Why the Detail Model Had to Go

grab bag

(Roots, part III)

The teaching of any prescriptive speech pattern as some sort of basis or ‘neutral’ will inevitably encode privilege and elitism, alienate actors from nonstandard speech backgrounds, and actively impede the acquisition of accurate and detailed perception and the ability to subtly adapt one’s own speech and accent.

It’s been a ridiculous fourteen months since I last posted. Even worse, at the end of that post, I teased the next part of the story, promising to write soon about Why the Detail Model Had to Go. Better late than never, I suppose. This is that post.
In the previous installment, I wrote that Dudley had come to believe that there were essentially two overarching goals in the speech training of actors: adaptability and intelligibility. Actors needed to be flexible and adaptable so as to be able to adjust their speech to the requirements of different performance arenas, characters, and contexts. They needed to be able to do accents accurately, consistently, and believably. And they needed to be able to be intelligible in all these different arenas, contexts, accents, characters, to all different types of audiences.

Dudley was always dissatisfied with the term, ‘The Detail Model,’ however. He worried that the word model could imply that the set of skills were a unit, a monolith, and that his grab bag of separable skills might be configured as—or misunderstood as—just one more prescriptive ‘standard’ accent pattern.
I regret to say that that’s exactly what happened.

These goals sound simpler than they are. It may be apparent that learning to do a variety of accents well is a demanding training endeavor. Intelligibility, however, can seem to some like a low bar to set. This is, I think, often because of a comparison, implicit or explicit, with pre-existing models of actor speech training—strongly prescriptive models of some variety of ‘standard’ speech, often claimed to be ‘neutral,’ or lacking in regionally identifiable features (race is rarely mentioned). By contrast with these methods, where actors are drilled endlessly in the precise aspects of ‘good’ speech, merely requiring that they be ‘intelligible’ might seem like weak sauce. After all, people from different accent backgrounds can be perfectly intelligible to each other without any particular training, given a bit of familiarity with each other’s accents (communication between, say, Americans and Australians would be challenging if this weren’t so!) But for an actor to master the ability to be completely intelligible speaking complex text, let us say, outdoors and unmiked, for an audience of 2000 requires an array of skills and understanding that take time to nurture and master.
It is demonstrably false to suggest that this goal is served by—let alone that it is identical to—learning some sort of ‘standard’ accent pattern. For we know a great deal, here in the twenty-first century, about what actually makes speech intelligible or unintelligible. And one of the things we know is that it has nothing to do with conformity to any kind of ‘standard’ speech. What it does have to do with is a fascinating and exciting subject, and one that forms the basis of Knight-Thompson Speechwork. For a thorough exploration of this, the reader is of course referred to Speaking With Skill (and is also, naturally, welcome to attend an Experiencing Speech workshop!) For the purposes of this post, a brief summary—
Intelligibility is a result of:

  • Specificity (or lack of specificity) of consonant action
  • Vowel phoneme differentiation (or lack thereof)
  • The inclusion (or omission) of linguistic detail

A further insight of Dudley’s was that acting requires that these elements be subject to constant, subtle adjustment. Like important contributions in many fields, this insight sounds like an obvious truth—indeed, is one—and will be instantly affirmed by any successful performer. It has not tended to be explicitly part of pre-existing methods of actor speech-training, however. The opposite, in fact: many actors trained in ‘standard’ speech have been given to understand that they must deploy the full amount of linguistic detail and a full complement of consonant muscularity across all contexts—regardless of whether the character they are playing is in bed with their lover or giving a stem-winding speech to the Roman populace. This is such a patent absurdity that an actor faced with such a requirement is apt to decide that what she’s being offered in speech class is a load of hooey. There are two other possible responses to this kind of expectation—some actors choose to wholeheartedly embrace the demand for maximally detailed, ‘correct’ speech at all times. These actors don’t work (or if they do—some are talented, after all—they tend to be stuck playing a fairly narrow range of parts). Many actors, of course, choose a kind of middle road where they make some effort to please the speech teacher—during speech class and perhaps when acting Shakespeare—saying to themselves all the time that the requirement is silly and isn’t likely to serve them well in the profession. (These actors work, all other things being equal.)
Allow me to say here that I don’t for a minute imagine that skilled and sensitive teachers of voice and speech, regardless of teaching methodology, would condone such a goal—maximal detail and conformity to ‘standard’ speech at all times, across all contexts. But what isn’t offered as an explicit value is prone to to get lost entirely. Generations of speech teachers have trained generations of actors to speak ‘well’, with nary a thought spared for capturing the nuances of how people actually speak to each other, and how fluidly this can change from person to person, situation to situation, and even moment to moment. Great actors have always made a study of this, of course, but all too often these actors have done so while explicitly rejecting the advice of speech teachers.

