Monday, July 7, 2014

29 Celeb Impressions: How'd he DO that???

This video, where the talented Rob Cantor sings an original song whilst impersonating 29 different celebrities, went viral this week. In just one week it's gotten over 6 Million views and audiences are raving. Mr. Cantor certainly has a talent for shape shifting his voice! What is it about impersonations, specifically GOOD impersonations, that fascinates us? It seems to be tied in with our excitement at being "tricked," the same human condition that makes us giddy over a well executed magic trick or makes us lean in and smile at a really good ventriloquist act. Many of us love those moments when we "can't believe our eyes"!

But how does he do it?? We are all born with our own voice, our personal and one of a kind instrument. But we CAN change the way it sounds. Some people start using their voices a different way as a compensation for an injury or trauma to the voice, and they often develop secondary problems and need to work with a speech therapist to relearn healthy vocal technique. Other people, consciously or unconsciously start using their voice differently to fit in (eg. women in politics using a deeper harsher way of speaking). Others choose to change their voice consciously to match the persona they are inside (eg. people who are transgender). And a handful of people have a natural or developed skill for being a voice chameleon, like Mr. Cantor! 

This video is a great way to explore the different parameters of the voice and discover what exactly makes each person sound like their self.  Watch the video below and then read about the different aspects of voice and communication he uses (probably mostly subconsciously) to achieve these excellent results!

Fundamental Frequency (Pitch Range): It's not that important! If you listen carefully, Cantor is not changing his average pitch much at all. The women's' and men's voices are very close in pitch range. Some men even have higher sounding pitch than some of the female voices (eg. Willie Nelson (0:45) sounds higher than Billie Holiday (1:07). However, while the length of the vocal cords (the aspect of the voice that creates varying pitches) is remaining mostly in a constant range, his voices do create the experience of different pitches based on the other aspects listed below. Bjork (3:06) sounds higher because she is breathy and forward (see phonation and resonance below) and Randy Newman (0:19) sounds lower because he is chesty and harsh.

Resonance: Probably the most crucial aspect of these impressions (and also crucial to anyone modifying or improving their voice). Resonance is where the voice is "happening" in the body. Christopher Walken (2:24) has a low front focus, giving him a "deeper" resonance. There are many other "places" the voice can be focused, and subtle shifts make a big difference. Gwen Stefani (1:45) has a high central focus, while Shakira (2:04) has a high forward focus. Kermit (0:30) and Schmegel (0:57) are both high back focused, but Schmegel is MORE back than Kermie, making them have a completely different quality.

Phonation: Phonation is the quality of the sound. Anatomically this is created by the style in which the vocal folds are coming together and vibrating. If there is air leaking out between them you get a breathy sound, like Britney (2:07). If they change shape quickly, you hear pitch breaks, like Cher (2:40). If they are coming together forcefully with other muscles around them getting involved, you hear a rough sound, like Louis Armstrong (0:35). If they come together gently with plenty of air passing through, you get a clear sound like Willie Nelson (0:45). 

Prosody & Rhythm: Communication has a melody to it and the different patterns of emphasis and pitch give many of the characters their unique sound. Christina Aguilera (2:35) has a very open, legato rhythm. While Jeff Goldblum (2:13) has a choppy and staccato rhythm. Frank Sinatra (1:13) sounds almost "syncopated."

Vowels and Consonants: Generally what we think of as a persons "accent." Peter Griffin (1:19) has the open /a/ and /r/ that are the Hallmark of his Rhode Island Dialect. Adam Sandler (1:40) has a particular aspiration of his /s/ and /t/s that makes him instantly recognizable. And all the Englishmen, like Ian McKellan (1:58) have a more closed and forward set of vowels. If you want to hear more about the British vs. English Vowels, check out this great video. 

Each voice has it's own combination of Phonation, Prosody, Accent, and Resonance that makes it sound "spot on." The above are just notable examples of each of those aspects. 

I suppose diving in to these different aspects of Cantor's performance are a little bit like "looking behind the curtain" at a magic show, but they also give us a fascinating look at why we sound the way we do. Also really important evidence that we can actually change the way we sound! Believe it or not, you are in the driver's seat of your voice and communication!