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BWW Interview: Candace Johnson of CJ'S FITNESSING on MarshStream Combines Singing & Exercise to Help You Find Your True Voice

The Weekly MarshStream Class Celebrates World Voice Day on April 16th

BWW Interview: Candace Johnson of CJ'S FITNESSING on MarshStream Combines Singing & Exercise to Help You Find Your True Voice
Candace Johnson leading a session of CJ's FitnesSing
(photo by Layla Simone)

You may not be aware of World Voice Day, but it's celebrated every April 16th to demonstrate the enormous importance of the voice in the daily lives of all people. I can't imagine a better person to observe it with than Candace Johnson, who leads CJ's FitnesSing!™ on the MarshStream platform every Friday at 12:00 noon Pacific Time, free of charge. Her unique method combines physical activity with vocal training, and if either of those things gives you some trepidation, you needn't worry. She blends the two seamlessly and makes it all accessible to students at any level. In a single hour, you'll get some exercise, you'll sing, and you'll learn a lot about the voice and different vocal styles. And most of all, you will likely have a blast. Johnson is definitely a "people person" whose enthusiasm is infectious.

A soprano acclaimed for her vocal clarity and expressive interpretation, Johnson has concertized widely, including guest appearances at Carnegie Hall and The Manhattan Center. She earned her doctorate in voice performance from the University of Michigan and is on the music faculty at UC Berkeley. I caught up with her recently to find out how she came up with her innovative approach. She also talked about her background growing up in the South as a girl who sang from a young age but didn't initially see a path for herself as a serious student of voice. She was eventually able to fuse her Black music heritage with her classical training to find her true voice. Johnson is a delightful conversationalist, fun and upbeat yet also open and honest about her own struggles, and warm and empathetic in her responses. And she has an uncanny ability to make even the nerdiest aspects of vocal health sound like fun. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

FitnesSing is such an innovative idea. How did you come up with it?

Literally I'm doing sit-ups like seven years ago, and it's just like this idea dawns on me from heaven: "Right now I'm fitnessing and I also sing. FitnesSing! My two passions!" At that time, I had just really come into understanding how passionate I was about working out, especially weightlifting. I had also discovered something about the cardiovascular activity and weight training and just the overall healthy approach to the body, and of course the vocal instrument incorporated within this body. It was having a significant impact on my singing. I was finding such freedom that I hadn't been able to access before. So I just started doing little tests like "This is my thing, so I'm gonna start sharing it." [laughs]

I'm so grateful to Stephanie [Weisman] and The Marsh. I was talking about things I was frustrated with in this quarantine thing, and I said to her, "I have all these ideas and don't know what to do with them because I don't really have a platform for them." She immediately opened up her door and said, "Well, when do you want to start the first class of FitnesSing?" And here we are - almost a year later. [laughs]

Do you have anything special planned to celebrate World Voice Day on April 16th?

Oh, yes! I'm planning to do some fun vocal trivia about the anatomy of the vocal track and give away a couple of voice lesson sessions. I'm also going to release a series of short snippets [probably in video format] that share fun facts about the voice and vocal health and vocal science. We have a great time with FitnesSing, but I'm really trying to bring awareness to the general public that when we say "I'm taking care of my health" Or "I'm doing self-care" we need to include vocal health and vocal care as a part of that. I want to highlight things that show how amazing this instrument is, and how unique it is, but also some tidbits that will get us thinking about "What are we doing with our instruments? Do we even see ourselves as an instrument?" You know, just to get the gears turning.

Eventually maybe I can start making a dent in the world of health, that people start to think and learn about it, and in some way the health care industry would start incorporating it. Like my daughter did some speech therapy and we have voice therapy, but it's almost this sidebar. I want to bring it into more of a central view when we think about our voice, because we're using it all the time. And it is so important to how we communicate, how we build community. I want us to know how to take care of it, so even if we're just speaking, and that's all we're going to do with our voice for the rest of our lives, that we speak with the understanding of how to take care of it.

