have breath exhaling from your lungs, right? Try another sustained [s] sound and as you do, send your mind’s eye to your articulators… Notice how they don’t have to move once they are in position for the [s]? [s] happens to be an example of a voiceless,  impeded (but not stopped!) consonant. As you say [s] two of your articulators (your tongue and your gum ridge) are in such close proximity  that audible friction occurs. We can consider that friction to be dynamic.

Okay, enough tech talk! If you’re still here, I commend you! (If we were in a room together right now, I’d be passing out celebratory cookies, so consider yourself virtually cookied!)

At the beginning of this post I promised you a little vowel and consonant theory, so here it is…

Many people assert that at the core of the matter, the informational content of a person’s spoken message is contained in the consonant sounds, while the emotional content of the message rides out on the vowel sounds.

(Yeah, go ahead. Read it again. Let it sink in.)

Information loves a consonant, Emotion seeks a vowel…

I’ll leave you now, but with some questions to ponder and then talk about over tea. (And if you’d rather wax poetic in my comments section, have at it!)

Knowing what you know now about vowels and consonants, why do you think that that many people have come to the conclusion above?

Do you agree with this conclusion, and if so, how might you take advantage of this idea in your craft?

Joy to you,

Pamela


Top Ten Dialect Posts

The other day a new reader asked me which Dialect411 posts did I think they should take the time to go back and read. At first I thought ‘all of them!’ Then I realized that in four short months I’ve already posted 35 entries and reading all of them might indeed be quite an undertaking…

So today for your enjoyment, I present to you what I think are the Top Ten Dialect411.com posts. Whether you were with me from day one or just arrived last week, these ten will give you the essential information you need to benefit from the posts that lie ahead!

If you have time to read only three posts, I recommend:

1)  What Are They Expecting — Which explains exactly what it is that casting entities and productions are looking for when they are casting dialect roles.

2)A Good Private Dialect Coach — Which lets you know what to look for when hiring a professional dialect coach.

3) The Steps To Learning Any Dialect — Which describes the process of learning a dialect, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised…

If you have time for three more, I offer you:

4) What is Good Speech (You might be surprised.)

5) You Have an Accent (Yes, you.)

6) Myth: I’ll Add The Dialect Later (You can try…)

And if you want more, check out:

7) Fit to a ‘T’ — Which explains an effective tactic for using dialects to increase your casting opportunities.

8)  Voice Care Practices (Actual Title: Start From Where You Are) — This is where I share information on caring for your voice when the voicing gets rough.

9)  Finding a Dialect Donor — Where to look if you’d like to try your hand at recording your own dialect materials.

10) How to Shop for Dialect CDs— Tips on what to look for in the theatre bookshop if you must rely on purchased goods.

That’s it! My choices for the 10 essential Dialect411.com posts!

But…I am one of those people who always likes to send my guests home with a little extra, so if you’re ready for dessert, please enjoy:

Why? A Tangent Worth Taking — The post I almost didn’t publish, but the one that has garnered the most response.

Which are your favorite posts? I write this blog for you and love hearing about what you enjoy and what you’d like to see more of! Leave a comment here or send me a private email at dialect411 @ gmail dot com!

How To Shop For Dialect Lesson CD’s

About once a week for the past fifteen years someone has asked me “So… which CD’s or books should I buy to learn a dialect?”

I just did the math on that.

Turns out, I’ve attempted to answer this question nearly 800 times.

OK.

I get it.

Everyone wants to buy a CD.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a CD (or a book) about flying an airplane either.

But what are the chances that when you’ve finished with that book or CD, you can jump into the cockpit of a jet and fly like a Blue Angel?

See, that’s the catch.

When acting in a dialect other than your own, you run a high risk of crashing and burning. And just like the Blue Angels, you are working in close proximity to others, so your mistakes can end up dragging someone else down with you. Sure, no one actually goes to the hospital over a badly trilled ‘R’ or a Southern Georgia accent that keeps drifting over to London and back, but snarky reviews, low ticket sales, and tainted reputations are deadly common.

Books and CD’s (and videos) can be very useful in learning a dialect but you need to keep in mind that that these are just components of your dialect solution, rather than the solution itself.

No matter how great the CD is, it’s wisest to make sure you get feedback and coaching from someone knowledgeable at the same time, especially if you don’t have a strong history of dialect success. (Meryl, you have my blessing to skip this step in a pinch.)

That said, at some point you may need to shop for a commercial CD, so let me share with you what to look for.

When shopping for a commercial dialect CD, look for all of the following features:

1) Recordings of  the target dialect spoken by natural speakers of that dialect (not just the instructor’s own attempt at the dialect — it’s not enough). The best recordings will be clear of ambient noise and include the dialect donor reading a diagnostic passage as well as speaking extemporaneously.

2) Transcriptions of those recordings into English and into the IPA.

3) Recorded instructions about what are often referred to as ‘sound changes’ ‘substitutions’ or ‘signature sounds.’ (Be aware that these ‘sound changes’ are nearly always presented in terms of their divergence from the General American dialect. If you happen to speak a dialect other than General American in your every day life, you might easily find yourself confused or misled.)

4) Written versions of those instructions which include the use of the IPA or at the bare minimum a spelling approximation of the sound changes. (Spelling approximations are subjective, and thus less reliable.)

5) Recorded practice word and phrase lists.

6) Discussion of the dialect’s rhythm, intonation, inflections, common words and sayings etc.

7) Information on where to learn more about the dialect, words and phrases, the IPA etc. (usually in the form of web links).

