Music To My Ears

 
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One very popular question that students love to ask is whether they should "drop" the accent when they sing in musicals. As I'm sure you can imagine, I definitely have some thoughts on this! But when I started putting these thoughts into this blog post, I began to see a very interesting comparison:

Accents are exactly like musical theater songs!
WHY?

I think it’s important to remember why we pay attention to accents in musicals in the first place. Accents are an incredible tool that we’re able to use to create even more vibrant worlds for audiences. Accents help us tell the story. I think that by “dropping” an accent in the songs of a show, we run the risk of halting the story’s progression. It wouldn’t make sense for a character with an accent to suddenly "drop” or “lose” that accent just because she’s now singing a song—think of how jarring that would be to audiences! You and your actors have worked so hard to develop truthful, authentic characters from a specific part of the world… why should music change these characters? Both songs AND accents Songs help move the story forward in the world of musical theater.

What the doctor did NOT prescribe!

 
 

Have you ever taken an Alexander class? For anyone not in the know, the Alexander technique was created by Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander as a way to help us retrain movement and posture. The outcome is anything from blissful relaxation to an emotional breakthrough! I studied Alexander briefly in college, and I was incredibly lucky to revisit it recently at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, of all places. One of my favorite moments of the class was discovering how Alexander and accents meet... through TEACHING! As I watched this incredibly talented teacher work with various puppeteers’ aching arms and shoulders, I was amazed by something he said… “Keep moving your arm (through space), we’re just exploring together.” Exploring! There could not have been a more comprehensive word! Exploring is the perfect way to approach anything new—whether it’s spinal movement, or oral posture! I’ve been trying to use exploration in my teaching for a while now. I find it invaluable, especially when it comes to exploring the sounds, and feelings of various accents. Rather than instructing a student to do something (prescribing), it’s much more powerful to explore the new sounds and elements of accents… together. Remember that we all have different anatomies, and that our mouths most likely will have subtle differences. I’ve found that taking students on a guided, exploratory tour through accents produces fantastic results!

Let's Get Physical!

 
 

Last month I had the absolute pleasure of sitting in on a puppetry workshop at the annual Maryland Thespian Festival. I learned a lot about moving within a space, point of focus, and the importance of connecting speech to movement. Puppetry, as we all know, is very visual… In order to create the illusion of a puppet’s speech patterns, the puppet’s head might be choreographed to tilt, or even turn slightly in various directions. For instance, to indicate a word with the “LONG O” vowel sound, a puppet’s head might move slightly to the left. I was FASCINATED by this! I loved the idea that a slight tilt or turn was enough to communicate a specific sound! And I immediately connected the dots… Puppetry speech is very physical because SPEECH is very physical! I think it’s very easy to forget this. Our lips, tongues, soft palates, and uvulas are all features of our vocal tracts that we physically use every day in order to speak. And just like any other muscles of the body, they need to be trained, warmed-up, and drilled on a regular basis. The more we understand the physical features of our vocal tracts, the more capable we are of using them for different movements and patterns. And different movements and patterns will help us later on when it comes to learning ACCENTS!

LAX/TENSE SPLIT

 
 

Would you believe me if I told you that the “SHORT A” vowel sound has many different pronunciations in this country? When we learn how to read, this sound is most often taught like this:

In the speech world, you’ll often hear the word LAX used to describe this version of the “SHORT A” vowel sound. This basically means that your tongue is reLAXed, and lower in your mouth.

…but not all of us use this sound 100% of the time!

Have you ever heard someone from New York City say BATH like this:

What about someone from Philadelphia say the word AFTER like this:

Back in the speech world, you might hear the word TENSE used to describe this version of the “SHORT A” vowel sound. This terms suggests that you’re raising, or tensing your tongue while pronouncing this sound.

Now here’s the confusing part… very often you’ll find regional American accents that use BOTH lax and tense versions of the “SHORT A” vowel sound—such as Philadelphia! So when are the “SHORT A” vowel words tense, and when are they lax? Well, in order to answer this question, we have to look at the sounds (or letters) that come immediately after the “SHORT A.”