mumble mumble paper lantern mumble light bulb mumble mumble
mumble mumble mumble paper lantern mumble light bulb mumble mumble

And too often, of course, intelligibility can be an unintended (or even deliberately-targeted!) casualty. These two values—believable human speech and intelligibility—need not be in conflict. And the skills necessary to serve both ought to form the core of actor speech-training.
Training actors in a specific, narrowly prescribed ‘standard’ or ‘neutral’ accent pattern may seem, on its face, like it serves the goals of intelligibility. After all, such models generally emphasize specificity of consonant action, vowel detail, and the inclusion of maximal linguistic detail. But intelligibility is, in fact, independent of any particular accent pattern and it is a profound mistake to conflate the two. Especially since the costs—pedagogical, personal, and political—of insisting on speech training that privileges prescriptive patters are great.
I’ve written before about some of these costs. (For pedagogical ineffectiveness, you might read this post or this article. For personal and political problems with such methods of teaching, you might refer to this post, this post, or, indeed, to Dudley’s original two articles on the subject.) For the nonce, suffice it to say that for a variety of reasons, actor speech-training need not, should not, be based around the teaching of any sort of ‘standard’ accent pattern.
What takes its place? In Knight-Thompson Speechwork, we teach phonetics, articulatory anatomy & function, and continually deepening perception as the groundwork of speech-training (along, of course, with work on freeing up residual tensions and developing free, flexible, and skillful useful use of the articulators). These skills—some of which involve undoing certain habitual blocks to accurate perception—allow the actor to achieve our stated goals—adaptability and intelligibility to meet a variety of possible performance demands. And all of this is accomplished without any reference whatsoever to any sort of standard accent pattern.
Once these skills have begun to take root—towards the end of the first year, or sometimes at the beginning of the second, depending on the program—Knight-Thompson Speechwork begins to focus on a number of English-specific speech skills: things like lateral plosion and glottal ‘attack,’ to pick two arbitrary examples Together, this assemblage of skills make up the variables of American English speech patterns. Dudley’s idea, in assembling this collection of variables, was that each individual skill ought to be separately configurable. It ought to be possible, in other words, to set the ‘slider’ for one skill to 10, one to 3, and one to 7. By way of example, let’s assign these ‘settings’ to some actual speech skills. You might elect to experiment with a speech pattern in which you will make use of nasal plosion wherever possible1; only explode the occasional final stop-plosive2; and use a tongue-tip approximant [ɹ] for all pre-vocalic /r/ sounds and lighten the rhoticity of post-vocalic /r/s. (Go ahead and try this, if you’re so inclined. Grab a bit of text and see if you can’t apply these settings.)
As he assembled, described, and taught this finite number of speech variables, Dudley’s conception was that they formed sort of grab bag of separate skills. In the early years of Knight-Thompson Speechwork (before it was called that, for the most part), he named this assortment of skills ‘The Detail Model.’ The name came from the fact that linguistic detail—the prime determiner of intelligibility—was the variable being adjusted in most of these skills.
Dudley was always dissatisfied with the term, ‘The Detail Model,’ however. He worried that the word model could imply that the set of skills were a unit, a monolith, and that his grab bag of separable skills might be configured as—or misunderstood as—just one more prescriptive ‘standard’ accent pattern.
I regret to say that that’s exactly what happened.
In at least a few training programs, speech teachers who had taken workshops with Dudley took his Detail Model, set all the ‘sliders’ to 8 or 9, and taught it as a new prescriptive pattern. Doubtless there was more flexibility and adaptability in the instruction than in Edith Skinner’s classroom; other aspects of Dudley’s methodology were making it into the classroom as well—exploration of the whole of the IPA, Omnish, perhaps narrow descriptive transcription in some cases—but often these were breezed through, lightly touched on like appetizers on the way to the real meat of the training: a new, renamed, ‘Detailed’ standard accent pattern, explicitly or implicitly naming Dudley and KTS as the source.

This was exactly what he had wanted to do away with. In the teaching progression he had developed, there was no need for it.

