HomeMeet Kurt Zimmerman: The LeBron James Of A Cappella

Tom Burlin's picture

Few a cappella singers realize the dream of making a living off a cappella music, but through networking, professionalism, and hard work, Kurt has gone from high school to the pros, becoming the vocal percussionist and newest member of Street Corner Symphony. 

Kurt, from Kettering, Ohio, joined his first a cappella group at 13 and became a member of Eleventh Hour at 15.  He says that he began to get serious about music at that time by working on his craft, building his first studio, and (importantly) giving up the game World of Warcraft. Kurt received national exposure at 16 and began to make important connections within the a cappella world. Fans will remember both Kurt and Street Corner Symphony from the second season of NBC’s The Sing-Off on which Kurt performed with his high school group Eleventh Hour. By the age of 17, Kurt was performing at national music education showcases and teaching at show choir and a cappella camps. After high school, he began doing live production and stage direction for high school groups and producing studio albums—including an album featured on a SING compilation. Now 19, Kurt lives in Nashville and tours the country as a member of Street Corner Symphony.

Kurt’s timeline is by no means a road map to success; he was lucky enough to be part of a high school a cappella program that enjoyed more visibility than any other program in the nation. However advantageous the circumstance, Kurt has made the best of his notoriety by diligently working on his craft, connections, and visibility. I interviewed Kurt in October of 2013 to ask about how he became a member of Street Corner Symphony, advice he would like to give to young performers as well as some questions about vocal percussion.

Why the comparison to LeBron James, you ask? Well... although he is a forward, LeBron takes on the role typically given to the point guard and is possibly most known for his playmaking and vision on the court.  Kurt describes himself (and the role of a vocal percussionist) in a similar way: as a creator of opportunities, as someone who helps others achieve their visions, and as the on-the-court coach and critic.

Becoming a member of Street Corner Symphony

“When school ended my senior year, I was looking to continue involvement with the music industry via a cappella, live sound and sound engineering.  I maintained my presence through relationships with some area high schools to remain part of the a cappella world—so if something were to come up, I would still be in the loop. Street Corner came into my hometown and was looking to get some help while a member was in Australia touring with another artist. They remembered me from The Sing-Off and asked me to perform with them for two shows in town.” 

“SCS was looking for someone who could stay with them for the next leg of the tour, and what I was doing worked for them—so we just continued it. And as months went by, there was no reason to stop. That’s when I started appearing in the videos and they updated their Facebook profile, and it became official.”

Networking

“It’s a high priority of mine. I think the biggest part of growing your network is your mindset—knowing that when you’re at any a cappella function you should be focused on networking.  Everyone has something unique to bring to the table and you have to remember that, whether it’s a job or a potential supporter or fan, you have something to offer, and they have something to offer you as well; This will help you get everything you can out of any situation.  And, I think that social networks like Facebook and, potentially, twitter are immensely important because they help you stay in the loop with people who could benefit from your skill set.  Social networks help you see through the looking glass at what others are doing so you can tailor your services by understanding their worlds and their needs.  So, maintaining networks is really all about satisfying the need of your connection and making yourself useful.  Understanding what others need and modifying what you do to help them is going to help you stay relevant in a business that’s constantly changing.”

Professionalism

“Professionalism is about being the person you would want to work with. You have to understand that everything has a protocol and everything isn’t going to go exactly the way you want, so you have to cooperate with people while staying true to yourself as an artist. You want people to know that you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. This can be difficult for some people when they want things to always be done their way, but you have to realize that you are always a part of something bigger and being flexible is going to help you resonate with people you work with and they will hopefully want to work with you again.”

Hard Work

“This might sound harsh, but my advice is to never think you are good enough to be where you want to be; never even think that you’re close.  That kind of attitude is never going to help you. What does help is to be introspective and recognize what you need—what you are struggling with the most. You need to be your biggest critic, because when you let up on yourself, everyone else will let up on you too.” 

“You should be working as hard as you can. I mean that in terms of actual work and proactivity. If you don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount you are doing, you’re not doing enough. If your excuse is ‘I just don’t have enough opportunities’ then your task should be providing yourself opportunities and creating connections and outlets. It’s a fiercely competitive industry and you’re going to lose if you’re not doing everything you can.”

