“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?

The Performing Teacher/Teaching Artist

The biggest reason I moved back to the east coast from Milwaukee was because I was not performing at all. Or hardly at all.

On the up side, this allowed/forced me to focus on developing my teaching/business skills, and I discovered that I’m really good at this. But performing was important to me, both because I am a performer, and I’m really happy on stage, and also because I think it makes me a better teacher.

This was reinforced in an article by Brian Manternach, a tenor on the voice faculty of the University of Utah’s Theater Department, and also a former resident of Milwaukee. (I think I might have judged him at NATS at one time….) This article appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of the Journal of Singing, and is titled “The Value of Performing.”

I’d like to summarize his points (in bold and italics) about why performing informs and benefits our teaching, and draw some conclusions of my own.

  • Teachers who perform may be better able to demonstrate the techniques they are encouraging their students to build. I know a lot of teachers who don’t demonstrate, just because they don’t want to encourage imitation. And I get that. If you are 14, you shouldn’t sound like someone who is… older. But if I can show you just what chiaroscuro is supposed to sound like, I will! I will also show you what it shouldn’t sound like. (There will be another blog in a few days about imitations/accents/funny voices and how this can help you find things out about your voice.)
  • Teachers who perform must maintain a regimen of vocalization that keeps their own instruments flexible, pliable, and healthyI “joke” that during the last  or so years I was in Milwaukee, I became really good at singing in E major. Because that’s where I started a lot of exercises. Whether it was a descending 5 note scale starting on B4 or an arpeggio coming down from E5, I’d demonstrate that, my students would sing it going down, and then I’d go to the same spot and go up. (It wasn’t a very funny joke.) I had no reason to practice. I intended to, but I had so many students (30 at home, 10 at colleges, plus teaching classes at Carroll) that I just didn’t have time. And it showed when I gave a recital in September 2011 at Carroll and realized that I did not sound – or feel – like myself. I had to work with Connie Haas to find the singer I had been and would be again.
  • Teachers who perform have the ability to thoroughly learn new repertoire. Again, I had no reason to learn anything. I had worked with a pianist in the early 2000s who introduced me to a lot of pieces that were wildly out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, they were exhilarating. But he took ill, and retired from performing. And my cabaret pianist was in high demand and became too busy to work on shows with me. I had a few opportunities through the MacDowell Club, a performing group, but they were few and far between.
  • Teachers who perform can empathize with their students who experience music performance anxiety (MPA). Boy, can I relate to this. I had terrible MPA (a new term for me). And because I didn’t have performance opportunities, I didn’t have the opportunity to conquer it. Each performance I did had so much riding on it. There wasn’t necessarily a “next time.”
  • Teachers who perform can bring first hand knowledge of age related voice changes to their studios. wish I didn’t have this … but I do. I’ve done pretty well so far, except for one 3 month period that coincided with a particularly bad bout of bronchitis.
  • Teachers who perform have additional opportunities to network and build relationships with other musicians. To a certain extent, I’ve gotten this from a lot of other sources:
    • NATS
    • Social media (performance/teacher FB pages)
    • Speakeasy Cooperative

But there’s a special bond between people who make music together. They inspire each other to do better, to take it to the next level.

Teachers who don’t perform aren’t lesser teachers than teachers who do. But, for me, I need to have both. Right now, I feel like I have a good balance of teaching and performing. Perhaps later, I’ll change the ratio (or have it changed for me).

I consider myself a teaching artist, and even when the day comes that I perform less, I will still consider myself that.