Here are a couple of examples:

LAX “SHORT A”

P
T

Apple
Cat

TENSE “SHORT A”

F
S

After
Pass

EXERCISES

1) Show the following clip to your students:

 
 

Ask them to draw 2 columns on a sheet of paper, and label them “LAX” and “TENSE.” Play the clip again and ask them to write down the “SHORT A” words they hear in the appropriate columns

2) Ask them to find their OWN examples of people speaking with the “LAX-TENSE SPLIT.” (Hint: pay attention to New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore/Washington, DC areas!)

Cot-Caught Merger

 
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Say the word COT.

Now say the word CAUGHT.

Do you hear the same vowel sound in these words, or is it slightly different?

What about the following sets of words:

bot
cot
rot
tot

bought
caught
wrought
taught

When you say them, do they have the same vowel sound—like this:

 

…or are you hearing two totally different sounds?

 

Both of the above options highlight a fun feature of the General American accent called the “Cot-Caught Merger.” This basically means that in some parts of the country these two sounds will be pronounced differently, while in other parts, they sound exactly the same (the two sounds have merged together).


So what parts of the country merge the two sounds (and what parts keep them separate)? Take a look at this “Cot-Caught Merger” map! The green dots indicate a merger, and the dark blue dots indicate a separation.


Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether your area is represented by a green dot, or a dark blue dot—both pronunciations are correct! What DOES matter is that you understand and know this feature of your own speech. When YOU say COT and CAUGHT, do they sound similar, or different? Knowing how you naturally speak will only help more as you start to explore features of other accents!

EXERCISE

1) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who speaks with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

2) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who does NOT speak with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

3) Encourage your students to make a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) COT, and a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) CAUGHT

Know Thy Accent!

 
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According to the Linguistic Society of America, an accent is the way a person sounds when they speak. "When they speak" are the key words. We all speak, and therefore we ALL have an accent--no matter where we're from. So before diving into a new accent, I think it's really helpful to know the features of our OWN accents! Why?...

Let’s start with inflection! Here are some examples:

With a General American accent, phrases typically end on a downward inflection:

 

With an Australian accent, phrases might often end on an upward inflection!
Listen to Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski say:
“It’s one of the best characters I’ve ever played in my life.”

 
 

EXERCISE

Here’s an exercise to use with your students: ask them to choose up to 5 characters in any of the TV shows they’re currently watching, and observe the inflection patterns of those characters.

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Questions for them to ask:

  1. Do most of the sentences end on an upward or downward note?

  2. Do the YES/NO questions end on an upward or downward note?

  3. Is there a time when the character uses an inflection in a way that sounds either different or unique?

  4. Are there any additional inflection patterns?

By having a solid understanding of our everyday inflections, it’s much easier to model inflections of other accents to our students!

Inflection is just ONE feature of accents… stay tuned to future blog updates for more!

Accents In Dialogue

 
 

VERY often in scripts, we’ll see unusually-spelled words such as:

“perfick” (perfect)—The 39 Steps
”erster” (oyster)—Newsies
”gettin” (getting)—West Side Story

I like to think that the writer is communicating accent notes directly to us! The writer is telling us that some sort of accent belongs here. We might also be able to piece together the following information:

1) Details about the rhythm, melody, or music of the character’s accent
2) The overall flavor of the character’s speech patterns
3) Some hints about the character’s culture, background, or society

Personally, I love seeing “accent clues” in scripts. The more information the better! But we do have to be careful. Sometimes in scripts, you’ll see some very interesting spellings. For example, take a look at this French accent word:

“sair” (sir)

This is what is known as a spelling approximation. A spelling approximation is an attempt to describe a specific pronunciation of a word using a traditional written alphabet. The problem with spelling approximations is that the written letters of English can only do so much to communicate the true accent sound.  (Be on the lookout for more about this in an upcoming blog post!) The writer is giving us her/his interpretation of the sound, rather than the authentic sound itself. So it’s always an excellent idea to cross-reference accent notes in scripts with audio examples of authentic speakers (primary resources). Let the spellings in the script inform you of the presence of accent, and THEN let authentic clips and examples reinforce the accent!