Today we’re joined by Kevin Richards of RPM Vocal Studio, a renowned vocal coach who’s worked as a musician, producer, songwriter and arranger for over 30 years, and coached Gold and Platinum award-winning artists including Bette Midler and Sir Rod Stewart. As you’ll be hearing in this interview Kevin has a particular angle on his vocal coaching that sets him apart from most of the technique-focused singing teachers and vocal coaches out there.
Kevin specialises in the performance side of singing, meaning what you actually do up on stage or in front of a crowd and how you make sure your singing performance is the best it can be, even though you’re far from the familiar and relaxed environment of the practice room.
As we were preparing for this episode and trying to figure out what part of Kevin’s expertise would be most useful to you all as listeners of the Musicality Podcast, we were really thinking about how some of you are, I’m sure, performing already – and looking for tips on improving. And others are probably too self-conscious or too unsure of your musical abilities to feel comfortable performing or taking center stage.
We think whichever category you might be in, this episode is going to blow your mind a bit – and in a very good way.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Why performance was the big piece he found was missing from all the traditional material for learning to sing.
- One slightly brutal but effective (and ultimately enjoyable) exercise he does with his students who are nervous to perform in front of people.
- And how working as Sir Rod Stewart’s vocal coach revealed a remarkable attitude to performing that we can all learn from.
This conversation was a total pleasure and really illuminating for us, so we hope you’ll love it too.
Listen to the episode:
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Kevin: Hi, this is Kevin Richards from RPM Vocal Studio and you’re listening to The Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Very nice. Great. And can you do it in a Mickey Mouse voice?
Kevin: Hi, this is Kevin Richards from RPM Vocal Studios. You’re listening to The Musicality Podcast. All right.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Kevin. Thank you for joining us today.
Kevin: No problem at all. Glad to be here.
Christopher: I love to begin by asking, I guess, a bit about their own musical background. At this point, you’re a consummate performer and you’ve helped other people up on stage being the best performer and entertainer they can be. Was that natural for you from day one? Did you kind of leap out of the womb with a mic in your hand? Or what were those early music experiences like for you?
Kevin: No, no, no, no, no. As a child, I was extremely introverted, extremely shy, socially shy. As my mother would say, I was kind of the church mouse that you had to kind of coax out from the shadows to say hello to anyone.
I was very socially inept. Very afraid to say the wrong thing in front of adults, because I might get in trouble. I had an older sister who had a very big mouth who had always got in trouble for saying the wrong thing. So I thought, “Well, if I don’t say anything, I won’t get in trouble.”
So I became very invertly shy. It wasn’t until I actually started playing music, starting out as a drummer at the age of 11, that I started to come a little bit more out of my shell. I was behind the drums so I had something at distance between me and people.
Then as I progressed in bands, I kind of graduated from being a drummer to a bass player. I was slowly moving myself forward in front of people. And I got a little more confident as I went along. It was really playing in bands is really what opened up my sort of social confidence towards other people.
It wasn’t until I was really thrust into being a lead singer of my own band that I actually really became more of an outrovert, because I had to be. I now had to talk to a room full of people I didn’t know.
And the first thing I did was I watched a lot of other performers local to my area who were really good at it. I kind of took a lot of pointers. And I asked some of them like, “How are you really good at talking to an audience?”
I had one particular guy give me a really good idea. He goes, “I write everything down. I write everything down I’m going to say between songs and I learn it like a script. And I say it and I kind of repeat it like an actor talking to a … That way I know I have a set thing to say and I have certain cues for the band. When I say this, click the song in. And, boom, we’re right on. So there’s a flow to the show.”
Now that’s a really good idea. So I started to come up with them and we used to rehearse this with the band. “I’m going to say this, this, this, and this. And then you go right into the song.”
It helped me not have to try to improvise in front of people. I knew what I was going to say and the band knew what I was going to say. It cuts down on dead air where you’re kind of standing around staring at people and you don’t know what to say. You have a little bit of it scripted. Yeah, there’s room for improvisation but you kind of know what you’re going to say. That started me sort of more on my role of being more of an active performer towards an audience is thinking about what I’m going to say to them before I get on the stage.
Now some people are really good. They’re outwardly social. They’re really good at just looking at a room full of people and just being able to talk to them. I kind of have to be a bit more scripted in a way. I want to know what I’m going to say but I can improvise around that. I can talk to people in conversation. It doesn’t have to be scripted.
But that’s a learned process. There’s some people that have it very naturally and they’re very good, but most of us kind of have to learn it. It’s something you can practice. It sounds strange to say, “Well, it’s practice improvisation.” But jazz people do it all the time. They practice improvisation. So you can actually do it.
It’s just knowing your audience and the people that you’re going to be talking to generally. I mean, audiences vary from place to place when you play, but they’re pretty much the same demographic most of the time. So you can kind of work up jokes and things to say that will work across the audience and things like that, and it’ll work.
That’s just the start. Then you get just really good at just being able to kind of think off the top of your head. That just happens.
If you knew me in high school when I was like 14, 15, you would never picture me sitting here doing this. Having a podcast with someone because I was so shy. So, to talk to people and to be on YouTube and to be putting videos out and stuff that you would’ve never imagined that person then being who I am today.
