Jess: Today, I’m talking to Kim Chandler. As a vocal coach, she’s based in sunny Marbella, Spain and London, UK, having coached clients such as Laura Mvula, Courtney Love and Birdy. She’s also worked with The Voice UK and coaches regularly at Abbey Road Studios. She’s written chapters for The Ultimate Guide to Singing and Teaching Singing in the 21st Century, been a senior lecturer in contemporary singing at London College of Music and Leeds College of Music, and has been a two-term director and past President of the British Voice Association. As a session singer, Kim has over 20 years of experience backing artists like The Bee Gees, Björk, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Michael Bolton, Rick Astley and more. She can also be heard singing on hundreds of jingles around the world. Kim, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Kim: I appreciate the invitation Jess! Chatting about vocal pedagogy with fellow teachers is one of my favourite things in life…
Jess: What drew you to work as a teacher and singer in popular music? Did you train in popular singing in school, or was it extracurricular?
Kim: Oh very definitely extracurricular. I didn’t really train as a singer at all; not for lack of wanting to, but because at that time (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth!) there were no contemporary singing teachers, only classical teachers, musical theatre teachers or jazz teachers. I did try a semester of “2nd Study” singing lessons with a classical teacher at university when I was doing my undergraduate degree (on classical flute) in Australia in the 80s, but this didn’t turn out very well. Not only did I not have a clue what he was on about, I didn’t relate at all to classical voice production or the repertoire. I reverted to singing the classical songs I was given in a pop way as soon as I entered the exam at the end of semester – it was a disaster!
I also didn’t want to sing musical theatre repertoire so there wasn’t much point pursuing that, and despite singing in a vocal jazz harmony group for a few years straight out of school, I didn’t really want to specialise in singing jazz either (but ended up having one lesson with a local jazz vocal teacher just in case and realised it wasn’t for me). So for the pop/soul/rock repertoire I wanted to sing, I was pretty much on my own to work out how to sing it using good old “trial and error”. How lucky singers are these days to have teachers to go to who actually specialise in the music they want to sing! They don’t have to wander in the wilderness and make the same mistakes I did (to my peril at times).
As for teaching contemporary singing, I somewhat “fell” into it. Having successfully completed a Bachelor of Music Education degree, I was a qualified (and experienced) music teacher but I started to do more & more professional engagements out of school hours. People started asking me about teaching them to sing but I resisted these enquiries for years before I realised that I was missing a trick. I had the teacher training and I could certainly sing at a high professional level, so why shouldn’t I combine the two, swot up on singing technique and get the ball rolling? A “love affair” with vocal pedagogy began right there 20 or so years ago that continues passionately to the present day, with no sign of abating.
Jess: Sadly, your story is the norm for so many. I’m very thankful for folks like you who decided to take on the extra work of figuring this stuff out and sharing your findings with other people. What are your favorite things about teaching popular singing?
Kim: The fact that there’s always new repertoire to learn (every week, if you follow the charts) with an enormous back catalogue of repertoire to explore too. The wide spread of genres that come under the wide umbrella term of “popular music” provides so much variety for different types of singing. The artistic freedom that singers of popular music have in comparison to other genres of singing, to name a few…
Jess: And what are the biggest struggles you face as a popular music teacher?
Kim: Helping keep self-employed, busy professional singers and touring artists, who put their voices under enormous pressures, healthy & functional in the face of very heavy workloads. Dealing sensitively and effectively with dysphonic singers who are so impaired that they can only perform with a reduced load at best or can’t perform at all and therefore the money stops coming in.
Also, being taken seriously by the wider vocal teacher community is still an ongoing struggle for contemporary specialists. I keep “flying the flag” at the various voice symposia and the like that I get invited to speak at, and it is getting better as time goes on, but there’s still much room for improvement for being seen as actual equals to the older, more established classical community…
Jess: Yes, I see that, too. Overall, there seems to be less animosity and a lot more curiosity and demand for information at teaching conferences. Hopefully, that trend will continue. Speaking of sharing information, I really enjoyed reading your chapter “Teaching Popular Music” in Teaching Singing in the 21st Century. I highly recommend it as a great summary of what we popular teachers need to keep in mind. I particularly love the two charts summarizing the differences between classical and contemporary music needs, as well as the differences between needs in different popular styles. I hope our readers will check that book out, especially with chapters by other great contemporary voice teachers including Irene Bartlett, Diane Hughes, Daniel Robinson and Trineice Robinson-Martin.
