Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Chris Johnson 

Voice Teacher & Founder of TeachVoice
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Biography

Chris Johnson is an internationally recognized Voice Teacher and the founder of TeachVoice. With a professional singing career spanning 15 years and vocal coaching experience since 2007, he has spent years looking after professional voices, analyzing voice research, and working with leading experts to develop real-world vocal coaching applications.

Chris understands the demands on performers today, and the vital role voice training plays in developing and sustaining vocal range and strength, night after night. He has helped thousands of vocalists to be the best possible version of themselves through the highest level of service and support. Trained in vocal manual therapy, massage and myofascial release, Chris can also bring these extra skills into his sessions to skip you over those occasional vocal ‘roadblocks’.

Major label contemporary artists, singer/songwriters, West End lead performers, and vocal coaches all trust him to take good care of their voices, develop their techniques, and bring out all of the style and artistry needed to take on THE career. Chris is also the co-founder of the popular iTunes podcast for singers, The Naked Vocalist, and his unique teaching style is in-demand from London to Los Angeles.

Introductory Video:

Interview with
Chris Johnson 

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?

I use movement as a primary way to approach a singer, as a way to assess as well as find  improvements. This acknowledges the whole body as the instrument. For teachers, this helps me to be a person who can help to bridge the gap between very ‘voice based’ pedagogy with a more whole-body experience. These are the main reasons why singers and coaches seem to seek me out! 

How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?

I was always singing from a really young age (privately in my room!), as a way to express strong emotions and live them out. That inevitably led to me singing a little in public (like, in youth club  round the pool table…nothing official) and someone noticing I had a ‘thing’. They recommended I join a choir, so at 15 years old that’s where I had my first training and experience. I got a real  job at 16, but sang on the side, getting paid to sing in free drinks… then a little cash… then more money at events as a semi-pro in a band. 

All the while I was working in sales and finance, until the financial crash of 2007. That swiftly prompted my redundancy with zero benefits, and the total decline of my current way of living. Singing was the only source of income, so I ramped it up and turned it into something that could pay rent.  

During the gradual uptick of performances on the way to a professional career, I started to get voice issues. That prompted voice training to recover from some serious inflammation. This eventually helped me a lot and gave me another enjoyable 12yrs on the road, allowed me to  continue in this new path instead of seeing that fail (like my financial career just before it). It also gave me a big interest in helping others, as I had developed the compassion from experience. 

In a nutshell, this was always my calling. The conveyor belt of your local town sometimes takes you on the standard road of employment. For me, it took a worldwide event to level everything and force me into my calling. So, despite it being a very difficult time, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. 

What do you love the most about your work?  

Oh there’s so much to list. 

I love it when singers find an approach that involves new sensations and controllers that aren’t mechanical. I think it’s so cool because so much pedagogy out there is about manipulating things and being super logical. That was part of my journey, so I know all too well how enchanting a  mechanical approach can be to a modern analytical mind, and how being in control feels awesome. Yet, when you can still appeal to the personality type AND usher in a reliable way to control WITHOUT controlling, their face is pure gold! 

I also really love the work with vocal coaches on their career through Teach Voice. To be able to support such wonderful people in a challenging industry is truly an honour for me. 

I also learn so much from the time I spend with them. It constantly reminds me of the variety out there, and why vocal pedagogy needs options, flexibility and principle-based training; massive for teacher autonomy, and creativity to find unique ways of coaching. 

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

If principles are at the basis of everything, I think a great pedagogue can happily dive into a  situation without knowing (or predicting) what the answer is, or whether what they are going to do will work. Instead, just being confident that if they engage with the voice or the problem in some  way, that a pathway will gradually show itself. This allows for structure to be flexible (sometimes seen as messy) and avoids the bias of structured methods which can lead us astray.  

The person receiving the training can more easily be a collaborator this way, which results in pedagogy that can mould around the person, rather than force a method or structure onto them.  

It takes time and risks though, so a great pedagogue is able to create an environment of trust and respect in their studio. After all, if there are respect issues in a learning relationship, often unsaid,  then even the best exercises and recommendations in the world fall on deaf ears. 

Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?  

Mentors are huge. I’ve had such a lot of input in my career. I had my initial trainers in voice ped,  who gave me so much encouragement to succeed. I also very much appreciate the specialist mentors and contributors I’ve had in my career, as they have helped me to explore the body and voice in ways that aren’t the norm, or even ridiculed at times. 

