Chris McNulty: “Dream the dream but get on and into the doing of it.”

Chris McNulty has long been considered a beloved, respected and influential presence within the Australian (and international) Jazz Community, but never has this been more evident than now. The great singer has written a book, ‘Vocalist as a Complete Musician’, aiming to pass on her wisdom, experience and know-how to the next generation. The book is launched at the Paris Cat, at a Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival event that features a performance by a trio of marvellous young musicians: Kathleen Halloran, Flora Carbo and Claire Cross. Here’s what she has to say about all this.


How did you decide to write a book?

Around mid 2010, while I was still residing in the States, I decided that it might be time to consolidate and catalogue some of the written knowledge and paperwork that I’d accumulated over many decades. By organizing that information, I knew I’d find gaps and that led me on a journey of finding ways to fill them. During that process, I realized that what I was actually designing, was a method for integrating theory, ear training and improvisation for vocalists. So, as it turned out, instead of creating something that just benefited me, it morphed into something far wider in scope. The idea of using tetrachords offered the best solution for what I was seeking to accomplish. Though I knew the work would also benefit instrumentalists, it has been specifically designed to address the unique challenges faced by vocal musicians – that means it’s all sung.

What was the writing process like?

The nuts and bolts of VCM was written several years ago. I’ve presented some of the method at various institutions in the States and down here in Australia, but at some point I knew that the most benefit would come from publishing it.

Getting this method into book form took a few unexpected twists and turns and became a much longer journey, due in part to some fairly challenging life events, including relocating back here after 28 years. But finally, around April of this year, I made the leap and decided to spend the next four months doing just that; creating VCM-the-book. I’ve designed the work using a simple step-by-step approach, which moves into more complex exercises. The idea behind all this is to provide vocalists with a set of tools to help facilitate improvisation with more accuracy, proficiency and confidence. Inspire more creative expression and exploration through composition, and to give voice to a wiser, more confident and independent self.

What was the greatest challenge that you had to face?

The hardest part is always starting. Getting organized. Looking at the micro- and macro-management side of things. Knowing the order of events. Knowing who else to bring into the project. What I could afford. Having a sense of what I could manage myself and what I absolutely knew I’d have to farm out. Knowing/researching the publishing game. Who to publish with or how to self-publish. Launching a book onto the international market place, though at first daunting, ended up not being quite as difficult as I thought it would be. The technical issues are always the things that bog you down the most. Even though the method and the files were all completed, I had to design a very specific order of events for the book content and a whole other kind of order of events involved in launching the book on all the various digital platforms. Starting with creating website pages, figuring out the back end using WooCommerce and WordPress to create the product; purchasing platforms (had some wonderful help with this). Then designing very different materials for advertising and presenting it on the internet. I had tremendous help from several key people. So, I was very lucky in that way. I had to find reliable proofreaders on both text and musical notation. Then I had to design and create the audio tracks to go with the 22 exercises. That proved to be the most challenging part of all. I’d gotten used to hearing all these exercises in Sibelius. I’d planned out early on exactly how I was going to approach each exercise, audio wise but there were a pile of templates that I knew didn’t need to be recorded as a trio. I ended up using voice and piano for those but it was a lot of work. Creating the PDFs of the Sib files was also a laborious and tedious task. Systematizing all the fonts and creating white space. I did a lot of that myself to save money and then bought in a very savvy colleague to spruce it up.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?

Ha! I haven’t stopped for long enough to answer that question, though I do think I might know a thing or two about managing a very hefty juggle and getting things done. Even though I’m often reminded of that saying “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, in this instance I’m grateful to have had those extra skill sets, because theres no way I’d have accomplished this otherwise. It would have been way too expensive. I did a lot of the book creating work myself.

Who is this book addressed to?

Vocal jazz musicians, students studying jazz (both vocalist and instrumentalists) and also jazz educators, program directors and institutions.

What is the first thing you say to anyone dreaming to become a jazz vocalist?

Dream the dream but get on and into the doing of it.

What is the single most important thing that you remember from your own formative years?

Work hard, stay focused. Connect with other positive, creative artists who are also good human beings. Give more back than you take. Stay true to yourself. Don’t waste your time with useless BS. Don’t be silent if something doesn’t feel right. Sometimes you can’t speak up loudly and tell the truth at the time, but you can walk away. Later, when you have support you can speak up. Be a brave warrior and follow your visions and dreams, but be careful how you go up. Don’t just be a user. You will also attract users. Be a caring human being. Look after your friends and they will look after you. When trouble hits, try to deal with it yourself BUT if things get really tough don’t be afraid to ask for help. Never give up. Don’t stay too long at the fair. Don’t forget where you came from but don’t be afraid to go where no one else has gone either.


How has your relocation to Melbourne been so far?

There have been some wonderful surprises. I’ve been welcomed with much warmth and generosity of spirit and I’ve found some really special, talented, beautiful musicians in the process. I hope they don’t all leave just as I’m settling in. They’ve kinda saved me from going down the well a few times (even though they don’t know it).

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

Maybe just silence and bird song right now. Working on this book and getting all those audio tracks done for 22 exercises kinda drains the ears. I’m sure that’s going to change once I get into the new year, but this hasn’t been much of a listening to music time. I loved listening in to Miriam Zolin’s ‘Table 19’ show on Radio Mansfield a few nights back. She played some really stunning music from mostly Sydney-based musicians whose music I hadn’t heard. It was another lovely surprise. More of them, I say, and less of the not so cool ones.

Chris Mc Nulty launches ‘Vocalist as Complete Musician’ at the Paris Cat on Thursday 7 December at 7 pm.

Purchase the book here.