What you do in your FitnesSing classes is like multi-tasking on steroids! I mean, you're teaching, working out, dancing, singing, playing the keyboard, responding to questions from the students - while handling your own tech, and it's all live and in real time. How do you manage all that without getting flustered?

[laughs] I think I'm having too much fun to be flustered, you know? It's everything I love to do - interacting with people, with music as the medium that's bringing us together in community, and moving the body, which is in itself bringing endorphins to feed more of this thing that we're doing. So it all works.

I think it's partly that I'm maybe built for it, right? I guess I would say, if we looked at my brain and at the different things I do - I am a creative and I'm sure I'm somewhere on this ADD spectrum. [laughs] And I love interacting with people, so I have that at my disposal. In class I'm doing sort of the same thing at UC Berkeley, even when we were in person. I'm standing at the piano and discussing things. I think all of us teachers, we have to have this sense of delivering something but at the same time we are trying to read the room and tailor what we're delivering for what you're seeing in people, what questions seem to be forming on the faces. And what's wonderful about Zoom is I get the explicit questions posed directly there.

And can I tell you something else that I've experienced? It kind of shook me because it was unexpected. This whole electronic thing that's in between us and the audience, there's a thing that's been happening, and I'm gonna call it maybe communion with oneself, with one's art. As a performer, when it's live, generally we put the art out there, it goes out toward the people and they give it back to us in some way that they receive it or don't receive it or whatever. But because of Zoom having this camera where you can see yourself, I've found myself sometimes singing, not to myself in a selfish kind of way, but singing and also being an audience member and taking in the visual. I'm seeing like, "Wow, this is really convincing. I'm really into this." And if I see something that's not so convincing, I'm able to make that immediate change because I see something is not consonant with what I am trying to do. There's this immediate feedback that's allowing me to appreciate my own art in a way that's different. So I've been fascinated by the feeling that's a little uncomfortable, because I think everybody has this temptation to like get into vanity with all the social media and the selfie world, so I don't want to be there. But I do appreciate being able to appreciate what I'm doing in real time, you know? [laughs] So there's that. I don't know if that makes any sense?

FitnesSing is geared to anyone at any level, but I think it could be particularly useful for more experienced singers and actors who don't currently have much opportunity to perform, just to give them a way to keep their instrument in shape. Are you getting any more experienced singers participating?

I'm not, but I would really like to. I've been thinking how I can get the word out in a way where even, you know, some people on Broadway or some celebrity singers in the pop world, they might just do a little drop-in. I don't care if they have their camera off and they put a different name in there, but just that they're able to take advantage of it, be able to be a part of that community. Because I think - for most of us who sing, we sing partly because there is a gift, but also because there is a need to express something. But there's also that need to hear that what's being expressed is also being embraced. So I really do want to get more trained singers and professionals to experience this. In the long term, I would love to take this class and drop it into Equinox and the YMCA's and 24-Hour Fitnesses, that kind of thing. Maybe through that we could build community at different levels of experience.

I'm also impressed by how good you are at the teaching aspect. You're able to explain some pretty complicated concepts in ways that make them really understandable and accessible. Like I'm certainly not a gospel singer, but watching FitnesSing, you got me thinking, "Yeah, I could do that."

Yay! [applauds] Awesome! That's what it's all about.

I've been married a long time and we have two children, a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old. So I think part of trying to make things accessible is what I'm doing on a regular basis with the kids. When they have a question, if it's something that's really complex, I don't want to say, "Well, they can't understand it." I try to find ways to keep coming at it. We do it as teachers because everybody learns in a different way. And when I'm in a coaching session where I'm working on my voice, if the vocal coach says something to me that's really abstract and I can't seem to wrap my mind around it, I learn from them by how they are responding to me.

One of the things I learned in studying my own voice and also working with other singers, is that sometimes technique, like going for that free voice, can be hard if we're approaching it in a very heady, intellectual kind of way. I was like "Why is it when I sing certain things all the technique that I've been struggling to get under my belt just opens up to me?" It's because I'm going through more of the emotional side of the music. Somehow when I do that, it helps my larynx open up in a way that's more like the Bel Canto that I'm used to trying to achieve. [laughs] It's a really interesting thing.

