Accent on Voice

Accents are often the first thing on the minds of young actors, and there’s no doubt being able to speak with different accents is a useful skill.  This article  came to me from my dear friend and colleague, Amy Stoller, one of New York’s top accent coaches. The author shares his experience of discovering that his Pakistani accent had modified itself quite unbeknownst to him, as he lived for years in the States, and how he realises now how much cultural, social and even political baggage  – if not downright prejudice – is attached to the way people pronounce their words.

Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.

Scottish Theatre Company, Macbeth company 1982, outside Glamis Castle.

My own experience confirms this, albeit in a pretty mild way, compared to the challenges faced by people from different language groups and different ethnic groups from the mainstream.  While living in Scotland I found I had to modify my accent if I wanted to be understood clearly, and immediately.  Without that rolling Scots ‘r’ in the middle of words (like the word “words”), the local populace found it hard to tune in to what I was trying to communicate. It didn’t take a lot of effort, just a tilt of the tongue in the general direction of an ‘r’ was sufficient for general comprehension. But of course, if you move your tongue to a different position in a word, the surrounding sounds cannot help but be affected as well.

And so it was, that I returned to Australia some years ago to find myself accused of being Scottish.  No Scot would ever have thought so!  I’ve modified myself back to regular Aussie, but still people often assume I am from the UK.  Why should that be?

My own theory is that because I speak clearly, and because my voice has a pretty good range of colours and inflections, I sound somehow “posh”.  This is in spite of the fact that many upper class English folk mumble, speak on a narrow range, and certainly speak much more quickly than I do.  But, as Omar Akhtar says in his article, “Basically, if you sound non-native, you’re screwed.”

Actors need to be able to “do accents” so that they can play a very wide range of roles. Here in Australia, it’s important for a jobbing actor to have a great General American accent, because the paid work lies in the film and tv productions being filmed here by US companies.

What I want to emphasize here is that if you don’t have a good grounding in basic voice work, if you don’t have a well placed, well supported, well-varied, open and flexible voice to begin with, it will be harder for you to create those unaccustomed sounds of different accents with ease. And if you can’t do it with ease, it will always sound ‘tacked on’.

Voice and speech are inseparable. But they are not the same thing. Voice carries the speech, it fills the speech, it gives the words and phrases of speech body, life and soul.  Work on your voice first, and the speech work will fall into place.  Of course, you have to work on the speech part – nothing good comes from nothing!

Do you have an accent?  Is it the same as those around you, or different?  What is your experience of being judged by your accent?  Share your story in the comments below.


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Golden Rules

Do you ever wonder if people really understand what you are saying?  Do they seem to misinterpret your words, or accuse you of being unclear? Often our friends will try to be helpful and tell us we are sending out the “wrong” signals. But are they right?  Or does that say more about their own insecurities? After all, we are inclined to criticise others on the basis of faults we perceive in ourselves – because that is what we know something about. Indeed, we are experts in our own imperfections.

Here in Australia, I think we have an overly judgemental culture. It’s easy to comment on the mistakes others make, and to criticise failings in each other.  This then requires us to get in first, and criticise ourselves, apologising and offering up excuses and reasons for why we aren’t perfect. Some of us do an awful lot of apologising, don’t you think? Or do you think we don’t apologize enough?

Voice is a physical, material substance created deep within the human body, and then released to the outside world. Any comments or observations made about the way we sound has a profound effect upon us, and we tend to take them negatively, whether intended that way or not. But we have no control over what other people think or say, and we certainly have no way of getting inside their heads to know exactly what they are thinking, any more than they can get inside ours.

So I have come up with some Golden Rules for people undertaking voice training. These are rules to help us find, and take control of our own actions and behaviours, providing us with a safe environment to be adventurous within:

Timeout - Wynnum, Qld. 21 Jan 2013

Timeout – Wynnum, Qld. 21 Jan 2013

  1. Convert the judge in your head into a very clear, accurate observer.
  2. Be self aware, rather than self conscious. Notice when you are self conscious, and convert it into self awareness. In other words, when you catch yourself thinking about how you look or sound, from the outside, turn your thoughts to noticing and observing what your body is doing, and how it feels from the inside (physical sensations).
  3. In class, in training situations, try to avoid making jokey remarks about yourself or your colleagues. Observations which are factual are fine.  This doesn’t mean we can’t laugh, o
    r enjoy ourselves. On the contrary, we can relax and enjoy ourselves more if we are not expecting, or handing out judgemental comments, even in jest.
  4. In the class, never apologise, explain, rationalise, excuse. Instead, observe. Whatever you observe, “that’s interesting!”
  5. Whenever you catch your thoughts wandering, or realise you have the impulse to make a joke or a comment, congratulate yourself on the observation and notice that it is a
    n interesting observation and move on.  That is being present.

This might seem like a complicated approach to voice training, but I find that a little bit of practice in following these rules goes a very long way towards helping people to be more relaxed and comfortable about exploring their sound, and adjusting their vocal behaviours. They still feel vulnerable, but they have the tools and techniques to deal with that feeling and work with it creatively.

Do you have rules, or guidelines that you have found helpful for your training?

Is Your Voice Fun?

