Hi Renee. I’m curious to know if anyone can learn to have the depth and soul of Aretha Franklin’s voice, Mariah’s honeyed tones (circa 90s) and the sound of Luther Vandross’ smooth allure. Or are we just stuck with our own God-given screech of a voice? – Derek, Vancouver (BC)

Hi Derek!

There are ways that a person can manipulate the sound of their voice in order to change its sound, to a certain degree. However, I believe that there needs to be a hierarchy to your progress as a singer. I think that a good vocal instructor should first show you the techniques you need to improve the voice you have now so that it sounds as good as it can possibly sound, in its own unique way. And then, once you’ve improved as an individual singer, a good vocal instructor could also show you how to move closer to the direction of the voices or styles that you are trying to emulate…to a degree.

We are each given a unique and particularly designed set of vocal cords at birth. We all have a pretty distinct sound. If your voice naturally sounds like the artist you’re trying to imitate, you might be successful at trying to sound like them. Some people are also naturally gifted at imitating other people’s voices; however, this is a talent that is not given to every person, and as a skill, it’s not that easy to teach. A well-trained vocal instructor may be able to give you tools and exercises to help you discover different sounds and experience different ways of singing, which could also be used to imitate the way another person’s voice sounds. Some vocal qualities, however, simply can’t be changed or manipulated. For example, if your voice is naturally very smooth, it would be very difficult (maybe even painful) to get a rough, gravelly sound. If you are a soprano, you very well may lack the depth needed to sing like an alto. In these cases, you would be just as successful at imitating another voice as you would at trying to turn your eyes to a different color.

Whenever my students bring this kind of goal to the lesson, I always like to change the question:

Is it that you want to sound exactly like this recording artist or that pop star, or that you don’t want to sound like yourself because you hate the way your voice sounds?

Usually it’s a little bit of both. But it’s important for every singer to know that while not everyone can become a wildly successful singer, everyone has the ability to sing, and everyone has the capacity to improve. So even if you can’t sound exactly like your favorite singers, you can at least sound like a better (sometimes, surprisingly good) version of yourself. The singers you mentioned are prodigiously gifted, but they also have very distinct sounds. They didn’t get their sounds by trying to imitate someone else. They got there by singing (a lot!), using their own voices, singing in good form, and figuring out what sounded best for them.