BWW Interview: Candace Johnson of CJ'S FITNESSING on MarshStream Combines Singing & Exercise to Help You Find Your True Voice
Candace Johnson in concert
(photo by Bryan Byllesby)

Even though you're a classically trained singer, you never make your students feel like "Well, I haven't studied music for years and years so this is way beyond me."

Yeah. So I grew up in the South in a little town, didn't see classical singers much at all, and certainly didn't see Black classical singers. I had my first voice lesson as a 17-year-old and I don't know what I was thinking. I was going to audition for Vanderbilt School of Music, that was my plan, but I hadn't taken a lesson and didn't know how to prepare. There were certain things that were not just off-limits, but seemed like once they became within limits, like starting to study voice - is it accessible, even though it's here? Like even though I'm close to it, and I'm taking the lessons, what is this classical thing? Do Black people do this? Like really? And then from my Black friends I was getting "Why do you talk like that? Why do you sing like that? You sing like white people." I was being more readily embraced in the white community and it was just really confusing for me.

And the thing of the "upper echelon" of music is you know the Western European approach, the pedantic stuff. I really want to break down that myth and bridge the gap. I don't want anyone to feel like an outsider because I say Bel Canto, or if we sing something in a foreign language I don't want anybody to be afraid of that. I'm always wanting to somehow show what you already know, that you're probably already doing some of this. Let's figure out where that lies, where the continuity is between something that seems so distant and what you're already doing.

I don't want people to be left out - because I've been there, and you know straddled the fence and felt bad for having one leg on one side and one leg on the other side. I finally made peace with "I'm gonna be in both places at the same time." Because this is really who I am, because my voice from a physiological place is really designed for classical music. Like I can't sing like Aretha Franklin, even if I try. But I can do it in my own way. So it's that struggle that I've been through on my own that makes me want to help other people not to have that struggle, not to feel like "Well, it's not as good as..." That was a long-winded answer. [laughs]

What drew you to go to Vanderbilt? What made you think, "This path that I don't even know what it is, really, is something I need to pursue."?

So there were a couple of things. Being from the South and a small town, I didn't have this idea of going outside of the state, but I wanted the best of whatever the state had to offer, and some people were going to Sewanee [University of the South] and some people were going to Vanderbilt. I wanted to go to Vanderbilt because I knew the academic side of things there was second to none and I was hoping that the music would also be. I really prized academics, so that was one thing.

But then I had an African-American guidance counselor tell me [something] when I said, "Well, these are the schools I'm looking at." I was looking at David Lipscomb [University] that had more of a commercial music program and was a Christian school, so that was appealing to me. I was not considering any HBCU's, historically Black colleges, but just places where I knew the schools of music or departments of music were really strong and there was some academic merit. So my guidance counselor looked at my list, and she said, "Well, you'll never get into Vanderbilt." And, ohhh!, when she said that, that just really fueled me, like "OK I'm gonna make sure that I get into Vanderbilt, just so I can be like "na-na-na-na-na-na." [laughs]

Back then I was really furious about what she said, but you know I'm really grateful now because it did give me that extra kick to do more. And it's so funny if I look back at my application. My application on paper was fine, but when you submit things to the department of music about your repertoire and all of that, I sent them a ton of programs from all of these things that I had done. I mean I didn't know what I was doing; my parents hadn't gone to college. So I'm very grateful they admitted me, and then it all continued.

We actually had an HBCU in my hometown, and my first voice teacher was the voice professor there. I'm glad that was my first exposure to the formal study of voice because, even though I didn't really understand what he was trying to get me to do, the one thing he said was "The way that you were singing naturally when I heard you singing this hymn, can you just sing like that?" So that stuck with me. There was something about the way I naturally sang that was similar to what he was trying to get me to do with the Bel Canto approach, but then he also encouraged me to do all of this stuff. So, you know, you're going to do a farewell concert and you're going to sing classical music and spirituals and hymns and you're gonna sit down at the piano, I'm gonna get you a little combo and you're gonna do some pop stuff. I had a blast, but I didn't know that I was about to walk into this world where they were going to be like [haughtily] "Mm-mm! Don't sing that gospel!"