Some people take their medicine with honey, others just knock it back and never mind the taste. When it comes to your vocal health and skill, do you enjoy doing your exercises? Do you do them on your feet, bouncing around the room, or sitting in the car in between cursing other drivers? Would you take advantage of a mobile app that made it fun to do your warmup? Here’s a short survey I’ve devised to gauge interest in such an app.

Click here to take survey


image courtesy

We all know by now that the whole body is involved in the way we sound. The shape of the instrument determines the quality of the sound that comes out of it, and this is true whether the instrument is made of brass, wood, or flesh and bone.

So there’ll be a different result depending on whether you do your voice exercises standing, sitting, or hanging upside down from a trapeze.  All three positions are perfectly acceptable, as long as you do them at least some of the time while balanced upright with your feet in reasonable contact with the ground.

However, this doesn’t address the problem that the thought of doing exercises of any kind, even something as simple as The Hum can fill most of us with unease, reluctance, and a sudden urge to bake. I’ve been working on this problem for most of my life, trying to find ways of making the doing of the exercises more time-efficient and enjoyable.  From the moment I  developed a warmup that could be completed in under 3 minutes. I found that my students would not only DO the exercises, regularly, but also they quickly discovered how much fun it is to do them, and of course, if you’re having fun, you’re going to do them willingly, and often.

That is how the Mini Vocal Warmup came into being.  You’ll find it here; it takes a few minutes to learn the sequence, but once you know it, you can do it any time of the day or night, as a warmup to get you going, a warm down to relax your voice last thing at night, or it can be extended (with coaching support) into a full voice training program to build your power, flexibility and range.

These audio files can easily be integrated into your iTunes folder, and played on your smart phone or mp3 player.

sample app screen

The next step, (obviously!) is to turn the program into a mobile app, which is what I’m working on now.

There are thousands of apps for warming up the singing voice, but very few indeed for warming up the speaking voice.  Even the singing apps aren’t really warmups, they are scales to work on  AFTER you’ve warmed up.

I’d love to know if you would find such an app useful, and especially whether you’d be interested in an app with just the exercises, or something more fun, like a game that would stimulate you to play with your own vocal sound.  So I’ve created a survey, 10 questions, which takes about 5 minutes max to complete.  Please click on the link below, and don’t forget to let me know if you’d like to be a beta tester when it’s almost ready for public release.  That way, you get it for free!

Click here to take survey

Please share this with your friends and colleagues. The more feedback I get, the better the product will be.

Do you have any ideas for mobile apps that would be helpful for performance skills training? Or do you have your own way to keep the exercises fresh and fun to do?  Leave a comment below…

Voice IS Movement

A week or so ago I ran into a young woman who had taken part in some short classes I once ran for a group of performance studies students. There were five hour long classes, not compulsory. Some students came to all five, some would arrive late, others would leave early to finish assignments or attend rehearsals. As far as I am aware, this was their only opportunity for voice training. The young woman apologised that she hadn’t followed up on the voice work because she had spent the past six years “working on my body instead”.

I was so shocked in that moment that I had absolutely nothing to say. Thoughts like “I’ve failed!” “I must be a dreadfully bad teacher” floated through my head like rats in a flood.

Then I came across this video. It’s a gorgeous short film, created by master film maker Jon M. Chu (Never Say Never, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, illustrating the power of the body to communicate and move us.  It’s inspiring, and I love it.

Here is a reminder of how it is introduced:

“This is what we believe…There are things in this world more powerful than words… movement is the most basic form of communication for every single human being on the planet, expresses what a whole bunch of words never can… It’s not about how many flips, or turns, or how straight. It’s about how far you can stretch the soul.”

Wonderful, isn’t it? Who would disagree with this? I certainly don’t. The problem I have with it is not the way it promotes all forms of dance movement, it’s that its makers forget, or ignore, or are totally ignorant of the fact that voice is part of human movement.

When we make vocal sound, our bodies are also in movement and our voices, just like our hands, or hips, or any other visible part of our beings, express our human ways of being, our culture, and our souls. The only difference is that the voice is not visible.

Voice is not just the words it speaks. Words are concepts, ideas, thoughts made audible so that they can be communicated. Voice is more than the words it speaks.

Words require a mind in order to be spoken.
What is a mind?
What is speaking?

Speaking is the act of giving voice to words.
What are words?
What is a voice?

Voice is the body within the words
Voice is the soul reaching out to touch your body.

We don’t see voices with our eyes, but we don’t just hear them with our ears either. Sound waves do not flow directly out of our mouths and only land in the listener’s inner ear, thence to be translated into signals that the brain interprets. Of course that is part of the process, but there is also the part where sound waves impact upon the listener’s body. The listener is, literally, moved, in subtle but profound ways by the sound of the voice they are also hearing.

So when we train our bodies to be more expressive and communicative, please don’t forget to keep training our voices as part of that process. Give your voice a good stretch each morning, take it for a jog along its length and breadth, challenge it to leap higher, flow longer, dive deeper, twist and flip, bend and straighten. Move your voice to stretch your soul.

Do you agree?  Do you have a regular physical training regime that includes vocal stretches or resistance work? Voice trainers, do you encourage your students to move around the room as they do their vocal exercises? Share your thoughts below in the comments box.