Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lessons from The Remarkable Voice of Chris Stapleton

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I recently wrote an article about Chris Stapleton for Voicecouncil Magazine. Since then, it became public that he had some vocal problems requiring him to reschedule a show. He is reportedly, thankfully, back on tour and in fact played Nashville's recent Bonnaroo Festival. I wanted to share some points from that article that I've revised here for you.

Here are some milestones from Chris Stapleton's career so far: He shot to the top with four awards at the last year's CMA Awards, six ACM awards this spring, two weeks at #1 on Billboard 200 all-genre chart, four Grammy nominations and a duet with Justin Timberlake that Entertainment Weekly labeled ‘an unapologetic display of abnormal levels of talent’. Originally known for writing hit songs, Stapleton had been singing, writing and performing for 15 years before his album 'Traveler' rocketed him into the solo spotlight.

Here are some lessons we can learn from his voice:

1. Tall, flexible posture should be an ingrained habit.

Any time you see Chris in performance, notice his tall, flexible posture and open stance. He 'wears' his guitar, instead of cradling and crunching over it. Why is this important? With tall and flexible posture, the ribcage remains open and the diaphragm stays flexibly stretched. This creates breath control that is the secret to vocal control.

2. Lighten your higher middle voice.

Back off breath pressure and add headier tone to influence and lighten your mix to create strain-free upper middle voice. You don't have to make it pure head voice... just learn to lighten your chest voice, also called full voice. Chris illustrates this at the beginning of ‘Honey load up your questions’. The sound easily morphs into his signature rich masky tone. Check out Fire Away

3.      PULL sustained notes for rich resonance and protection from vocal strain.

It feels and sounds like a magic trick when you do this right. Chris and his wife singing backgrounds can both be seen pulling their voices on this song. For instance, notice the slight backward tilt of Chris’s head at 1:51.

4.      Drop your technique from time to time for effect.

Sometimes it’s the slight swell of volume, a sudden drop, a little gravel and even a purposeful numb tone that creates deep emotional response. Listen to The Difference Between Whiskey and You, at 10:24 on NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. If Chris’s voice doesn’t move you, check your pulse.

5.      Marry (or at least find) a background singer whose voice fits yours like a glove.

Chris’s wife Morgane is an incredible singer. With her vocal ability, it's no surprise to me that she was formerly signed with Arista Records as artist herself. As Chris's background singer she weaves her voice around her husband's with masterful precision, anticipating and tracing his moves, embellishments, tone and volume changes. His show and his sound would not be the same without her. 

6.     The voice wants access to movement!

The minute the jaw freezes and the 'neck veins' pop out on a performer, there will be some degree of vocal strain. Strain on the voice will limit the fine movements necessary to nail vocal licks, control pitch, create rich tone and so much more. Keep your neck, shoulders and jaw at least slightly loose for vocal freedom of movement. Check out Chris's much lauded CMA performance with Justin Timberlake and notice how loose Chris’s head and shoulders are when he sings the vocal runs at 1:00 and 2:44 on Tennessee Whiskey. Even in this high-stakes situation, his neck and jaw stay loose!

7.      Support the ends of lines to maintain control of pitch and tone.

Chris is a master at controlling the ends of his lines, and he way he does it is to create a stable balance of breath support and control. To him it probably seems effortless because he has internalized the action needed.  He pulls breath pressure back, but continues to support the very end of the lyric. Listen to the last syllable of 'brandy' at the end of his vocal run on every chorus of 'Tennessee Whiskey' during that same CMA performance. His perfect pitch just floats out. The same thing happens on Drink You Away" at the end of his run at 3:54 on the word ‘pain’.  If he tried to lean on the lick, his control and precision would have been at risk. I would add that you see Timberlake doing these things, too, but his voice is worthy of a whole other blogpost:)

8.      Use active facial language.

It may be a little hard to see, but if you watch for Chris’s eye language under his hat you’ll catch a lift of an eyebrow, a scrunch for grittier mask tone, a glint of conversation. Again, his jaw is not overactive but is loose, freeing his mouth, tongue and lips to vary his tone at will. If his face stayed frozen, his tone would be numb and not nearly as emotionally communicative.

9.      To increase performance power, self-compress and articulate more clearly! In other words - Back off breath pressure; add passion.

Chris's strong vocal delivery is powered by breath compression, which is the balance of breath support and control. I call it Pulling instead of Pushing. You literally power your ribcage and throat tract open instead of tight. Power is centered in the hips rather than the ribcage, and the even volume results are so much better for audience ears and the soundcrew! Then you are free to add passion that doesn't strain your voice or their ears by the way you articulate the lyrics! On an SNL performance of his song Nobody To Blame, watch him pull back on his pressure at 1:05 on the words 'changed out all the locks':

10.  The demands of a successful vocal career call for constant vigilance to protect the voice from damage.

Chris has joined the ranks of successful artists whose performance demands create perilous conditions for the voice. I found this live performance of Fire Away, where Chris's voice is showing some fatigue. At 1:30 notice that Chris is pushing a little, leaning on instead of lifting his voice. He sounds a bit tired and less controlled. The 'ceiling' of his soft palate and upper pharynx is flatter than usual. All singers are vulnerable to illness, lack of sleep, good food and adequate hydration. As I mentioned earlier, Chris had to cancel performances from vocal fatigue. Now, back on the road with the load of performances he's doing at this point in his career, I do hope he has a good vocal warmup routine, knows and applies vocal health principles for the road and has a good vocal coach he can check in with. 

11. Don't be afraid to do it your way.

In many ways, Chris Stapleton does not follow the pattern suggested for music career success. He looks at and engages with his wife on stage much more than he overtly engages the audience. He doesn't articulate clearly sometimes. He sometimes does push his voice into a thinner sound (and compromises his voice doing so). He is older than almost anyone else on stage. His staging has no smoke and mirrors (unless things have changed in the last few weeks). A paradox in many ways, he really is king of his genre right now!

12. Make music that makes the world a better place.

In the promotional video for his song Fire Away, Chris joins the movement to call attention to those with severe emotional pain. There is no telling how many lives that have been impacted positively by his voice:

In the case of Chris Stapleton, the exceptional quality of singer, song, sound and spirit have combined to create great commercial success. May he keep rocking stages and hearts for a very long time!  What about you... have you heard Chris sing? What did you think?

If you want to go farther with your voice, check out the vocal lessons, vocal production services and vocal training products I have available on my website. I would love to work with you to maximize your vocal performance ability and protect your instrument! 

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