And so I wrestled with it for more than a decade, until I finally said - and this is where FitnesSing comes in - "OK, I want to take care of my voice, but I still want to sing the music that matters to me, not only that works for my voice, but that has the messages and the harmonic progressions that I really, really love." And so I started to embrace all of it. In FitnesSing, it's important to celebrate that we can sing any of it, if we understand how to sing it with a healthy approach to the voice.

At what point in your childhood did you realize you might have a voice, that singing might be your thing?

I actually didn't know. I have a deceased sister who was 22 years older than I, and she was a soul singer. She had just been given a contract to perform internationally, she was like signing some record deal, everything was all set up, but she got pregnant and then just having to focus on the family everything changed for her. But my Mom did have that experience of grooming a singer, even though she herself didn't take one lick of voice lessons. But she just had that gift.

When I was maybe 6 or 7, I raised my hand in church when they said, "Who wants to sing this Easter solo?" I tell you my hand shot up before I even realized it! You know this energy shot my hand up, and so my mom was thinking, "Well, why are you raising your hand? You don't even know the song?" [laughs] And so she just said, "OK, I'm gonna go with it." and started working with me. I started you know being this itinerant singer, going around to different churches in the area. She was my vocal coach and my performance coach. A lot of that ability to connect with the music, to feel the music, embody the music, came from that training she gave me as a kid.

That's pretty amazing. So many talented kids run the risk of becoming almost this disembodied voice. They know how to sing something amazingly well for a child, but they don't connect emotionally with the material they're performing. Your mother must have been a big help with that.

Oh, absolutely! We would be in the living room and I had my microphone and my amp that she purchased, and you know she would say, "OK, now when you hear the music building, you take your hand and...." She would tell me how to make it dramatic, but also very lyrical. She just had such a sense of choreography, of musicality, and she shared that with me.

Was she a trained musician?

Not at all! Not instrumentally or vocally. She sang in the church just like many of us, and just had a really good ear. She would tell me things like "You are punching the note when you should be gradually allowing your voice to go there. You're being too percussive." And that's really a Bel Canto concept, right? But who would know?!

I think most parents would be like, "Oh, honey, that was really pretty." and that's all the feedback you'd get. It always feels good to get some praise from your parents, but that doesn't necessarily help you improve.

Right. And you mentioned that disembodied voice thing. While there are things I could connect with [at that age], my mom was actually pretty strict with what type of music I could sing at what time. She thought there are certain things you cannot connect with until you're a little bit older and understand the world better. So then when it was time for me to do my first demo, I was 16, and that whole disembodied voice thing became an issue. I had spent all this time learning the songs and went in to record, and the producer was asking me to do some improvising and to feel the music, and I was just light years away from feeling it. And it took, I don't know, probably more than 5 years or so for me to be able to go back to that, and actually feel it.

This past year or so has been such a struggle for so many people, and now it feels like maybe we're seeing some signs of some things getting better. So what are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

That's a good question. [long, thoughtful pause] Hmm... I think it is the sound of people alive. And it's not necessarily a musical thing, but there is music in it. Maybe a week ago, I was standing outside a tea house. It was I think the first week they started to ease some of the restrictions and people were able to dine outside again, and I heard laughter. This person was just like freely laughing at the top of their lungs, and I realized how much I missed the sound of people just living. We've been in these silos, but to live in community and to hear the sound of many feet moving, the sound of people laughing, the sound of kids playing in the park.

And then - I can imagine there's gonna be a moment when many of us step into the music department and we start to hear the sound of instruments warming up, the sound of classes being taught, like somebody is playing an opera in one room and somebody's playing a sonata on the piano in another room. Music is happening and it's in a place where we are all together in the same edifice. I think that is the thing I am most looking forward to.

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