And that was just a slow thing that happened over time. People look at me today and they think I was always like this, but no, no, no, no, no, no. I was a very, very shy kid.
Christopher: Interesting. Well, I’m sure that’s really encouraging to a lot of our listeners who, as you say, if they looked at you now, would assume you were just kind of born doing it.
Kevin: Yeah. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I mean, my parents had me going to child psychologists. That’s how bad it was.
Christopher: Let’s dwell for a minute on those early years, aside from the performance aspect that you scripted and practiced. What was your music education like? How were you learning music?
Kevin: Well, I had no real formal musical training except for drums. When I first got into wanting to play the drums, not really sure why. That seemed to be the instrument that called to me first. I liked the kind of rhythmic aspect of it. I was always a kid who kind of always bopped his head to music whenever I heard it. That appealed to me first.
My parents were like, “Okay. Well, if you’re going to learn this, we’re going have you take you to lessons and learn the proper way and all that.”
And I took lessons for a couple years. But in terms of learning every other instrument that I play, like guitar, bass, and piano, and things like that, it’s all self-taught. Just from books and watching people play and have other people show me things and all of that. I learned it and I get a little bit better over a time.
I’m no virtuoso on any of those instruments. I’m probably best as a drummer because I played that the longest. But I’m competent enough to do what I need to do. You don’t have to be the best guitar player in the world or the best bass player in the world. My thing was just to be a really good song writer. Try to write really good songs. You don’t have to be the best guitar player in the world to write really good songs. You don’t have to be the best piano player in the world or the best singer, even, to write a good song.
It was about learning the craft of songwriting because not every musician that you see out there is the greatest on the planet. Some of them are pretty average, actually. But they do what they do really well and that’s the more important thing. You don’t have to be the best at what you do. You just have to do what you do really, really well. You don’t have to be the best on the planet, I mean. You can just be really good at what you do.
The Beatles themselves, as individual people, were not the greatest musicians on the planet. But together as a team, they worked really, really well. That’s more important in terms of a group dynamic or even a solo dynamic. Do what you do, but do it really, really well.
Christopher: You said something there about being kind of thrust into the position of lead singer.
Christopher: Had you been learning to sing or practicing singing up to that point?
Kevin: Well, I was always a singer. Yeah. I could always sing as a kid. I always had good pitch and a good ear growing up because my father was a really good singer. My mother couldn’t carry a song if it had handles. But my father had a really, really good singing voice. Really nice baritone voice. He was also a championship whistler, oddly enough.
Kevin: Yeah, he had really gift for whistling. Do bird calls and things, all that kind of stuff. I learned kind of a little bit from that. My thing was listening to voices and picking out the subtleties and characteristics of individual voices. And at an early age I started to do vocal imitations, vocal impressions of other people. Of my family members, people that I saw on TV and cartoon people.
I picked up on how the voice sounds and how to manipulate your voice to make it sound a certain way. But I never really wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be a musician, really, but I could always sing. And in all the bands I was in before I was a lead singer, I was always doing all the backing vocals. I was doing all the harmony vocals, which was difficult to do from behind the drums. That’s why I kind of moved to being bass player so it was a little bit easier.
But the singer that we had, who was a friend of my girlfriend’s at the time, had this really nice high tenor voice. He could make it growl and scream, so he was perfect for like that ’80s hard rock thing that we were doing. So he was the singer and I was quite happy with writing the songs and letting him sing them. He was a very outward personality, so he was really good at talking to a room full of people. He was the perfect frontman where I could just kind of be in the background and do everything.
But then he left. He got a really good job offer at the age of 21. And he left and moved out of state. The band was basically like, “No one is going to sing these songs better than you, because you wrote them. We’re not going to find somebody else who’s going to come in here and sing the songs the way you want.”
Because he would sing them,the melodies that I came up with, he would just sing them that way. He wouldn’t really, “And I’m going to sing it my way.” He would sing it the way I wrote it.
So, “We’re never going to find anybody like that, so you sing your own songs anyway.”
I got thrust into being the lead singer when I really didn’t want to be. And that was, “Oh my God, I’m thrown into the lion’s pit. I’ve never done this before.”
I found out how really inadequate my vocal ability was in terms of singing my own songs because I keyed them for his voice, which was a tenor voice. And as you can hear, I have more of a heavy, low baritone. It was difficult for me to sing a lot of my own songs because they were keyed higher. I was like, “Mmm, maybe I should go find out how to sing these songs.”
That’s when I started my journey into vocal instruction and research and learning about the voice and all that. This was probably 1987, ’87, ’88. So I’ve been doing this 30 years.
I got my first book in 1988 or ’89. I bought like a book or something with a cassette thing in a bookstore in ’87, which didn’t really help at all because it was geared towards like musical theater people. And it wasn’t into, let’s sing ’80s hard rock. It didn’t really relate.
I didn’t really get much out of that. And the first book that I bought, which I still have, somewhere, is a book by Mark Baxter who’s another good vocal coach out of Boston. And his is The Rock-N-Roll Singer’s Survival Guide, which was the only book I ever saw in a bookstore.
