His voice is one of the best in the business; don’t miss essential lessons from his singing –says Judy Rodman.
If you’re listening to contemporary music these days, it won’t be long until you come across Chris Stapleton.
He has rocketed to the top with a quadruple win on the CMA Awards, a two week stay at #1 on Billboard 200 all-genre chart, four Grammy nominations and a duet with Justin Timberlake that Entertainment Weekly called ‘an unapologetic display of abnormal levels of talent’.
Formally known more for his hit songwriting, Stapleton had been singing, writing and performing for 15 years before his sudden burst into the solo spotlight.
His music is a meld of country/blues/rock and R&B, yet I can easily think of 10 lessons from his work that transcends genre.
1. Flexibly tall posture should be a habit
The first thing Chris’s voice tells us is that standing or sitting flexibly tall should be a given. In this position, the ribcage and diaphragm stay flexibly stretched, enabling control of breath that gives ultimate vocal control. You can check out almost any of his live performance videos and see his tall, confident, heart-and-guitar-open stance.
2. Lighten up the weight of your higher middle voice
Back off your breath pressure and allow a headier mix to create strain-free upper middle voice. Chris illustrates this at the beginning of ‘Honey load up your questions’. He easily morphs this tone into his signature rich, masky sound without strain.
3. PULL your strong sustains for best quality and lack of vocal strain
It’s almost like a magic trick when you do this right. Chris and his wife singing backgrounds can be seen doing this all over the chorus. Watch the slight back tilt of Chris’s head on the chorus of Fire Away at 3:52 above.
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. Find a background singer whose voice can trace yours. If possible, be happily married to them
I’d like to call attention to the voice of Chris’s wife Morgane, who accompanies Chris onstage for most performances now. Given her vocal ability, it doesn’t surprise me that she was formerly signed as an artist herself with Arista Records. Like a precise glove around the voice of her husband, anticipating and tracing his moves, embellishments, tone and volume changes with exquisite precision, she adds so much to his performance I can’t imagine his concert without her.
6. Keep head and shoulders in loose connection
Allow flexibility between your head and shoulders for vocal freedom when doing vocal licks. Check out the relationship between Chris’s head and shoulders during the vocal run he does at 1:27 on the first video above – Fire Away.
7. Support the ends of lines to control pitch and tone
There’s a cool, floating, free but perfectly controlled way Chris completes the ends of lines. He pulls pressure off, but continues to support the very end of the lyric.
8. Activate conversational facial language
Watch Chris’s eyes under his hat and you’ll sometimes catch a lift of an eyebrow, a scrunch for grittier mask tone, a spark of conversation. His jaw is not overactive but is loose, which frees his mouth, tongue and lips allowing him to vary his tone at will. If his face stayed frozen, his tone would not be nearly as interesting.
9. Self compress: Pull, never, never push your voice for volume
Chris does a terrific job at what I like to call ‘self compression’. The resulting evenness of volume and control are much better for singer, sound crew and audience! Pulling instead of pushing creates this compression power by allowing the vocal tract and the chest to open instead of tighten. On a Letterman show performance of his song Traveler, watch him pull back on his pressure at 3:32 “I can’t tell you”.
10. No matter how good you are, your voice needs vigilant protection.
In this live performance of Fire Away, notice at 1:30 that Chris is pushing a bit and his voice sounds a little tired and less controlled. All singers are vulnerable to illness, lack of sleep, good food and adequate hydration. In Chris’s case, especially given the intense number of performances he must be giving at this point in his career, I do hope he does good vocal warmups, has adequate knowledge of vocal health strategies and has a good coach he can check in with.
Bonus Point #11: Deliver messages that make 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.
Because of all these things and more, may the voice and music of Chris Stapleton keep talking to us for a very long time!
Judy Rodman is an award-winning vocal coach for singers and speakers. She has chart topping hits as session singer, recording artist, songwriter and producer. Creator of “Power, Path and Performance” vocal training, Judy was voted “Best Vocal Coach” 2011 by NashvilleMusicPros. She is a member of AFTRA, SAG, AFofM and NATS. Visit Judy’s website