Updated: Oct 8, 2019
If you’re reading this, chances are you have always loved hearing a great impersonation and have said to yourself something like: "How do they do that!" or "Man, I wish I could do that!" You've probably also said, "Wow, I really need to take a shower and get out of my pajamas, it's noon!!!" but that's another educational course, and I didn’t pass so. . . let’s just stick with what I know I can teach.
Whether your goal for learning vocal impersonations is to improve your acting skills, build on your already great stand-up comedy routine, add ‘impersonations’ to your voice over game, or just fool the maître d’ on the other end of the phone that. . . "Yes it really IS Celine Dion,” and could you get a table for four at 8pm? you’ve come to the right place. Now let’s talk fundamentals so you can start sounding like somebody other than yourself. . . someone interesting and famous! Someone that people really love and connect with. (Please note, my course, Low Self-Esteem for Impersonators Berated by Coaches, is coming soon! Sign up now.) Ok, that's just a joke, people.
The first actual person who ever made me money as a voice mimicker was Hillary Clinton. Yes, that's right. Hillary Clinton was working for me! I mean who else gets to say that but an impersonator? The year was 2007. A million and five years ago. She was running for the Democratic nomination but lost to a guy named Barack Obama (who's voice I haven't made money at but IS someone I can teach you how to do, or parts of it anyway.) Which brings me to our first topic. . . Discovering the truth about your natural voice.
The truth for me is that my natural voice and Hillary's have similar qualities. Before we get too far down the river though. . . please understand that this course has nothing to do with politics but for the sake of time, it's great to use someone like Mrs. Clinton because EVERYONE knows what she sounds like. If I started off the course and said I made money sounding like Mrs. Richard Nixon, we'd be spending too much time rewinding the tape. When I ask you to conjure, "Hillary Clinton's laugh" you probably KNOW what that sounds like. So hopefully, that clears up any discomfort you may have about why I may refer to “HC”.
Your first assignment is to start thinking about the qualities of your natural voice and the voices that you want to impersonate.
Notice qualities like PITCH. My voice is a little higher than Hillary's so I drop it a bit, making an adjustment in pitch. Now, someone like Kathleen Turner? If you put my impersonation next to an actual clip of the actress, it would never fly. I simply cannot make my voice that low. This is NOT to say I can't still do a funny impersonation but if I'm trying for "spot-on" I really wouldn't even spend time working on her voice knowing my natural voice and hers are not well-matched.
TIMBRE. Kathleen Turner and I have a different pitch but we also have a different timbre. Now if you’re saying, what the heck does timber wood have to do with voices. I would tell you NOTHING! I said TIMBRE (and I’m yelling it slowly with a fantastic French accent too.) Repeat after me tam-bruh. It means the tone or quality of a sound. Kathy, (as I call her), sounds like she swallowed a frog who swallowed a carton of Camels. There is a throatiness and a thickness to her voice that mine simply cannot replicate easily. Does that mean I cannot do a Kermit the Frog voice because his timbre and mine are different? Absolutely not. I CAN sound like Kermit. I just can’t sound like Kermit impersonating Kathleen Turner. Some people, you’ll notice, have a natural rasp* to their voice. (Think Will Arnett, Al Pacino, Rachel Ray, Miley Cyrus) I can imitate a rasp but it will never sound like a ‘real’ rasp. And that’s okay. There are lots of fish to fry. (Get it…vocal fry?** Moving on. I’ll explain that later when we talk about the Kardashians.) To be continued. . .
REGIONAL ACCENTS Where are you from? Hillary and I are both from the Chicago area. When she hits a word like "Actually". . . she hits the first "a" with an extra special "aaa". She lays on that thing like she’s laying on the horn of an 18-wheeler fish-tailing across The Dan Ryan Expressway in January. Linguists call it a vowel shift. (Fun exercise: Say the word actually with your face relaxed. Now say it as if a doctor has a tongue-depressor in your mouth. With your tongue out of your mouth you'll make the "aaa" sound (not ahhh). Now add a buzzing sort of sound to it so that the sound resonates out of your nose and not from the soft part of the back of your throat. Hear it? My God, you sound like Hillary Clinton saying the word “aaactually”!)
