Voice over recording tips – This is the second in a series of articles by Lisa Theriot on speaking in different accents, a useful skill for voice over actors.
I used to babysit some English children, and they found it delightful when I copied their accent and began to speak “normally.” When I asked them to copy MY accent, they said, “Oh, it’s easy to do an American accent; all you have to do is hold your nose.” They demonstrated, and I was somewhat alarmed when these children, who naturally had straightforward “BBC newsreader” British accents, produced fair Manhattanite American simply by holding their noses. They were nowhere near my SoCal American, but they were definitely more American-sounding than British-sounding.
This taught me two things. Number one, the less you know, the less you recognize. Just as many Americans miss the differences between, say, a West Country accent and a Merseyside accent, a lot of Brits will not hear the difference between “right coast versus left coast” American accents, especially from urban centers. (Most Brits can spot more pronounced accents, like Bronx or North Dakota, and almost everyone in the world can spot a “twang” accent, though they can’t usually distinguish between Texan, Deep South, and Midwest rural. Heck, a lot of Americans can’t.) The narrower your audience, the better your accent has to be. Try to convince a native Texan that you were born in Dallas, and you’d better be perfect; to convince a Californian, you might only need to slow down your delivery and throw in an occasional “y’all.” (I was born in California to a Texan mother; as a child, California kids at school would tease me about my “Texas” accent, while I can remember my Texan cousins remarking on how “funny” I sounded.)
The second thing I learned was the critical importance of the nose. As someone with a prominent proboscis as well as chronic sinus problems, I have spent years learning to speak and sing around my nose. This turned out to be a real boon in accent work, because if you can’t banish the nasality from your delivery, there are some accents you just can’t pull off. (Happily, there are a lot you can, even in Britain; South London and Geordies are pretty nasal, to name just two.) The opposite is also true; you’ll need to manipulate your nasality to do an accent from a culture that is more nasal than yours. When doing Indian British, I focus on shutting off my nose (and no, holding your nose won’t do—you’ll likely sound less like Shaheen Khan and more like you with a cold ).
Here’s an easy exercise to try. Get a short passage of text, say it as you would normally, then hold your nose and say it. It will probably sound ridiculous, but that’s the point. You’ll also feel the vibration in your nose through your fingers. Say it again, and this time, try to make your vowels rounder and deeper (say “how now brown cow” a few times). Drop your chin as you speak (say “Dad” and then “father” while watching what your mouth does, and you’ll know what I mean). You should notice the vibration reducing dramatically. Eventually, you’ll be able to sound almost the same with your nose pinched, though M and N sounds, which are inherently the most nasal, will still buzz a little. For you Brits trying to sound more American, the reverse will work; hold your nose and TRY to make it vibrate. Think flatter vowels (say “mitt meet mitt meet” for awhile) and grin while you say it. A little practice, and then, who nose?