Kids, there was no such things as the internet back then. We actually had to go into a bookstore and look at books on a shelf like a library. And it was the only book I saw that had anything contemporary in it. It said, “Rock-N-Roll Singer’s.”
I was like, “Ah, there we go.”
Mark’s book is great. It’s a great reference if you’re looking for your first book to buy on singing. It’s a great book. It’s very easily written out, nice illustrations, nothing really heavily technical, gives you a good background. That’s a great book for a first time singer looking to get into learning about the voice and technique.
And from there I started to pick up … I have now over 150 books on voice that I’ve accumulated over 30 years, which my wife is not too happy about because it takes up a lot of room on the bookshelves. But they go all the back to like 1900 and stuff. I go to rare bookstores to find way out-of-print books and stuff. And I read them all and I absorb what I think is useful and all of that. That’s part of where I came to how I teach today is that accumulated knowledge distilled down to what I think is important for performers.
Christopher: Interesting. And you’re clearly better positioned than most to answer this, but if you think back to that stage, what kinds of things were you struggling with and what kinds of technique or insight did you need to get to kind of go from being an unsure lead singer thrust into it to someone who was confident and capable doing that role?
Kevin: Right. Well, the very first rehearsal as me as lead singer opened my eyes immensely about how inadequate I was as a singer because I could barely get through 40 minutes. 35, 40 minutes. And I was like this.
Kevin: I was like, “Hmm. I should go look maybe up somebody for some instruction.”
And I started to learn about how the voice worked and how to breathe properly. Your diction and your articulation and resonance. I started to learn all about that stuff and I became fascinated with how the voice works. Because I said, I’d always been a listener and observer of people’s voices by imitating them in some way, but I had no really scientific basis of how the structure worked. Once I kind of got a bit more background information in terms of the mechanics of singing, I became fascinated by that. It fueled my curiosity in wanting to be a better singer. Because, “Ooh, if I can learn to do this, this, this, this, and this, and this.”
I also heard about the baritone curse, that if you’re a baritone you can’t sing high and all this. I had a couple of teachers tell me that and they didn’t last long as a teacher with me.
So I found the one that said, “No, no, no. You can learn to sing high. You won’t sound like the people that you like who are actually really tenors or high baritones, but you can sing the same notes. You can get up there. You’ll just sound slightly different, but you can achieve that.”
And that’s when I finally got some hope into singing the way I wanted to sing. And that’s also a basis of what I get when I teach other people because they come to me and they don’t think they can sing there either. And I’m like, “Oh, no, no. If I can learn how to do it, so can you.”
The voice that you hear now is 20 plus years of accumulated research and training but it didn’t always sound like this. I wish I could find the cassette tape I had of me at like 15 or 16, strumming along on my guitars to some Beatles’ songs and stuff and you could see how awful I sounded trying to sing some high Paul McCartney stuff. And it was really bad. I could barely sing over middle C on the piano at one time. It was really bad. Really bad. My voice would crack. Stuff was horrible.
Christopher: We’ll definitely have some links in the show notes to this episode to specific YouTube videos where people can see and listen to what your voice can do now, because it is quite incredible.
Kevin: It was never a … Oh Lord. I could barely do any of that stuff before, yeah.
Christopher: I feel like we could do an entire two hour conversation about vocal technique and all of the insight and wisdom you have on that front in terms of pitch and range and breathing and dynamics.
Kevin: I definitely could.
Christopher: But the thing I was most keen to pick your brains on is really the performance and charisma side. And I think the next stage in your musical journey, or at least a stage which soon followed, was a tour in Europe in the Far East with a band around ’96. Is that right?
Kevin: Correct. Mm-hmm (affirmative). The band itself had broken up in 1993. But unbeknownst to us, the manager that we had at the time kept submitting our material to independent record labels all over the planet. He just kept pushing it for two years after we had broken up as a band.
And finally, Teichiku Records out of Japan, which was a division of Panasonic, picked us up, or at least wanted to pick us up. And they took what we had already recorded and said, “We want you to go in and record three more songs to add to this so it’s a full thing,” because I think it was six songs on the original thing that we were submitting, “so we have nine, so we can put this out on the label.”
That was an interesting thing because in the interim of those two years where the band had broken up, two guys in the band had become enemies …
Christopher: Oh no.
Kevin: … with each other. They hated each other. Couldn’t stand to be in the same room. I’m not really sure even still to this day how that happened and why they hated each other afterwards, because they were good friends during the band period.
So that was an interesting thing to have to work around, of them trying to get along for this tour. Well, we kind of even sat down. It was like, “For the betterment of this experience, put your personal stuff aside and let’s just work on this.”
And we did. We got picked up and we rehearsed and we went out. They flew us out to Los Angeles first, because we’re here in New York. And we went to Los Angeles. We had three days of rehearsals for the tour where we had a musical director, I guess you could call him a musical director, keeping us under time, make sure we didn’t run over time and all that and listening to the order of the songs and all that kind of stuff. This was from the label.