The more you can find those "special" consonants or vowels the person you want to impersonate uses, the funnier your impersonation will be. Like a heat-seeking laser, find and nail those vocal idiosyncrasies or identifiers. They are comedy gold. And in fact, when you start creating copy for yourself, you will want to lead with words, sounds or expressions that immediately hook the listener and fool their brains.
And definitely take note of regional pronunciations. While researching Elizabeth Warren for my latest videos, I discovered, she says 'fi-nancial' with a short 'i' ! Who knew? I say the first syllable with a long "I". For more fun on this topic after you finish this article, check out this map of regional words. Bossy! Bossy, I know.
While it is sometimes hard to hear our own vocal patterns and regional accent, make an honest assessment. Record yourself and play it back over and over. Research what linguists have to say about the crazy thing you do with your "A" for instance. If you're from the South do you say can't or cain't or cay-ant? Do you say little or liddle, idea or idee-er, nursery or nurshry, fuh- revah or fur-everrr?
INTENSITY Another quality to consider is how intense the sound is that is coming out of your pie-hole. Is your delivery just shy of serving as someone’s hair dryer or is it breathy and soft like Marilyn Monroe’s? Hillary’s can be both intense (some might even say grating) depending on whether she’s delivering a speech to thousands or showing us a softer side when doing a latenight interview. Intensity is not the same thing as volume though. Imagine a soccer mom who has a soft, thin voice when she's talking. She’s a gentle woman. Now imagine she's yelling at the idiot ref across the field who has just called foul on her baby, and trampled on her last nerve. She might be loud in terms of volume, but the weight of her voice, the pressure coming from her pie-hole is still thin. Make sense? If it doesn't that's okay. At least you now you have been introduced to some concepts as you analyze your voice in an attempt to better understand how to mold it into someone else's.
What about SPEED, ARTICULATION and CADENCE, you ask.
Geez! You're like Artificial Intelligence. Getting smarter as you read. Yes, how fast or slow someone speaks must be locked down as well as listening for how well or poorly they articulate. Do they really use their mouth to form words or do their lips stay somewhat closed causing the words to run together? (Google 'celebrities who mumble' for a fun listen.) Check out their teeth when they talk! Do they have an overbite or under bite? Study whether their mouth turns up to the right or left when they speak, and do the same. Sometimes, this can be tricky. When I do Rachel Maddow, for instance, I make my mouth go into a position that is not natural for my musculature. Rachel speaks out of the right side or her mouth, where as that's harder for me than going left. Turning the right side of my mouth upwards, even though no one can see me in my booth, helps the impersonations because it helps me get 'into her body and her energy'.
As for cadence, this means how the words flow. Does the person speak in a choppy or metered fashion ala Captain Kirk.When.He.Is.In.Pain. or Barack Obama. Or Bernie Sanders. Who talks. Sometimes as if. *The words are grouped together. (*Until the last part which they speed up.) When I do Kellyann Conway, I think 'run-on sentence'. Ellen DeGeneres, same thing. Both of them have the tendency to trail off. Sofia Vergara has a sing-songy cadence. Up and down. In men, you can often hear the sing-songy quality when they're trying to hit on women!
I hope some of this has been helpful and you've enjoyed learning a few of the tricks impersonators use whether consciously or unconsciously. On that note, you don't have to know the science, but for those of you who are curious, this study from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience explains what happens in your brain when you try to do an impersonation.
I'd love to hear, in any of your voices, your comments or questions!
*To read more about the mechanics of the voice and/or get really scared that you might have a problem, please see: Keep Your Voice Sound. How to Prevent and Avoid Voice Problems (National Institutes of Health) or Hoarseness (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders)
** vocal fry is the lowest register of your voice that produces a creaky sound