“Music was always in my DNA,” says Kathleen Riggs. Growing up, music constantly surrounded her. Raised in Hollywood with her six siblings, it wasn’t uncommon for her to see Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or Barbara Streisand passing through her house.
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“I was exposed to music by the time I was in my mom’s womb,” laughs Riggs, now an accomplished vocal coach. When she was around 8 years old, she was already singing show tunes at the piano with her mother, who was also an opera singer, then sat to observe her father at work in his studio, coaching some of the music’s most legendary artists.
Admittedly shy about her father’s profession when she was younger, Riggs says she never wanted to bring attention to herself because of his job. “I would see Michael Jackson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Boyz II Men, and the Backstreet Boys come in and take lessons—everyone from professionals to beginners, country singers, and artists who sang in different languages,” says Riggs. “I saw all these different genres of music constantly, because it was in my household.”
A pivotal moment came when Riggs was a teenager working in a chocolate store, and her father came in and told her she needed to stop scooping ice cream because she had a natural gift for teaching. “He said ‘why don’t you sit with me and start taking notes, and we’ll get you to start teaching,’” says Riggs. “So while all of my friends were going from high school to college, that’s what I chose to do.”
Her mother’s death was another major turning point for Riggs, who was 16 at the time. “I think my dad was trying to steer me in the right direction,” she says. “It was the most traumatic experience of my life, so my dad was getting new students and trying to push me into using what came naturally to me.”
Riggs adds, “Teaching saved my life. I believe traumatic events in our lives are there as jump off points. What are we going to do with the trauma and the pain? Are we going to work with it and move forward or let it stop us?”
Never realizing her destiny at the time, Riggs says she only knew she was in love with singing. Mastering her father’s vocal technique—used by artists like Prince, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Madonna, Michael Bolton, Julio Iglesias, Luther Vandross, and Josh Groban—Riggs began coaching as a teen and has worked with artists across all genres, including Brian Wilson, Ozzy Osbourne, Dua Lipa, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening, and Madison Beer, in addition to producers like Quincy Jones, Linda Perry, Scooter Braun, and Dianne Warren, for more than 20 years.
Jumping into the coaching world, Riggs, who prefers to go by Katie these days, remembers her first client who initially came in expecting to work with her father. “That was my biggest learning curve, being so young and feeling like nobody was going to take me seriously,” shares Riggs.
She took what she learned from her father, diagnosing her client’s voice and helping him shift from low to high without breaking or straining. “I was able to do that quickly, and he immediately started to feel the change in his voice,” says Riggs. “I think that’s also what’s great about this technique. It doesn’t take years and years.”
The Riggs technique doesn’t discriminate by genre and can be applied to any vocal style. “If you’re singing opera, you can use this technique,” says Riggs. “If you’re singing country, pop or whatever, you can use it.”
The challenges most singers have, says Riggs, is shifting from where they speak, or the chest voice, into the head voice without a break. “My job is to eliminate any breaks, so when someone comes in, they want to sing down low because this is where we talk all day long, and if we spoke up in our head, the hard part is getting to those lower notes.”
The secret is finding the middle of the voice. “It’s actually a secret weapon once you start to learn how to navigate from low to high,” says Riggs. “The biggest setback of singers and touring musicians is that their voices grow tired over time. Depending on their technique, it’s exhausted, but if you know how to navigate the middle, then you don’t get as exhausted because you’re not pushing as much.”
Most singers also have more bad habits and not enough good habits, which is often detrimental over time, particularly since the voice can start to deteriorate by the age of 35 if its not exercised properly. “I try to uncover what’s holding them back and work out how to get back into their register without pushing,” says Riggs. “Everybody’s voice changes the older they get, so if you’re not in constant good habits, your voice will go downhill.”
Working with actors and singers in different genres, Riggs says she often gets to tap into a side of them that’s rarely visible to the public. “Some artists in the limelight carry this pressure to show up and look a certain way, sound a certain way and be cool,” says Riggs. “When I get into the studio with them, I get to see their vulnerable side, because I’m dealing with their instruments. There’s just this sensitivity and vulnerability that I get to witness.”
Continuing to train even throughout the pandemic, Riggs has moved her sessions to Skype and Zoom since March of 2020. While Riggs misses the in-person “magic” in the studio, training remotely hasn’t impacted the quality of her work.
“It works, because people don’t have to deal with things like traffic and different appointments,” say Riggs. “They can literally call in from a different city in the U.S. or abroad, and there’s a certain comfort level. I do miss that in-person connection, but you don’t need to be in person for a training. It’s an exercise. We can exercise at home, at the gym, or over Zoom, but it’s still an exercise and the vocals are a muscle.”
Moving ahead, Riggs has started to collaborate with various music institutions, recently linking up with The Songwriting School in Los Angeles for a four-week intensive singing course, and is exploring MasterClass and other teaching opportunities.
“I feel like I’ve always been hiding, and at this point I don’t want to hide anymore,” says Riggs. “I want to do more and go to more places.”
Now two decades into her craft, Riggs says her work is still so fulfilling. “It never gets old, because you’re meeting people with different minds all the time, and there’s this friendship that happens between the minds,” says Riggs. “When you see the person’s eyes open, and they can feel what you’re talking about in a matter of minutes, it’s magical. There’s nothing worse, as a singer, wanting to express what’s in your heart and not being able to get it out of your mouth. You don’t want to feel trapped by your instrument.”
Reflecting on her destiny, Riggs says, “I didn’t know it was my destiny, but now 20 years later, I’m pretty sure it always was.”