And now the (slightly bitter) truth. I have yet to find a single product that meets all of these basic qualifications. Paul Meier’s work [paulmeier.com] comes close, as does the work of  Gillian Lane Plescia of dialectresource.com and the folks at Accenthelp.com, so you might want to start in there somewhere. If you are looking for a common dialect (Received Pronunciation British for example), you may wish to buy materials from more than one source to make sure you have the tools you need to get started.

Enjoy shopping, but as a dialect coach, an actor advocate, and an audience member I hope that you’ll help keep the skies friendly, and won’t fly solo until you’ve worked with a qualified dialect professional. You’ll be happy you did.

Finding a Dialect Donor

Back on April 15th I suggested that one way to improve your casting opportunities would be to determine which of the world’s dialects would be a nice fit for your particular acting career. Whether you used the how-to steps I provided in that post, or whether you consulted with a dialect coach who specializes in dialect fittings, you might now find yourself ready for the next step: shopping for or recording your own dialect resource materials.

You can always hire a qualified dialect coach to record and edit materials for you, but if you would like the satisfaction of doing it yourself, here are a few ideas about where to find pre-recorded materials and/or people that you can interview and record on your own. (I promise to share with you the secrets of how to approach and interview a dialect donor in an upcoming post!)

1) The Internet— Dialect collection and preservation sites such as IDEA and the British Library offer a wide variety of recordings of people from around the world, all speaking English. (Caveat: Using such a site to find a pre-recorded sample that suits your needs can save you time, but in doing so you may have to sacrifice the flexibility and control that you would have had if you took the time to find and interview a subject yourself.) As I mentioned in my last post, if you’re mindful YouTube can yield some relevant resources and some contacts to boot. Googling around for particular language names or dialect names can also sometimes yield a useful dialect or language contact or two.

2) Clubs and Organizations— There are clubs devoted to celebrating nearly every ethnic background on the planet. In addition, certain clubs may attract people who hail from certain locations. A club dedicated to Japanese flower arranging for instance,  may have at least a few members from Japan. A trick riding club may yield some Montanan, or Texan members. Not everyone in a ‘We Love Switzerland’ club will be Swiss, but you can bet someone in the club knows someone from Switzerland and can put you in touch with them.

3) Places of Worship— The Roman Catholic church can be a great place to find dialect donors, as priests are often brought in from faraway places -(Ireland, Africa, and Mexico to name a few).  Synagogues will sometimes yield donors with Russian, German, Yiddish or New York dialects. Buddhist temples can help you locate speakers with many different dialects such as Thai, Chinese, or Japanese. Certain mosques might be able to lead you to donors with Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, Sudanese, or many other Middle Eastern and Northern African accents. When approaching places of worship, be sure to do some mindful research about beliefs and customs, so that you don’t unintentionally offend anyone.

4) Colleges— Check your local college faculty listings for potential donors from around the world. In addition to faculty members, you may be able to connect with the foreign student advisor and let them know you are looking for help with a certain dialect. They may permit you to post a ‘wanted’ sign, or even put you in touch directly with just the donor you are looking for.

5) Museums— If you have a local museum that specializes in the art and culture of a particular region, you may be able to find contacts through one of their curators, or you may even meet someone at a special event. A night of plays written by Native American playwrights might mean that there’s a chance someone from the Crow Nation will be in attendance. At the very least, your program will be filled with potential Native American contacts who might help you with your search.

6) Festivals— Festivals such as Irish, Indian, Greek, or Polynesian draw enormous crowds of people and performers, some of  whom may have just the sound you’re looking for. You just have to be outgoing and connect with them!

7) Towns within Towns-— Little Armenia, Chinatown, Little Africa, Korea Town etc. Most larger cities have areas a block or two wide where there are businesses devoted to the goods from certain geographical locations. Often the shopkeepers in these stores are good potential interviewees or can put in touch with someone.

8 ) Foreign Consulates— Foreign consulates can be very helpful if you’ve searched everywhere and are coming up empty-handed. Simply call a consulate, let them know you are preparing to play a role and find out if there’s someone there who might like to volunteer to help you for an hour or so.

9) Everywhere— This method takes a little longer, and I admit it is pretty random, but you may wish to consider keeping dialect and language notes on all of your new personal contacts. If you keep your contact information in a searchable database (such as Mac’s Address Book), jotting a few notes like ‘her mother is from Mongolia’ or ‘he was born and raised on the Nisqually Indian Reservation can help you later find the person you need for a project with only a few keystrokes.  Very handy.

I hope these ideas will give you a place to begin your next dialect adventure.

Do you have other ideas to share? Leave a comment below! (I love comments!)

The Truth

Everyone tells you. Your acting coach. Your publicist. Your agent. Your manager.

Don’t lie on your resume because a lie will eventually come back to haunt you.

It’s very good advice, and if you’re a working actor, you probably took this advice to heart long ago.

But here’s the thing—What if you don’t realize that there’s a lie on your resume? What if, for instance, you have listed in your skills section ‘Dialects: British RP, Cockney, American Southern, New York, Irish’ because six years ago you were enrolled in a respected acting conservatory where those dialects were taught as part of the curriculum?

And you got an ‘A’ in the class?

And your instructor told you that you were ‘really good with accents?’

That sounds fantastic!

But —

When was the last time you actually tested any of these skills?

When was the last time you recorded yourself acting while using your New York dialect and had that recording analyzed by a professional dialect coach?

When did you last walk into an Irish bar and successfully convince the Irish patrons that you were from Kilkenny?

If you want to be a competitive actor, any skill (dialect or otherwise) that isn’t performance ready today should be removed from your resume until you have given it a thorough tune-up and put it to the test…

…because even an accidental lie will eventually come back to haunt you.