Interview: Deborah Zuke Smith on Inspiring Young Singers

Deborah Zuke Smith, better known to her students and also her husband as Zuke, is a New Jersey based vocal coach, artist mentor, tea magician at Zuketeas, and overall, one of the most lovely and encouraging people you will ever meet in the music business. One of my first memories of Zuke was when she said something along the lines of talent being overrated and that give her an artist who works for what they can do any day. This sort of statement turned me into a follower as I believe very much so that everyone has some sort of ability to sing. Zuke has been mentoring me as a singer since April and while I am a little partial to say so, I highly recommend her and also was very interested to learn more about her career and ethos. This Sunday, July 21, take a free lesson as a preview for her online group course "Vocal Lessons aren't boring!" at 1:00 pm NYC time Make sure to download Zoom prior to the session For more information on lessons with Zuke, email Katie at Zuketunes.

It’s important for me to create an inviting atmosphere so that the student can feel safe in expressing the true self while singing.

EL: Your motto for Zuketunes is "Singing is more than just the voice." What experience as a vocalist and vocal coach lead you to this statement defining your work as artist mentor and vocal coach?


Zuke: The simple response is that I approach teaching the way I wanted to be taught when I was a young performer. I am thankful for my great mentors who cared about me as a whole person. They made a difference in my life and it’s a great honor to do the same for others.


My sister, Conni, helps me to think out loud when it comes to business. She and I had a long conversation at a coffee shop where we reminisced about my evolution as a singer into a coach. I would reflect back on an experience and look at her and say “singing is more than just about the voice but too many teachers don’t address the other things.” At the end of our conversation she looked at me and said, “Sis, you have your branding phrase.”


All the vocal exercise programs in the world that you can invest in may not address your bad posture habits, or deep rooted insecurities, or just balancing a busy life. Being a coach is being a mentor to the whole student. It’s important for me to create an inviting atmosphere so that the student can feel safe in expressing the true self while singing. Scales and exercises are great, don’t get me wrong. There are many that I recommend for ear training, intervallic dexterity, and fundamentals to keep the voice in shape. But if you haven’t addressed other underlying issues, the artist may never fully emerge.

Every student is someone’s child in my eyes. I coach and mentor with the same love and respect I want others to treat my daughter. We’re all on this fragile earth together.


EL: On Thursdays, you post to your blog on Where do you find inspiration for the things you blog about? Do you have any blogs that you follow to help you grow as an artist mentor and to help your artists grow as songwriters and performers?


Zuke: The inspiration for my blog comes from the collective consciousness of my students. It’s uncanny week after week that students who don’t know each other at all come to me with similar issues.


I’m usually up by 7:00 am and catch up on international news first to stay connected. Once my coffee kicks in I’ll read some posts from Utne, ReverbNation, Hypebot, Music Industry Blog, Paste, Lefsetz Letter, Edge, and numerous artists that I subscribe to. When I’m busy cleaning or cooking, I’ll listen to podcasts such as Song Exploder, DIY Musician Podcast, Between the Liner Notes, I Think You’re Interesting, Waking Up With Sam Harris, plus many different shows on WNYC. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way!


Conversing with smart family, friends, and students is always inspiring. Just waking up and living life is inspiring!


EL: I read the article you wrote sharing your stories as a breast cancer survivor and how the experience with chemotherapy caused you to have to step away from music for awhile as you lost part of your vocal range. In this time you noted art therapy as a source of healing for you which is so beautiful to hear but eventually, you were able, with the help of a vocal coach, return to playing piano, singing, and helping your students once again. Returning to music, what did you call on to find your strength so that you could use your talent to reach your students?


Zuke: When faced with a life threatening illness you have no choice but to live life in the moment or give up. Everything became so vivid during my experience. It may sound corny, but I felt art down to my deepest level during that time. My teaching mentor, Phyllis Bolton, was an art therapist for terminally ill children. She gently showed me the way to face my deepest fears through art. Seriously, it was like living inside a surrealist painting at times but so liberating as well. I remember the moment when everything connected and I wasn’t afraid of dying and wanted to immerse myself in living and sharing all the beauty the art of music has to offer.


EL: You live on a beautiful lakefront property in New Jersey. Do you and your family spend a lot of time outdoors? What are some things you do for fun besides music?


Zuke: Although we live on a lake, I am not outdoorsy. We definitely take advantage of good weather and sit on the deck with a nice bottle of wine or craft brew. We live on a dead end street so we’ll hang outside in the middle of the street and catch up with the neighbors.


Other than music, I love to cook! My husband, Kent, and I had been vegetarians for many years and transitioned to full plant based about 4 years ago. Cooking is another art form and the possibilities with vegan cooking are endless and inspiring to me.


Learning is fun for me. I still study the voice and am currently enrolled in a year long course that meets online 4 days per week with Tom Burke.


EL: I've been in your group lessons now since April with many other rock and alternative artists. I feel as a student that you look to care for all your students as whole people- as performers, as writers, as music business professionals, and as humans. It's very easy to feel welcomed within the group setting. What are some of your favorite aspects of working with a class of students?


Zuke: When I work with a class it’s so much easier to address the fundamentals of good vocal health. Several in the class will ask questions so even the most insecure in the group will get a lot of info in an hour session. Sharing concerns and issues about the voice makes others in the group realize they are not alone in their development. Hearing others sing an excerpt and working through it makes others aware of the elements that add up to success.


EL: On top of coaching, you also have your own line of teas: Zuketeas! I tried the original blend, cocacao, and Tom's turmeric tune-up and I have to say, I absolutely love the original blend. I bought it just in time for allergy season too- it was so helpful! What is your process like when you are creating a blend of tea?


Zuke: My tea blending process varies. The original blend was easy because I combined all of my favorite flavors. I originally called it ZOB for Zuke’s Original Blend, but believe it or not, that name was already registered as a business in NJ! My sister loves chai without ginger so I created Mama Zuke’s Apple Pie Chai for her and in memory of our mom who made the best pies. Hair of the Dog is an old saying referring to when you have a hangover, you take another drink. Artists like to party so I created a blend using ingredients found in liquor to mimic alcohol with the hopes of tricking the brain. There’s a story connected to every one of my teas. I’ve had lots of blends that never made it because they tasted dreadful!

EL: When we first met, you helped me understand how to sing something I was struggling with by helping me place my aryepiglottic sphincter a certain way to create the best sound possible. I never thought that would be something I would know about but was interested in learning more. You often study and work with many people to learn about vocal anatomy to help your students understand why things work for their voices. What are some of your favorite topics of study within vocal anatomy?


Zuke: I’m fascinated by everything around vocal anatomy! Not every master coach I’ve studied with was focused on anatomy. My current teacher, Tom Burke (anatomy geek extraordinaire), leaves others in the dust with his knowledge and understanding of vocal anatomy.

EL: Lastly, we ask every person we interview here on Ethos Live this question-  The word ethos describes the basic morals that form one’s customs in creating their culture. Describe your ethos as a coach and mentor- what makes up your cultural input?


Zuke: Every student is someone’s child in my eyes. I coach and mentor with the same love and respect I want others to treat my daughter. We’re all on this fragile earth together.

Do you know someone who works in the music business that you would like to know more about how they got to where they are? Send your suggestions, we would love to talk to more people in the creative fields!