“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

The phrase that is the title of this blogpost is attributed to Oscar Wilde. Actually, it was first written by a British writer named Charles Caleb Colton. Wilde’s version of it, written nearly 100 years later, added the phrase:

“that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Well, that’s quite different.

We have heard tons of amateur singers channeling famous singers at auditions. “Wow, she sounds a lot like Idina Menzel/Sutton Foster/Laura Osnes! But not quite.” They haven’t found their own voice. They might not be mediocre, but they’re not great.

I think imitation has its place as a pedagogical tool. As a child, I found my upper register by imitating Julie Andrews. I found my chest voice by imitating Karen Carpenter. I found my mix by imitating Barbra Streisand. But I don’t think I sound like any one of them (except when I go full Julie as a comedic choice).

If you are imitating someone, you are rearranging your vocal tract in the way that they do to produce a particular sound. Perhaps your tongue is forward and the sound is very bright and head-dominant. Perhaps your mouth is open wider or taller. Perhaps your lips are more rounded.  What if you try one of those things when you’re singing something you’re having a problem with (WWJD – what would Julie do?) How can you make that work with your own voice?

It’s not limited to celebrity imitations. What about character voices? If you made a baby sound, or a little girl sound, or a gruff Santa sound? Or a witch? What do you find when you make those sounds?

Or accents! If you’re good at them, which I am (she said, immodestly). How does singing something with an RP British accent feel versus singing something with a Cockney accent? (Did you know there are 30 different accents associated with the UK?) A French accent versus a Russian accent? A midwestern accent or a southern accent? What happens inside your mouth? What is the sound like? What can you learn from making that sound?

Check out the amazing Christine Pedi in this video. She’s made a career out of doing imitations, especially switching between them rapid-fire – but I don’t know what her own voice sounds like.

So imitate away – but examine what you’re doing. What’s healthy about it? What’s not? How can you use imitation as a tool to find your own voice?

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

One thought on ““Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

  1. I wasn’t aware of Oscar Wilde’s addition to this quote – very clever. Imitation of a voice with solid technique can really help, not all voices you hear are singing the healthiest way. There are several pop singers that I would not imitate. It’s also wise to be aware of how much you can pick up of someone else’s sound and style simply by singing along to a cast album repeatedly. I can instantly tell in an audition if someone learned the music from a Broadway cast album without finding how the song fits in their unique instrument (or paying attention to the rhythms and notes as written in the music they’ve handed to me).

What do you think?

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