Then our first show was in Tokyo and we did a show in Osaka and then we played in Seoul, Korea to 13,000 people in an outdoor festival, which is my largest crowd up until that point. From 13 people to 13,000 goes a long way in suddenly thrusting into … And I actually find it easier to sing in front of thousands of people than dozens who are right in front of you staring at you with their arms folded. “Impress me, dude. Go ahead.”
Rather than 13,000 people are just kind of a wash, a sea of people out in the distance. That’s easier to sing to because you don’t have to look anybody directly in the face. I find that a little bit more comforting than … Plus, if I don’t wear my glasses and stuff, they’re all just a fuzz anyway. It was even easier.
I actually found that easier. A larger crowd than a small crowd right in front of you staring in your face where you can look at them. That’s more unnerving to me. But we went through it. It was six weeks. We went through like Manila, in the Philippines, and we came out through all those Pacific Islands into Belgium and then we played in Sweden and Germany and Italy, Greece, France.
Our last show was in London at a small venue there opening for this band called… It’ll come back to me later. They were on the same label at the time. They’re on a different label now, but at that particular time they were on the label. And we were opening for them.
Through the Asian area there, we were through like Japan and Korea and China and all that. They had another band on the bill who was an Asian band who was on the same label who was big in that market. They were unknown outside of Asia, or the Far East, whatever. So they opened. They were the third act on … The first band on through those dates. Then after, when we got to Europe they jumped off the tour.
That was a huge experience for me because it was … I learned how the business worked in terms of the business of touring. How it worked in terms of your budgeting and time tables and being on time. And soundchecking and not getting a soundcheck. And make sure you’re off here and you’re back in the van and back at the hotel so you can catch the train or catch the flight. Living out of a suitcase. The troubles of air travel and all that kind of stuff in terms of keeping your voice hydrated and moist when traveling on airplanes and things like that and waiting for long …
The change in temperatures and going from a relatively warm Japan and South Korea to going to really, really hot Manila. That was an interesting experience going from that kind of humidity into like the Philippines and stuff on those islands. Then going back to Belgium where it was nice and cool.
Even though this was the summer, it wasn’t that hot. It was June, so it wasn’t a bad … But I learned a lot about the business of touring in terms of money constraints and how much you get to spend each day for food and incidentals and all that kind of stuff.
You’re not really paid while you’re touring. You’re paid afterwards. But they give you like a sort of a stipend kind of a little bit of spending money while you’re around. The tour manager will kind of, “Okay, guys. Here’s like 10 bucks to go out and eat food for the day.”
So you have to make it stretch. And yeah, we’re provided food backstage at the venue but on a day off? Mmm, you don’t have a lot of money to go out and gallivant around the city and do a lot of tourist stuff because you’re on a lot of constraints. They weren’t spending a lot of money on the tour because, remember, this wasn’t a giant label or anything like that. So they didn’t have a lot of tour money.
So I learned a lot about budgeting. And I do this with other students of mine who are going out on tour. I have some students here in the States that do small tours where they go out for a week or two and I help them kind of budget out their tour schedule in terms of gas money and hotel money and what you’re going to make from the gig. And how to kind of maximize that expenditure as they go through the process, because you can end up broke very easily at the end of all of that. Even the middle of it, you’ll end up broke.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kevin: If you’re not careful.
Christopher: Fascinating. And on the vocal side, were you teaching at this stage? Were you already coaching other people?
Kevin: No, no. Uh-uh (negative). Mm-mm (negative), no. No, I didn’t start teaching till around 2002, because in the background of all of this, I was a graphic designer. That was my quote, unquote, “real job.” The one that paid the bills, really.
I was a graphic designer. I was living in California for a bunch of years and I moved back to New York and there just wasn’t really a lot of work, for a lot of full-time work. So I was doing a lot of freelance graphic design. So in the interim when I wasn’t freelancing, I was teaching.
I was kind of doing part-time both. And then around 2007, 2008, even the freelance work started to drop off, so I started to teach more. And I became basically then a full-time teacher around 2008.
Christopher: And you touched on a couple of times your particular specialty is kind of performance oriented vocal coaching.
Christopher: It’s really about this question of being onstage, not just kind of singing each note correctly. Where did that come from? Why is it that you went in that direction?
Kevin: Well, in my research of singing methodologies, I found most of the work geared towards doing the method really well. Doing the actual technique really well. Doing the scales and the exercises really well. Not a lot of it was … or had a lot of it in the methodology.
In terms of like other people’s vocal course and books that I read, it was a lot about … There are books out there, especially in the classical community, about performance, which I thought was really good. But not a lot of it in terms of contemporary. There are a lot of books for classical singers about performance. And I thought it was very lacking in terms of the contemporary scene. It was all about, “Well, I have my method. This is my method. This is my method. This is my pedagogy.”
I bought everybody’s book and everybody’s vocal course and all that to see, and not really a lot of them had any sort of sections based on, “Well, how does this now relate to when I’m singing in front of people on a stage?”
It was, “Well, no. Get the exercises really well. Do the exercises really well and you’ll learn how to sing on stage.”
Eh, not really. There’s a difference between training your voice and then performing with your voice. There’s a big difference in those two. A lot of what you do in the training gets actually thrown out the window once you hit the stage because there’s only certain things that you can do while you’re performing.
