Noted voice scientist Professor Ron Scherer shares the perils and opportunities of mimicry.
Sometimes singers want to sound like their favourite recording artists.
Is this really possible? VoiceCouncil Magazine has asked Dr. Ron Scherer his view:
It may be helpful to first discuss what a mimic may be doing.
Successful mimics can alter their sound from the larynx and the shaping of their vocal tract in such a way that they can be perceived as someone else.
They will add identifying sound effects, pitch inflections, and stress patterns that are unique to the person including visual mannerisms and even the use of props.
These elements combine together to give the impression that the mimic has reproduced the essential communication characteristics of the person.
Mimics will give us their best impressions, but exclude from performance the unsuccessful ones that are left for continued development or removal from the mimic’s repertoire.
That is, there are limitations to how far they can go. They have a “range” of successful variation of their own voice and resonance system.
The Limits of Imitation
What about character voices and voice qualities you perceive as extreme that are much different from your own voice?
What you should do depends on the level of training you have and thus how healthy your production can be.
The safest sound changes to make would be when you change the shaping of the vocal tract to alter resonance (adding nasality, using a higher or lower tongue position, etc.) rather than adopting voice changes that may damage vocal fold tissue (especially the mucosa that overlays the vocal fold muscle) or lead to muscle fatigue.
If distorted “vocal” sounds are desired, basic training in theatre and singing appear to encourage using non-vocal fold tissue as additional vibratory sources (e.g., by using the false vocal folds, vibrating tissue against the arytenoid cartilages, vibrating the tongue against the pharyngeal wall, etc.), while retaining forward “focus” and not squeezing the vocal folds together or tightening muscles of the larynx too much.
Performers who produce physiologically challenging sounds are typically advised to warm up well to optimize function in the face of the challenge, and to cool down well to “re-center” the entire body (especially regarding muscle tone of the larynx and vocal tract region).
For stage work, it is always a good idea to see how far a characterization can go with makeup, costumes, physicality, and props before considering voice and articulation that might be damaging or fatiguing, especially if there is much time spent in rehearsal or there are many performances.
Dealing with Pain and Fatigue
In general you should monitor any change in the sound quality that you make and any change toward discomfort, pain, and fatigue.
A hoarse voice can be the result of many different kinds of change to the vocal fold tissues, all of which require laryngological attention for diagnosis and treatment. Pain in the throat also requires laryngological help.
Quite often pain and fatigue can be the result strictly from vocal technique that is inadequate to the demands requested of the larynx, and the laryngologist will often advise working with a voice pathologist (in conjunction with the singing teacher or voice and speech coach).
Improving vocal technique involves establishing more appropriate muscle tone and coordination, optimal choices of how close the two vocal folds are to each other, an efficient interplay of respiratory, laryngeal, and resonance aspects, alteration of life style (“vocal hygiene”) choices, and maintaining excellent health in general.
In addition, better technique reduces the need to compensate to achieve effective but inefficient results.
So, you may be able to sound somewhat like Adele (or Stephen Tyler, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, etc.), but your larynx and vocal tract may not be suited to those voices.
Frankly, what you really should desire is to sound like your best self relative to the kind of style you wish to sing in, and that requires guidance from knowledgeable teachers whose first notion is to do no harm to their students.
-Dr. Ronald C. Scherer
Ron Scherer, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Bowling Green State University, teaches voice disorders and voice and speech science courses. His research interests include the physiology and mechanics of basic, abnormal, and performance voice production, and the methodologies involved in such research. Read More…