What are some of your go-to contemporary vocal pedagogy resources right now?
Kim: Yes, the first three you list here being fellow Australian pedagogues who I know personally! We also can’t fail to mention Jeanie LoVetri who is one of the world’s first “trail blazers” of contemporary vocal pedagogy who also features in this book (but with a chapter on musical theatre, another specialty area of hers). She has championed our cause tirelessly in academic circles over the years and we owe a large debt of gratitude to her.
Jess: Jeanie absolutely deserves major gratitude for her fight to legitimize the study of CCM music in academic circles. I’m constantly amazed by her effectiveness as a teacher in so many styles. Her influence and ground work led to this website happening, along with many other CCM-related projects in my life.
Kim: As to my “go-to” resources, I’m happy to read whatever’s going in CCM (a phrase coined by Jeanie LoVetri by the way), but it’s still rather “thin on the ground” out there for truly ground-breaking stuff I find. I really appreciate my Swedish colleague Daniel Zangger-Borch’s work. He has a PhD in contemporary singing with the added value of having had one of the world’s leading voice scientists as one of his supervisors, Johan Sundberg. Daniel’s also an incredible singer & musician so it’s his solid academic background combined with his incredible talent & years of performing experience that gives people like him “the edge” as a stand-out vocal pedagogue in my opinion. His book the “Ultimate Vocal Voyage” is a worthy addition to any teacher’s library. Here is a ‘taster’ of what he’s about – the “Riffing Exercise 2” here is actually my favourite vocal exercise ever! http://www.voicecouncil.com/get-your-riffing-right/
Daniel’s book comes with some very cool, relevant, well-sung vocal exercises and I recommend my colleague’s Stevie Lange’s “Vocalize” to my clients, too, for adding some other well-produced but rocky, bluesy, R&B vocal exercises to their repertoire of exercises. “Variety is the spice of life” after all! Stevie has been one of the UK’s most successful session singers and this background can be heard in her product. American Gospel singer John Fluker’s “Funky Vocal Licks” has 60 improvised licks (5 in each of the 12 keys) that again are beautifully & tastefully sung. It’s very important in my book for vocal exercises to not only be technically and musically relevant and challenging but also for the people singing them to be inspirational to the people using them; to be role models of singing & musical excellence.
I can’t wait for my dear friend and colleague Dane Chalfin to get more resources out there on his work on “Primal Voice”. We’ve worked together for years, co-presenting at training days and we taught together at Leeds College of Music, which is where I first had to get my head around his approach because it formed the basis of the technique classes for the contemporary singers at that institution. I can honestly say it gets some of the quickest results from clients I’ve seen in all my years of teaching! Here is an introduction to this concept: https://www.primalvoice.co.uk/primalvoice. He also has many videos on it on YouTube.
Jess: You have two resources of your own out right now for singers: The “Funky ’n’ Fun” Vocal Training Series and the “Voice Cross Trainer” app. Can you give the readers a summary of what those are and what needs they address in the singing community?
Kim: “Funky ‘n Fun” as a concept was born out of necessity at a time (in the year 2000) when there weren’t really any resources specifically designed to appeal to contemporary singers’ musical tastes & needs. There were plenty of books with accompanying cassettes(!) or CDs aimed at the emerging contemporary singer market, but they were primarily classical exercises, sung in a classical way and with classical piano accompaniment. I know this because I bought everything I could get my hands on at that time in the desperate attempt to find something I related to and found interesting myself and could use in my lessons. I wasted so much money on inappropriate products and couldn’t believe that I found myself in the position of having to produce something myself if I wanted something “funky” & “fun” to work to, i.e. vocal exercises sung in a pop way, based on pop patterns and backed by funky tracks.
