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natalie baker-shirer with theatre students

My True Voice
Students in Pittsburgh learn poetry and enunciation

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Additional Resources
Standard American Index

Standard American

Accent Coaching

How Hamlet Lost His Drawl
Can Americans speak without betraying their origins? Natalie Baker-Shirer of Carnegie Mellon University teaches acting students and theater professionals how to speak Standard American English, free of regionalisms, accents or dialects.

“Standard American,” in the context of dramatic speech, means one single standard of speech that will sound American — simple, unaffected and distinct, devoid of regional influences. Although there is no official Standard American speech, there is a range of acceptability. In real life, as opposed to the theater, all accents, dialects and regionalisms of a language are valid. But, in the theater, we deal with the dramatic expression of the written word. As a professor of speech for actors, I want to teach a manner of speech that communicates the content of the written word with clarity and consistency. That is why I teach students to speak “Standard American” English, without regionalisms, accents or dialects.

Very few, if any, Americans grow up speaking this consistent Standard American speech. Because our environment influences our speech, standard pronunciation must be taught. In learning to speak for the theater, a student learns the 39 sounds of Standard American English, as defined by the International Phonetic Association. These sounds are used to communicate spoken English in a way that conveys no information beyond the content of the words themselves. In an American production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” for example, we want the audience to be involved with Hamlet’s problem and how he attempts to solve it. We don’t want it to be distracted by the thought that Hamlet seems to be from Texas. Standard American English relieves the audience of wondering about where Hamlet learned his original speech patterns.

Hooked on Phonetics

robert macneil with acting students

A student actor learns speech technique founded on phonetic principles. Our language is inconveniently un-phonetic; words are not spelled according to how they are pronounced. Students who want to improve their voice and speech must study phonetics. In the late 19th century, an international group of linguists developed the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), used to study the sounds of all of the world’s languages. I use the IPA because it is the fastest, most complete way to visualize speech — not only to produce Standard American English, but also dialects and accents for diverse roles. We start by raising students’ ability to perceive sounds, then to duplicate them. As language expert Morris Halle wrote, “…words are learned and are stored in our linguistic memory. If the words we utter are composed of discrete sounds, then it is reasonable to suppose that words in memory also consist of sequences of discrete sounds.”

No two actors, however well trained, sound exactly alike

Obviously, each of us has a uniquely personalized speech, even in so-called standard speech. Each of us has a distinctive vocal instrument, in terms of the equipment (thickness and length of vocal folds, jaw, teeth, tongue, hard and soft palate) and the psychological aspects (musicality, pitch range and intonation patterns). That’s why no two actors, however well trained, sound exactly alike. But, if we succeed in our instruction of standard speech, the results will be unaccented, clear and consistent speech, freely resonant and with good breath support and musicality.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • The Sounds of Speech by Morris Halle
  • Barry, Cicely. Voice and the Actor.  Reprint ed. Wiley, 1991.
Natalie Baker-Shirer was awarded the William H. and Frances B. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching in May 2001. At Carnegie Mellon, Ms. Baker Shirer teaches speech and phonetics as applied to Standard American English dialect. She has produced an instructional CD: Distinct, Efficient and Pleasing: A Practice CD of the Non-Regional Dialect of American English and an accompanying phonetics workbook for this course. Her other courses include Accents and Dialects for the Theatre, Voiceover (Broadcast) Acting and two community-based outreach courses: Speech and Phonetics Instruction and Outreach and Growing Theatre. Ms. Baker Shirer received a BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon, where she studied speech and phonetics extensively with Edith W. Skinner, and an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy from the University of Pittsburgh. Her acting career includes Broadway, theatres across USA and Canada, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, voiceovers including Emmy Award for narrating PBS' What Doctors See. With a passionate interest in outreach for the School of Drama, Baker-Shirer has developed a community based outreach course The My True Voice Project in partnership with the Extra Mile Education Foundation She and her students handle three schools. The My True Voice Project combines the teaching of pronunciation with an exploration of poetry and the use of voice synthesis software.

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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York