I’ve been lucky to spend many hours over the last 5 years talking things over with vocal acousticians and researchers Ingo Titze and Brad Story. This isn’t science chat for its sake. Instead, they always entertain my desire to understand the practicality and usefulness of knowing scientific concepts for a voice teacher. That helps me and my teacher training more and more every year.  

The input I’ve had from more somatic-style teachers like Robert Sussuma forever changed the way I looked at learning and the nervous system. It blows structure and method out of the window, which can freak many teachers out. Yet, if we can put down our logic and experience true somatic style learning, it is a truly profound thing that is forever mind altering. 

Kittie Verdolini also sparked off my love affair with resonance, sensation and the sticky subject of  ‘placement’… which actually isn’t that sticky. Her work on Lessac and speech was something I first experienced years ago, which then inspired a very extensive part of my career seeing how  this valuable tool works in the more dynamic act of singing. 

Finally, the biggest unwitting mentors have been my clients. Their willingness to follow a slightly more unconventional path and explore the more abstract concepts with me provide the bulk of my education. Yes, the mentors I’ve mentioned have inspired the experiments but the singers themselves have provided 80% of the education through their responses and feedback. That’s the real beauty of having trusting clients in large numbers! 

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

Movement has been my primary way to assess and effect changes in breath, as it allows the singer to find different ways of standing or moving that helps the synergy between breath and voice. If the rib cage has an ability to respond to pressure, then the pressure underneath the larynx (sub-glottal pressure) can calibrate itself to the voice. It can serve the vocal intention. 

That means that any freedom of movement I can create in the ribs is a major plus for most styles. My thoughts on that originally came from the research of Hixon and Hoit, and then cross referencing that with the ideas of Carl Stough (now taken forward by MDH Breathing Coordination). In actual practice, that has been incredibly valuable. 

My biggest tip for breathing, however, is to optimise the whole singing system so that fewer demands are put on breath. The less we are optimised in areas like resonance, vocal fold nimbleness, and the like, the more careful we have to be with our posture and breath. If you’d like  options and flexibility, then it’s useful to training breathing to be a self-organising system. 

When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

I personally prefer to not focus on the larynx unless it’s raised by the student (pun intended!). In my style of training resonance, the controller for tone becomes the oral cavity in the beginning, via conceptual shapes of the lips and tongue. This allows the singer to identify resonance sensations that also occur naturally more forward, in the mouth and/or along the hard palate. Once that happens, extraneous effort in the throat and breath can fall away and the singer becomes more efficient. 

When a singer is able to first identify those predictable sensations (also known as the misleading term, ‘placement’) and then follow them across the lower and mid range, the larynx becomes a self-organising thing… and that’s the theme of my training. This can build out into sensation of  resonance and space, and consequentially to tone, which then become better controllers for the  voice. They allow a singer to get out of manipulating mechanics and muscles that aren’t meant for direct conscious control. It’s also a way of singing that consolidates all parts into a single focus: great for learning and self-organisation. 

That being said, a singer who is able to lead their voice like this is more likely to make a success of more mechanical changes. So, through awareness and experimentation of moving structures through a free range of motion, some directly affected movements can be found and used.  Without all that background, I feel singers are more likely to misconceive mechanical movement and take them beyond safe vocal boundaries.  

The purpose of all that? Well, of all the mechanical movements possible, I believe manipulating the larynx position to be the most problematic unless the person’s physical awareness is keen and varied! 

When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience? 

In terms of onset and closure, I’ve found the work of Berry et al helpful and how it talks about the glottal gap and the potential cost of it. For singers who want to be powerful, finding a level of  closure that is barely abducted (something like a 0.5mm glottal gap in Berry’s paper) is really  helpful in several ways: 

1) That gap is so small that it can still sound very contemporary, bright and brassy, yet it allows for  air to flow through easily without overcooking the sub-glottal pressure. 

2) It carries as little cost to the voice as looser levels of closure, which can sound too warm or eventually breathy 

3) It leaves the vocal folds loose enough to interact really well with resonance and the back pressures that are present in the vocal tract. This allows for a bigger sound (via a larger amplitude) without an expensive cost to vocal fold tissue.  

This information on the vocal folds, and how that would change onset training for strength, alters the way I train the whole singer. It dovetails with work on resonance like Lessac really well, and also becomes therapeutic due to the low cost/large amplitude vibration; both being recipes for inflammation reduction and ‘cooling down’. 

Yes, you could go harder on the onset for strength, and everyone has their tolerance level for that. If you go too strong on the onset, you get into the realms of genetics and whose mucosa is young enough or thick enough to handle it. Through resonance and onset together, we can help the majority of singers (without outlier genetics!) be super strong without having to tread the dodgy line of tissue cost. 