When you’re standing in your house and you’re training, you’re going … You can pay full attention to what you’re doing. You can listen to your voice and you can pay attention to what your body is doing. And you can do it over and over and over again. You hit the stage, you got one time to get it right.
And you have to be performing. You have to be engaging the audience. So you can’t be paying that much attention to what you’re doing physically. And yeah, you’re listening and you’re feeling what your body is doing but it’s kind of more in the background. And you have to have a lot of stuff kind of set in to that.
My performance stuff is I try to eliminate all the things out of the training that aren’t relative to what you have to do when you sing songs in front of people. I train towards that goal rather than doing the exercises or the method properly.
Christopher: Very cool. I’m reminded of something my singing teacher in high school told me when we were talking about breathing. And she was saying it’s all very well to be stood here in the practice, carefully monitoring your posturing, getting your diaphragm just right.
Christopher: But if you’re going to sing an opera aria and in the scene you’re lying on a bench, you’re not going to be able to do it that way.
Kevin: Right. How is that relevant? Right. Those two things aren’t related now. You have to be able to sing in every position. The idea of like, well, I have to have perfect posture and my breathing has to be … How about if you’re Quasimodo in a thing?
Christopher: Exactly, yeah.
Kevin: Or in, what is it, Faust, who is the Devil. Half the performance he’s hunched over to look menacing. He’s not in perfect posture, but he still has to be able to sing. So you have to learn how to do that as well. I have to be able to sing in every position and be loose with my body. Not perfectly standing up straight.
The idea of posture comes from how it looks on stage. The heroic stance of the hero in the opera, he stands very straight and he looks very heroic with posture. But there lots of … In Rigoletto, the jester, whatever, is hunched over most of the time he’s performing. He has to be able to sing in that position. Where does any of his posture come in?
That’s what I mean. That’s why I said some of the methodology doesn’t always apply to actual singing on a stage. It’s all well and good in the studio, but in real world application a lot of that doesn’t apply, so you have to have alternate ways of training to kind of cover all the various aspects of what you’ll do on a stage.
Christopher: Let’s unpack that a little. I think if we were going to talk about technique, it would be easy for either of us to reel off a list of the stuff we talk about. Breathing and posture and dynamics and phrasing and range and all of that good stuff.
If we talk about the performance side, what are the various aspects there that you’d be digging into with a student or helping them with?
Kevin: Well, yeah. There’d be the aspect of the tonality of their voice. The idea is that you’re not going for a perfect performance. You’re going for an optimal performance. You’re going into the pit, so to speak, as I like to call it. You’re kind of being thrust into the pit, into the firefight knowing that things are going to go wrong and that it’s okay that they go wrong. You try to minimize them as much as possible and you don’t let them bother you while you’re performing. You just know that’s going to happen. Things are going to happen. Things are going to go wrong. It’s okay.
You talked a little bit pre-interview, before we got on the air, about one of my videos about confidence is overrated. And a lot of people put this, “Well, I have to be confident in front of people.”
Well, how do you be confident? It’s not a light switch you just flick on. Now I’m confident. You have to have belief in your abilities. You have to actually be training for the stage so when you go out on the stage, you’re comfortable in that position. If all you’re doing is training and standing straight and doing singing exercises in a studio and you’re thrust on this … They’re two totally different environments.
I train people to perform on the stage. I have them hold their microphone with the stand. If they’re a guitar player, I have the guitar on them while they’re singing, so they’re kind of more in that element. And I look at how their body is moving, how their posture is in terms of when they’re holding an instrument or how they’re standing with the microphone, if they’re hunched over. Do they look confident? Do they look scared? How do they move around the stage? There’s a craft to sort of covering the entire length of the stage and hitting all the people in the audience with eye contact and all that.
And how long do you look at somebody before it gets too creepy? Two second rule. You look at them for one second, two second, boom, move on. Look at somebody else. After that, it’s going to look … It’s a little weird.
All things like that. So I have them do this while they’re actually doing the training exercises. They’re looking around the room. They’re walking. They’re walking in circles. They’re doing back and forth. They’re moving their body in a loose way. So they feel that they’re moving their body. They’re actually using their body to sing with and it’s how they look. And I film a lot of them so they can see what they look like, because a lot of the time, you don’t know.
And in a mirror, you’re a little self-conscious, so you’ll kind of try to look cool if you’re looking at yourself in a mirror while you’re doing this. But if you just have someone film you and then you look back, you’re apt to catch things that you’re not really aware of that you’re doing. And you’ll go, “Oh, that looks cool,” or, “Oh my God, let’s not do that anymore. That looks terrible.”
That’s something I stress with a lot of bands, also. If they do shows, film them. Video yourself on a stage and have everybody in the band look at it so they can all look about how they look. If they’re moving too much or not enough, things like that.
I do this with people in the studio. I try to put them in a performance mode so that they’re combining all the elements of training their voice and also performing with it at the same time.
Christopher: That’s super fascinating. I think one of the really great practical tips in that video you mentioned was you talked about kind of training beyond what’s required. If you do it in perfect environment, you just need to hit each note and get it right. But you were talking about knowing, for example, that you can sing beyond the range that’s required so that when it comes down to it in a performance situation, you can trust yourself in the level of performance that you need.