Production and Recording

“Like most other jobs, the more you know about other parts of your business the more you can enhance your abilities and play off others’ abilities. When you’re performing on stage, the production team plays a huge role in making or breaking the performance. It’s a tight symbiosis, and to know the other half is to understand what you need to give to the other half to make it work. And a general knowledge of audio and video production of content for commercial consumption is really important so, again, you can tailor your work to be as complementary as possible.  For instance: when I was working in live production, I remember saying to myself ‘if only they could be a little more steady with their microphone, we could get a much better sound.’ So with that knowledge, it becomes easier to take care of those kinds of problems at the source as opposed to having the production team try to fix those problems for you. That perspective can make you a more diligent performer and just a better performer in general. You’ll find that most professional performers will have a good grasp on what’s going on in the back. So, you have to approach learning about production as a part of what you do.”

Originality and Resources for Vocal Percussionist

“A lot of instruction has become available only in the last few years. I have begun working with the AEA [A Cappella Education Association], an up-and-coming group that will work to aggregate the best content around for educators to pass down to their students. Balancing instruction and originality is something of a double-edged sword. You’re gaining so much instruction, but you’re kind of loosing what can be gained by necessity through your own ambition. I think necessity and ambition are what create uniqueness—and that’s what ultimately sells. So, you get a shortcut into the workings of things, but it can be hard to let go of that hand that’s holding you. And so my best word of advice for new and younger vocal percussionists is to develop your own style. You are going to sound good doing some particular things; try to start complimenting the things you do well instead of trying to do everything or copy a certain style. Don’t think of it like an instrument the way a guitar or a piano is an instrument—it’s your voice, so start with what you are confident about and expand from there to find your niche. When you listen to the people at the top of this craft, they don’t sound like anybody else because they work so hard to sound like themselves. It is you, your mouth shape and vocal cords and throat. It’s going to sound like you, and people will pay for uniqueness. The more you try to make it sound like someone else the closer you come to filling a mould instead of painting a picture.”

On the Mic/Off the Mic

“That’s something that I notice when I’m clinicing that sometimes doesn’t really dawn on people. The qualities are going to be really entirely different. If you are off mic, chances are the ensemble will be comparatively louder, so the main thing you are going for is volume.  So essentially, you’re going to be less agile. Think of it like being light-footed on mic and heavy-footed off. Off mic, you’re moving larger quantities of air, so you are typically not going to be able to do things as quickly. The hi-hat is going to be simpler and other sounds are going to be more boiled down. On mic, you can be quite and let the mic do all the work for you. I’m a bit spoiled because I have almost always been on mic, so off mic I’m a very wimpy and quiet beat-boxer—because I’ve trained myself on mic and I know I can use the mic to do all the heavy lifting. So I am focused on moving small bits of sound very quickly and accurately. They are two separate skills.  I think the big question is ‘can the two skill be honed at the same time’, and I would say yes, but you have to bear in mind that they need to handle thing differently on and off mic. It can sound very over-the-top to have someone who is used to off-mic vocal percussion on mic, even when the mic gets turned down. Quiet vocal percussion with the mic turned up can still deliver all of the punch on and set the right mood, which is important for a vocal percussionist. The little things make a big difference in art in general.” 

Helping Your Ensemble

“Vocal percussionists can be the ears for the ensemble. The nature of percussion requires as much concentration as the other parts but doesn’t require as much constant vocal production. So it can be very beneficial to be an extra set of ears for your ensemble if you can become capable of listening critically past your own self. This will help you develop your own musical skills. Think about what is happening in the composition that may not be the main focus and listen for the details. You can even write your comments down and present them at the end of a rehearsal to help your group find things to work on for the next time you meet. Keep that in mind so you can maximize your own benefit to your ensemble.”

As Written by Louis Pasture: “Chance favors the prepared mind”

“Yes, it’s the truth!  Luck is a roll of the dice, but you control how many rolls you get.  Everyone is going to have a chance to get lucky, but how you set yourself up for opportunities where luck may find you is the art. There is a chance behind every door, and it’s your choice to open those doors. In my experience luck snowballs, the more you try, the more luck you will find.”

To learn more about Kurt Zimmerman and Street Corner Symphony, check out their site at streetcornersymphony.com where you can find links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and their newest album of all original songs Southern Autumn Nostalgia.

About the writer:
Tom Burlin is a choral music educator teaching at the University of North Texas. He specializes in the sociology of music and democratic and informal music learning. His dissertation is on the phenomenon of contemporary a cappella in high schools across the United States.