In a very special edition of “Inside The Industry”, Editor Joe Ballard had the chance to pose some questions to world-renowned vocal coach Deb “Zuke” Smith, the Founder of Zuketunes LLC. They discuss how she built her company from the ground up, her thoughts on the use of certain vocal tools, how one of her youngest students – 12-year-old Grace Nevin – is already changing the world for the better, and much more.
MEB: You officially became certified as a vocal coach in 2009, but even before that you had a lengthy and varied resume of jobs in the music industry, such as singing commercial jingles and copying music calligraphy. What was it precisely that led to your interest in mentoring vocalists?
Zuke: I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2000. After surgery, chemotherapy, and recovery, I needed to re-invent myself. I decided to teach beginner to intermediate piano, and I loved to write and sing original songs for my kids. A student asked if I could teach her how to sing, so that was the moment when I decided to take coaching vocalists more seriously.
Expanding on that, how did your company, Zuketunes LLC, eventually come to fruition?
My vocal coaching business was doing quite well and a few colleagues and friends suggested I take it a bit more seriously. I am a voracious reader and at the time I had downloaded Derek Siver’s book, “Anything You Want”. At the end of the book, he encouraged readers to reach out to him. I was so inspired by his words, I decided to do just that! Within 10 hours, he responded with about three pages of links and suggestions to help me get started on my business. My good friend, E. Michael Harrington, knows many of the top entertainment attorneys in the business, so I asked him to recommend someone and he put Joyce Dollinger on the top of the list. She has been and continues to be an incredible motivator, friend, and legal counsel.
When someone comes to you with a classical-sounding voice that they hope to modernize, do you have a specific set of techniques for them to follow or does it require something different for every vocalist?
Some singers are natural chameleons and can switch genres easily. I can break it down, explain, and demonstrate the differences to them, but that is no guarantee that they will be able to implement them with their own voice. We definitely experiment a lot in lessons!
If you could work with and mentor any living singer, who would it be and what advice would you give them?
I seriously would love to mentor any singer of any genre. The amount I learn from my students is far greater than any advice I can give to them.
What are your thoughts on the increasing use of tools such as vocal spray and the vocoder? Do you believe they’re useful elements in accentuating a singer’s talent or should it come out 100% naturally?
If you are referring to herbal remedies like Clear Voice Vocal Spray, products like that have been around since I was gigging in the 80s. My students understand how to keep their voice in shape using vocal methods and easily obtained ingredients for teas. I remember Herbie Hancock using the vocoder back in the late 70s. It’s an effect, just as overuse of autotune is an effect. It can be used artistically or immaturely, depending on the artist and producer.
What are some of the major differences in mentoring a younger student in, say, middle school or high school as opposed to a fully grown adult?
A young singer, pre-adolescent, has underdeveloped vocal cords and larynx. I need to be cautious not to over-extend their use. Middle and high school kids are going through rapid hormonal changes so I try to be aware and sensitive to their physical and psychological hurdles. Adults have years of ingrained habits that I help them unravel. I love all the challenges of all ages of students.
Do you believe that, with the right attitude and mentoring, that anyone can become a good singer? Or is it a special talent that one must be born with?
Yes, I believe it is possible to train anyone with an ear to be able to sing. That does not mean that they will become a good performer. It’s more important for me to determine and help the student with realistic goals.
On July 12 one of your students, 12-year-old Grace Nevin, is performing a benefit concert called “Grace Happens” for the West Milford Special Olympics team, with all of the proceeds going towards buying new equipment and uniforms for the team. What else can you tell us about the event and how can readers get involved and contribute to this wonderful cause?
Grace will be performing two sets of cover songs and ending the show with an original song. Her sister, Annie, along with other members of the West Milford Dance Team, will be backing her up on several songs. It’s going to be a fun-filled family event with activities and food. It’s all about community!
I understand you and Grace went into the studio to record a new song just for this event. What kind of music can fans expect to hear and where did the inspiration for the song come from?
Grace is a pop/rock artist, so it is a song in that genre. Grace has been a friend of Ben Weiss, a Special Olympian, since they were in kindergarten. She is always saying how he lifts her spirits and has an infectious smile.
It very much seems like you, your students, and Zuketunes as a whole make a point of not just representing great vocalists, but great people as well. Grace even says that one of your most important lessons is for a singer to use his/her position to “make the world a better place.” In your opinion, what does (or should) a truly great singer represent to the world?
Great singers are beacons and mentors through their music and actions to potentially millions of people. It takes great courage to be an ethical and inspirational leader that can make an impact.
And finally, how does it make you feel – as both a mentor and a friend – to see one of your younger students already making a positive difference in so many people’s lives?
It makes me cry – and not much makes me cry at this age.
Grace will be performing this Saturday, July 12, at the West Milford PAL in West Milford, NJ. The event, which was entirely her idea, is called “Grace Happens” and is a fundraiser in honor of her good friend Ben, who is on the West Milford Special Olympics team. All proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward buying new equipment and uniforms for the team. For more details, check out Grace’s recent appearance on Good Morning America in the video below.
If you would like to get involved and make a donation to this wonderful cause, you can send it to:
2 Vanessa Court
West Milford, NJ 07480