Kevin: Correct, right. I have students that come in to me. It’s like, “Well, I write my own material. The G above middle C is the highest note in all my songs. So that’s as far as I need to learn how to sing.”
And I’m like, “Well, no, no, no, no. You want to learn how to sing to the high C, the C above that. So that G that’s in your songs there is always working for you. It’s always there. You’re always confident that that’s going to come out of your mouth. It’s not the end note in your range. It’s kind of three-quarters of the way up. And your confidence is more on that note because you know you can sing higher than that. You want to have more range than you actually need to sing with.”
I mean, if I have a good warm up day, I can do five octaves. The C1 to the C6. Do I need all of that range to sing with? No. I sing pretty much within a two octave range. But in knowing that I have that extra buffer range on the outside gives me confidence that the range that I do sing in will always be there for me and will always work. Or at least with minimum amount of effort or warmup for me, I know I can get that voice to work for me because I have more of it. I’m more confident with it because I know I can do more than actually is required of me to do it.
And that’s what I mean by just saying, “Well, just be confident,” is overrated. You have to know and have a belief in your abilities to be … And confident people aren’t really confident. What they are is they understand that mistakes will be made and they don’t let that bother them. And they know what they can and cannot do. They know their limitations. And they don’t go beyond them. They’re always working within their limitation. That gives them a confidence to do what they do really well. So anyone that you see is really confident can do a lot more than they’re showing you.
And that’s the real secret of confidence.
Christopher: What I loved about hearing you describe the kind of exercises you do with your students there was that it started to kind of demystify this stage charisma or stage presence thing.
I’m sure all of our listeners have been to a gig where you see the frontman and he’s rocking the microphone. The crowd is enthralled. He seems to be a natural-born performer. But, clearly, hearing you talk about that, there’s a lot of thought and preparation and kind of methodology that goes into, or certainly can go into, preparing for being that frontman.
Kevin: Right. There’s a great story told by the bass player for Prince. He talks about, people see Prince … They saw Prince later on. He could do all these great things with a mic stand. And he would twirl it around and kick his leg over the top of it and threw his legs and all that kind of stuff. He said, “At one time, he had none of that in his stage performance.”
What he did is he locked himself away in his rehearsal studio for three days. Locked himself in, brought a cot in, slept in there. With him and a mic stand. And all he did was work out exactly what he wanted to do with that mic stand for three days. And when he came out he had everything you now see him doing. He had a singular focus. He was like, “I want to be really good. I want to do something different with a mic stand that no one’s doing before.”
So he had a singular focus and for three days straight he did nothing but work on that. There’s a craft in that. And this was something I touched upon with Sir Rod Stewart when I was traveling with him for a couple days, was about that I teach people about this stuff. He was like, “Oh, I’ve got that covered,” with using a mic stand and stuff.
Which, actually, he stole from Sam Cooke, the use of a mic stand and tilting his head back and stuff when he sings. He saw Sam Cooke do that and he stole that idea. It’s okay to sort of steal some ideas from other people. And that’s what I used to do. I used to go and see other guys that were really good at being frontmen and kind of nick little ideas here and there about how they stood and how they looked at a crowd and how they use a microphone and a mic stand.
You just pick up these little ideas and incorporate them into what you do. And you just practice with them and you kind of make it your own. I practice this with students in the studio. I have them hold the mic stand and hold the mic and work it as an additional prop on the stage.
Actually holding something can give you a little bit more confidence that you’re not just bare out in front of people. You actually have something kind of between you and the audience that you can kind of work … It becomes a dance partner with you. And you kind of learn to move with it and use it and all of that. And it gives you something, a little bit of security. You have something to grab onto and all that.
I work on that with students. It helps them relate more to an audience and bridge that gap of confidence. It helps them learn to become confident and not just … You can’t just switch on a light and become confident.
Christopher: You’ve mentioned a couple world famous names there, Prince and Sir Rod Stewart. And I want to ask you kind of double-ended question which is, do you think all of the kind of pro-performers have been this kind of conscious and intentional about it versus just kind of doing it instinctively? And contrariwise, do you think there are amateurs who just can never learn this because they don’t have what it takes?
Kevin: Well, it’s all down to your mindset. Anyone can learn to do it. It’s how natural you’ll look when you do it. If you look at very early live performance clips of Bono and U2, and then you look at it throughout the years, you’ll see that his stage performance and his stage persona changed as the years went on. It became a little less flamboyant and a little more measured, a little more thought out in how he moves across the stage. It’s a bit more performance orientated. You see he’s really planned it out of where I’m going to walk to and how I’m going to look at the stage.
Whereas in the early ’80s, he was pretty much just going on adrenaline and improvising. Like, “I’m going to run over here now. Now I’m going to run over there and I’m going to climb the scaffolding and wave a flag.” Whatever off the top of his head. And over the years, he kind of crafted it and became more of a frontman rather than a lead singer. And he became and he started to evoke that.
Now you have some people like Freddie Mercury who seem to have it right from the get-go. But he also kind of developed his stage performance as he went on. His mannerisms became more measured, more tight, more thought out.