When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

Acoustics are very core to my work. On the psychoacoustic side, helping singers identify parts of the tone (harmonic and resonance relationships) that are misleading is very valuable. It avoids the centuries of pain singers have endured mistaking the true tones of chest voice, for example. 

Inertance and the vocal folds interaction with resonance has been an enduring concept for my pedagogical development, and for my teacher training. Resonance being a big sustainer of vocal fold vibration, and a greater player than the previously lorded ‘Bernoulli effect’, makes it an un ignorable aspect of training someone to be professional. 

For example, it can also explain why having a quality like ‘twang’ can absolve someone from having to modify every vowel in a sentence. Twang provides the sort of acoustic feedback needed to help sustain the vocal folds, without affecting the vowel formants as much. Therefore, you could belt many more vowels with it than without it. You can be stable in a high mixed register as you traverse a wordy phrase. There are other ways of course, but inertance and the effect of  acoustics on vocal fold vibration is the key concept in it. 

The effects of inertance on sustaining vocal fold thickness is also a main tool of mine. When some weight in the vocal register needs to be sacrificed to go higher, how can we keep as much weight in the sound? One way is to ensure vocal fold closure is enough as things thin out, as that closure keeps high frequency tone present in sound and keeps the listeners believing you’re still in chest voice. But then acoustic feedback can create a stronger vibration and encourage thicker vocal folds, just by the pressures it creates in the vocal tract and without having to over-engage the muscles in the vocal fold that would usually take care of thickness. After all, if you did that then there’d have to be a lot more force from breath to make it work, and the chances of going drastically flat are pretty high! 

They are just a few reasons why the abstract concept of vocal acoustics is actually essential in creating training for singers. 

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

Registration is a bit of a trick, and voice types will use and experience them in a variety of unusual ways. If, for example, we take a singer who uses resonance/vowels more and a singer who leverages breath support more, they will have different registration needs to fit in with the whole  system. Some singers can use effectively head voice, but sound chesty enough through resonation, but then maybe lack the dynamism you get from fully functioning chest voice. There are lots of scenarios like this where registration is part of the big picture, and that’s what creates  the wide variety in music, especially contemporary.  

One piece of registration training that I take from Cornelius Reid is how fully functioning registers tend to work. Yet, in some modern pedagogical methods and YouTube advice, these principles can be very at odds. 

One thing I was often told is to never get loud towards the break. And don’t raise your voice because you’re a singer. The problem with that is that chest voice, in its raw form, doesn’t get its much needed work out. A fully functioning chest voice DOES get louder towards the break if you  don’t try and move out of it. That is normal, and is absolutely ideal. It’s a sign of a fully functioning chest voice which should not be shot own. Yes, you shouldn’t keep that volume if you want to create a seamless break between the bottom and the top. 

But chest voice is an ingredient to a blended function. If we cook a dish, we’d prefer to have the  best, most flavourful tomatoes so that we can play with the balance of flavour. Not throw them out because they MIGHT overpower the dish…. just use less! But makes sure they are good. 

That is a simple analogy (with room for improvement on my creativity haha!) of how chest voice has been diminished by technical advice that focuses on the dish and not the ingredients. That mistakes full function for danger, because we also see some injuries when singers only use chest in this way. However, with the help of onset, resonance principles, and even vibrato, we can ensure that loudness does grow healthily on the approach to the break. In essence, that we have the most flavourful tomatoes to provide to the dish of our mixed register. There’s another story for falsetto too of course. 

In my studio experience, register imbalances like these are a major part of difficulty and muscle tension issues. That’s because dysfunctional registers need to be supported by other means to make them work, especially when the singer has consciously tried to diminish their chest voice to achieve a mix. Having worked with singers for many years on creating full function beyond what’s sung in the song, it’s much more rare that muscle tension around the voice becomes a regular problem for them.  

When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

I’m a little less of a dictator when it comes to living a life, because it pushes many people away from fear of being changed too much. Sometimes the life of singer, and especially their diet, can become a bit over the top.  

What I’ve found is that with some vocal optimisation, and a review of habits like mouth breathing at night and hydration, voices can become a lot less sensitive during the performance schedule. Plus, when working with pros and established artists, it becomes a case of compromise. I’m not  realistically going to turn these people into saints, and if I try I will risk them rejecting any advice. So, with the help of the right team, we can find a sweet spot where technique can help the singer to become more efficient, plus finding a synergy between life, diet and work that doesn’t require  an identity transplant. 