Each of the four “Funky ‘n Fun” products came along like children over years and the series of four products comprises 94 exercises in total. No. 1 and No. 2 are more technique based and No. 3 (intervals, scales, modes, arpeggios) and No. 4 (based on riffs from classic hit songs) are more musicianship oriented. And I’m pleased to announce that No. 5 is in “gestation”! I’ve also got to finish the accompanying book to series. I’ve always been a great believer in vocal exercises being musically relevant and teaching vocal technique & musicianship fairly equally. My app has been developed collaboratively with leading voice technology company TC Helicon and uses 28 of the “Funky ‘n Fun” exercises with the added bonus of video introductions to the exercises, a practice log etc. It still astounds (and delights) me that a product that had such humble beginnings still continues to resonate with people and be as popular as it is!
Jess: You obviously filled a major need. I still don’t hear many teachers use note patterns outside of the typical classical voice lesson major-scale-based patterns, and I’ll admit it took me way too long to include them in lessons with my own students. I experienced for myself as a popular music singer that building muscle memory of typical note patterns makes it so much easier to access them in songs.
You’re clear in your materials that these resources are meant to supplement singing lessons, not replace them. Can you give some suggestions for the ways teachers can use these resources in their studios?
Kim: Teachers, myself included, use these exercises as vocal warm-ups and workouts in private lessons and teaching group classes for younger students, college/uni students and adults. People have also designed curricula based on the exercises for use in institutions. The app is a great format for home practice.
Jess: I was particularly impressed by the scope of the Vocal Cross Trainer app…the videos, progress tracker, and post-exercise check in. That format is a great way to help students build better practice habits.
What skills outside of singing and pedagogy do you use most often in your studio? (e.g. music technology, music business, etc.)
Kim: As regards the use of technology, I have a vocal PA permanently set up in my teaching room and so I use mics & effects and backing tracks on Spotify when we’re singing repertoire in a lesson. The main reason being is that pop singers ALWAYS sing with a mic. I also use a range of supporting apps like a piano app (for giving starting notes), a metronome app and various others for ear training, vocal harmonies etc. And because I have clients from one side of the world to the other, I do most of my coaching online via Skype video and FaceTime. I’d be lost without the technology that’s available these days!
As to music business advice, given that I coach professional singers & artists, it’s inevitable that my experience from years in the business as a session singer comes up in coaching sessions at times. (I have a dual career as a session singer and vocal coach you see.) In fact, singers interested in getting into session work book a consultation session with me to specifically discuss the ins & outs of this particular career path – information that can only be given by someone living as a session singer. In fact, I had two such sessions just last week…
Jess: Yes. I think it’s particularly important for us to do work in these genres so we can give first-hand advice to our students. It’s such a different world than classical, musical theatre, and even jazz. The professional cultures and expectations vary greatly. But if we’re not working in popular music, we should be referring students to people who are so they can get the professional help they need.
What direction do you see for popular music voice training in the future?
Kim: I’d like to see less reliance on major scale-based “classical” vocal exercises with piano accompaniment in lessons. This is a classical hang-over that just has to go. I’d like to see teachers include exercises based on the natural minor and pentatonic scales at least, as these are the “scales of choice” for pop vocal melodies and riffs & runs.
I’d also like to see less reliance on branded vocal methods that dictate to teachers how and what they can teach. Best to stand on your own two feet and develop a unique mixture of strategies that represent and suit you and your client base. I’d like to see contemporary teachers staying abreast of current repertoire more (for relevance) and to develop a love of voice science & research and how this informs and refines our practice. We are in desperate need of much more credible research to be done on contemporary singing specifically.
We contemporary teachers also need to be flying the banner high for vocal health, getting the “prevention is better than cure” message out there amongst all the singers we coach, particularly with professional singers. All too often this particular group only seek out coaching when something goes wrong, i.e. when they’re in a crisis. Promoting coaching as a form of “insurance” against developing problems in the future is something that we need to be constantly talking about in social media forums and the like. You only have to see what advice singers ask for and give each other on social media to see there’s a very big problem in this regard, lots of myths, old wives’ tales and rumours, and so it’s our duty to provide sensible advice based on current evidence and fact.
Jess: Yes, yes, and yes! I hope the readers and the rest of the community will continue to help our profession move in these directions. Thank you so much for chatting with me today! I look forward to checking out your upcoming Funky ‘n’ Fun release, and to chatting more in the future.
You can find a regularly-updated list of Kim’s resources in our resource database.