He knew what certain body postures got a crowd excited. He knew if he raised his fists and the arm, he’d get most of the audience to raise their fist as well. And if he clapped, he could get them to clap.
When you go from smaller audiences to larger audiences, you start to learn what body movements work more for the size of the audience. The larger the audience you sing to, the more exaggerated your body movements have to be because people way in the back have to see this tiny little figure moving. Your movements become bigger and less frantic. They have to be a bit more measured.
And you watch these guys. Freddie sort of seemed to have it from the beginning, but he developed it over the years because he learned at each concert what works and what doesn’t work. And he threw away the things that didn’t seem to work or looked goofy to him, and then what worked and what seemed to look cool.
His body posture became different. He stood more straight and he thrust his air. He made Xs a lot, if you notice. He spread his legs wide and he put his arms out. He made an X. That looks really good from the stage from a distance. He used half a mic stand kind of a thing and all that kind of stuff, which was a unique thing that nobody was doing before that.
Like I said, and Bono’s become more measured in the way that he kind of struts across the stage now. He doesn’t run anymore, because now he’s a little bit older, but … He’s not running, but he does run a little bit. Not as much as he did when he was in his 20s.
But now he kind of struts. It’s more of a confidence thing rather than a maniacal, crazy person lead singer. It’s more like, “I’m a confident frontman and I’m going to command the audience.”
He projects that. But that was learned over time. Anyone can learn to do that.
Christopher: Nice. And you provide one-on-one training in this kind of thing, both in person and online.
Christopher: If we imagine the kind of church mouse 16-year-old that you mentioned you were yourself and they came to you and said, “Listen. In two months time, I’ve got to front this band going on a little tour.”
What kind of stuff might you have them doing to bring that out of them and to give them that confidence and that kind of well-grounded confidence?
Kevin: Funny you should ask, because this is something I do with them. I don’t want to give the secret away too much, but with some of these people, I’ve actually taken … Now, I teach two blocks from Times Square. So it’s a very busy area with lots of people on a street. And I’ll say, “Well, if you want to not be afraid of doing something in front of people, let’s go do it in front of people.”
I take them downstairs, out of the studio, down and onto the street. I say, “We’re going to stand here and we’re going to sing a scale in front of people as they pass by.”
I just do it. I just go … I just do it right in the middle of the street because New York City people don’t care. That’s the least crazy thing to see somebody doing on the street anyway. So I just do it. And I’m like, “See that? See, I just did that. When I was 16, when I was your age, I couldn’t do that. But I can do that now. So you do it.”
And I goad them to do it. And I’m like, “See? Nothing happened. The world didn’t end. You didn’t die. The earth didn’t stop spinning on its axis and we flew off into space. The world didn’t end. So it’s okay. You can do it. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
And that’s the first step. The brain, your mind needs to learn that nothing really bad is going to happen. Somebody might look at you really weird but they kept right on walking. They’re not really all that concerned. It’s your mindset of it is you’re afraid of it.
Like I said, I was afraid to talk to people and I had an irrational fear of that. And I don’t know why I had it. Over time, I learned that nothing bad is going to happen if I talk to people. But I didn’t know that at that age. I had to learn it over time.
My experience in terms of how I learned to not be that introverted, that shy, I help them realize this. It’s like, “Listen. I wasn’t always this way. I was like you at one time. So if I can do it, you can do it. Here are the steps that I took to be that person. And I can streamline it for you so you don’t have to take to 20-odd years to get to that. You can take two months to get to that because I learned and I can actually take all the stuff that isn’t really relevant and just give you the bullet points. And now you can work on that.”
And we work on that together in the studio. Now I have them go to open mic nights and perform in front of people. I say, “Yeah. You’re going to be nervous. You’re going to be sweating like you have never sweat before. But you’re going to get over it. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.”
And that’s the one thing, a lot of people, they don’t want to take that first step to do it. And I’m like, “No. You have to get out there and get in front of people. If you don’t do it, you never learn.”
Christopher: Very cool. So I think that gives us a glimpse of what you do at RPM Vocal Studio, but tell us more. You provide online courses as well. Is that right?
Kevin: I have a couple courses. Yeah. I have one called Breaking the Chains, which is kind of an intermediate … I didn’t really see a lot of courses out … When I put it out, there weren’t a lot of vocal courses out there for people that didn’t sing like classical or Broadway or jazz. There were a couple, but not geared towards sort of more high-pitched or higher range singing. So I came up with one.
Again, it’s a very simplistic course. It’s not really a ton of stuff involved. But it’s very geared towards performance. And it’s very simplistic exercises. Nothing really complicated in there because singing doesn’t have to be really complicated. It could be very simplistic. You can learn very complicated things to do with your voice in a very simplistic way.
Then I have kind of a warmup which is called Vocal Fire. You can use it either as a warmup or you can use it kind of as a beginners’ course. It’s kind of an intro into learning how to use your voice in a very light way and kind of learning how to work the inner mechanics of it all.
And they’re all inexpensive. You can get both of them for a hundred bucks as a digital download. You don’t have to spend a month’s rent to buy one course. Because I don’t think a course needs to have like 9 CDs and 55 videos and stuff to learn. You can get a lot of the very basic concepts that you can keep using in a very quick way.