Inflammation is a health consideration that I work into training a lot. Overall inflammation in the body is one thing that could do with some attention in our modern world, but as teachers we can have a hope of affecting the localised swelling from voice use. 

The work of Kittie Verdolini on reducing inflammation using vocal exercise has been terrific for my working singers. In the paper, they asked a group to read aloud at a high volume for an hour, after which everyone was very inflamed vocally. They were then split into 3 groups:

Group 1 – did more reading aloud 

Group 2 – rested immediately 

Group 3 – Performed specific vocal exercises 

Obviously, group 1 were toast. Group two still had really high inflammatory markers in the vocal folds the next day and weren’t fully recovered. However, group 3 returned back to BETTER than baseline by the next day. More than fully recovered… which is pretty awesome.  This doesn’t work the same for infections of the voices, but for roughness that comes from overuse it is extremely valuable and should be part of any busy singers ‘cool down’. 

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

There are so many, but if we take someone traversing from a classical world to a contemporary world, you can get a lot out of onsets/offset, intonation, vibrato and phrasing.

Onsets and offsets are about creating imperfections that align with the message of song. Lazy can pair with vocal fry on and off. Higher intensity and emotive can pair with the tricky ‘flip’ offset… like a yodel finish.  

When intonation can also be played with, where scooping is absolutely encouraged, I’ve had many opera singers get 90% there on singing a soulful number. Then you can sometimes notice that the  singer actually has an incredible ear for style and interpretation, but their internal technical dialogue was overriding it. Combining this back phrasing is a natural step too. 

Vibrato has also been a subtle change with big consequences. A more operatic mezzo can play with vibrato to the point where it becomes narrower and faster, and then suddenly becomes so much more relevant in the contemporary musical theatre songs. It’s quite a revelation for them, but via the simplest change. 

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

For me, posture is dynamic first and foremost. There is no proper posture, but we can be fixed to a posture when the voice needs the support in some way. Like when we go to extremes, or when things aren’t functioning flexibly. 

In this case, it’s great to use movement to ensure the singer can find an easy way to produce the same sound in a variety of positions. Musical theatre performers and dancer/singers don’t have much use of ‘proper posture’ because the direction doesn’t afford them to stand that way.  

For that to be a success, we can train someone in a way that ensures that all parts of the singing system are flexible and strong… even the parts that don’t appear to be very relevant… because in compromising postures the irrelevant parts of the body often need to pick up the slack! 

Saying all that, a first port of call to bring the body in a helpful alignment is to raise the arms above the head whilst singing. It’s such an easily applied change that affects everything from the feet up, allowing for the abdomen, ribcage and voice to syngerise quickly. It is quite wild how  often this little thing can positively alter someone’s direction! 

When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?  

I guess here the practice of extensive self-experimentation and on-the-ground experience and feedback from singers allows you to start to figure out more concise ways of communicating things. In my teacher training, I am constantly forced to find simpler ways of communicating ideas of voice science. The sort of things that are behind the training and not communicated to singers directly. Lastly, I get the opportunity to talk it through with lots of different people which avoids a bias in my interpretation. 

We can also split things out into truths and useful lies. These can often be confused together if you haven’t spent enough time understanding and experimenting. But, when we can acknowledge that the information we’re saying is a useful lie to make things simpler, it helps in a few ways. The main one is that it becomes a flexible idea rather than a truth. Something that can go as easily as it comes, because we know how singers can strongly attach to the words we say when they are said as truth. 

Lastly, letting the experience inform the singer could be the best way to avoid communication problems. Having several ways to lead singers to an experience without words helps the body to understand it outside of rational thought. Outside of problems with meaning. This is how singers  can create their own collaborative path that doesn’t get derailed by another person’s subjective experience.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Resources)?  

In the end, it’s singing. I’ve had to understand wider areas of singing because I train teachers with such different clientele and backgrounds. When they need to help for their stuck singers, I’m there to help. This means I always get tough cookies to work on!  

The majority of us aren’t teaching that way, so the journey is simpler. If I look at the greatest singers in CCM history, they weren’t trained early on. They may have received training during their career, but their identity and attitude to risk was likely formed from their own escapades long  before that; so long that training is less likely to disturb what sells the records. 

As teachers, we should acknowledge this and create a learning environment where there isn’t an answer for everything (even though you might know it!!). Where we aren’t providing guidance at every corner, but helping the singer to feel supported in discovery. This helps the unique artistic identity develop, instead of us accidentally creating ‘mini-me’s’ that follow our path instead of their own. Essentially, do as little as possible… which I know jars completely with our desire to  help someone succeed as quickly as possible!

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