Dudley’s horror—this is not too strong a word—was that this was exactly what he had wanted to do away with. In the teaching progression he had developed, there was no need for it. And the teaching of any prescriptive speech pattern as some sort of basis or ‘neutral’ will inevitably encode privilege and elitism, alienate actors from nonstandard speech backgrounds, and actively impede the acquisition of accurate and detailed perception and the ability to subtly adapt one’s own speech and accent. These things are true regardless of the teacher’s good intentions or even explicit words to the contrary—they are intrinsic to the very fact of privileging one specific speech pattern over others, no matter how it is couched.
Which was why the Detail Model had to go.
If, despite Dudley’s clear writing and teaching, some people were still going to appropriate it as just another standard speech pattern, then clearly his reservations about the term were justified. Readers of Speaking With Skill will have observed that The Detail Model is nowhere to be found. What we have instead—making up the last quarter of the text—is Part 4: ‘The skills of intelligibility.’ The section is divided into four chapters: Formal and informal speech; Consonant skills; Vowel skills; and Putting it all together (a collection of practice texts in a variety of styles). Rather than give the grab-bag of skills any name at all, Dudley’s solution to the vexing problem was to simply call it what it was: a loose assortment of skills, related to the skills of intelligibility. It was his hope that this would make his intentions even clearer than before, and especially that it would make it less likely that his grab bag of individual skills would be assembled into a new set pattern (let alone one that would claim him as its creator).
Spread the word. The Detail Model is dead. Long live the grab bag.grab bag2
Previous post: Roots, Part II                                            Next post: Collecting Accents

1Nasal plosion is the action of exploding a stop-plosive nasally instead of orally, in words like kitten or student. It is often transcribed using a nasal plosion diacritic [ⁿ]. The following nasal, an alveolar [n] in the examples above, will then end up being a syllabic consonant. If we take the trouble to indicate both of these things (which is nice to do), we end up with a transcription like [kʰɪtⁿn̩].
2A stop-plosive (or just plain ‘plosive’) is a speech action involving a stoppage of the air flow, a buildup of pressure behind the obstruction, and then a plosive release. /p, t, k, b, d, ɡ/ are the stop-plosive phonemes in English, though of course there are many others in other languages.


2 thoughts on “Why the Detail Model Had to Go

  1. From a current student’s perspective, it was initially difficult to drop the level of intensity that I brought to performing classical texts after I learned the Skinner-model “standard” in my undergraduate training. Some time after learning and drilling it into my skull, my performances became entirely too focused on the equal production of all sounds within my given text, thus slitting my performance, and also making my performances unsuitable for some roles.
    It was and is still a relief to be diving into speech work that focuses on the exploration of how I, the individual, pronounce certain phonemes. And then from there to be taught how to adjust “Specificity (or lack of specificity) of consonant action, Vowel phoneme differentiation (or lack therof), and The inclusion (or omission) of linguistic detail,” to create the sounds I need to communicate what it is I need to communicate with less chance to send the wrong signal to an audience, or my other in a scene, etc…
    I look forward to every day in Phil’s class, and cannot wait to continue my exploration and become more specific.

  2. I always wished that Dudley had chosen to call it the Detail Process, in order to make it a *verb*, rather than a *noun*. Adding detail is something you do, explore, discover in the moment rather than a fixed goal or target.
    The other thing that strikes me is that the grab bag seems to imply that all speech skills were created equally under God. I don’t think that that is so. I don’t profess to have any special insight into how they fit together, but I see a hierarchy of skills, with some more valuable, more likely to be used in many varieties of English, and others less useful, and more likely tied to a kind of English. So aspirated plosives might fall much higher in the hierarchy than, say, nasal plosion or lateral plosion. Excessive glottaling of initial vowels might be seen as having a negative effect (reducing intelligibility) in some contexts. So not only can details be added in, they can be taken out or replaced with alternative strategies.
    The argument that these can all be added to any accent seems to overstate the value of the strategies—adding nasal plosion to a strong Mandarin-English accent will not increase its intelligibility!
    However, the ability to engage the process at any time as an actor-strategy to play with status, or the emphatic, formal or casual nature of the level of speech one might code-shift into, is invaluable. The only way to discover the inherent hierarchy is to play.
    Speech is hard™. Developing awareness of the impact of each item on the intelligibility menu takes time and exploration. I honor the work that the KTS master teachers do to explore and value these skills while being respectful of their clients’/students’/actors’ personal speech histories.

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