That’s at thevoxshop.com. It’s linked to it on RPM Vocal Studio. But, yeah. I have a couple of those.
And then I teach people online and here in the studio in New York City all the techniques in those things and more. I’ve kind of expanded on those courses over the years because that was 10 years ago. And I’ve added to it and things like that and things that are more relevant. Like I said, I do a lot of relative training for people.
Most of the people that come to me are usually active performers already. So I help them do what they already do better. A lot of people ask me, “Well, do you teach beginners?”
Because they see Sir Rod Stewart and they see Bette Midler and they see all these other professionals on my website. “Do you teach beginners?”
Absolutely. I absolutely love a beginner because I want to show them the path that I took. And that they can take a similar path and achieve the same thing I have. Because I said if I did it, anyone can do it. I was not gifted as a singer. What you see now is an end-result of a lot of training and a lot of knowledge and a lot of talking to a lot of other people about their voice. Getting to know other singers and what they do.
It’s a never-ending thing. It never stops. I mean, the fact that I’m doing this podcast is one of them. I want people to learn. I want to learn from other people. It’s a never-ending process. All of that is incorporated in my online and in-person lessons. It’s all relative training to performance.
Christopher: Fantastic. And on that front, I think our listeners are going to yell at me if I don’t cycle back and ask you to talk a little bit more about working with Sir Rod Stewart before we wrap things up.
Christopher: Are there any kind of standout highlights or lessons learned from working with him?
Kevin: Yes. To have fun.
Kevin: Yeah. When I first met him, because I had only corresponded with him through email first. When I first met him, they flew me out to Chicago and put me up in his hotel with him to travel with him. It was a nice, five star hotel, which I’d never been in before.
The first time he met me, he hugged me. He gave me a hug. I never met this guy before in my life. “How you doing, mate?”
And all that kind of stuff, like this. And he asked his tour manager, “Where am I going?”
He had no idea which city he was going to, which was Cincinnati. And he said, “Oh, good. Let’s go have some fun.”
Now he talked about this in the car to the private jet, and then in private jet to Cincinnati. And I asked him about how is he still doing this at 72 years of age. He’s now 73, but back then he was 72. And he’s like, “I got to have fun. Have fun, fun, fun. It’s the greatest job in the world. And when I go out there, I try to have as much fun as possible.”
And that’s his thing. He loves what he does. I said to him, “A lot of people at your sort of stage in career could kind of coast through and just kind of show up and do a show. And there will be enough people because of your name.”
He goes, “Nope.”
He tries to put on the best show he possibly can from the people that he hires to the musicians that back him, to the songs that he chooses, the setlist that he comes up with to how he performs, what he wears onstage. It’s always calculated to giving people the best show possible.
But all at the same time, he wants to have fun. And that’s his whole … The fact that he still has fun is why he’s still doing it and why he doesn’t see himself retiring anytime soon. Because he’s having too much fun. He loves what he does. That’s the thing that I’ve taken away with this is that. He goes, “Yeah, it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of hours involved, but in the end that performance comes and that’s when I have my fun. And it’s all worth it.”
And that’s why you have to perform, because that’s the end result of all this training and going through all hours of tedious exercises is the performance and that’s where you have the fun and that’s where it pays off.
The whole process here is that to understand that what I learned from Sir Rod Stewart, and actually … I also consulted with Bette Midler was that she likes to have a lot of fun. She’s a very funny person when you meet her. She looks at performing and singing as an exercise in having a good time. She loves it. She loves performing. That’s why she does it. And most performers do. Most singers do. They love performing.
You kind of have to understand that the tedious process is to get that end result of the fun. But you can have fun along the way. I mean, it’s all in terms of the teacher that you have and stuff, and they can make it fun for you. That was one of the things I liked about a couple of teachers that I had is that they made the experience fun. I didn’t dread going there. “Oh my God, this is going to be so boring.”
They were fun teachers. And that’s what I liked about when I traveled with Rod Stewart is everywhere he went he was trying to have fun. He said hello to people. How you doing? He had a joke for them and things like that. He just enjoys life.
And I said, “Well, if someone at that stage of their game can still be having fun and still look at it as having fun, someone just beginning the process or in the middle or even three-quarters of the way through the process should be looking at it the same way.”
My main thing coming out of Sir Rod Stewart was make the process fun for yourself. Look for ways that you can make it enjoyable. And not just drudgery. Challenge yourself in different ways to make it fun. Stand out in the middle of Times Square and sing a scale or sing a song. And give yourself that adrenaline rush. It’s like riding a roller coaster for the first time. It’s like, “Oh, I got over it. Yay.”
No, but you’re petrified before that, but afterwards, it’s exhilarating. And that’s what singers need learn and performers need to learn is you have to do it and you want to go out and do it and have a lot of fun.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, this has been such a fascinating glimpse into the world of performance and performance-based training. Thank you so much for joining us today, Kevin.
Kevin: Oh, you’re very welcome. I enjoyed it immensely. “I had a lot of fun,” to quote Sir Rod Stewart.