Shannon Dyer is a vocalist who has performed across classical, sacred, folk, and musical theater genres. She has won vocal competitions, served as a church canter, and has performed professionally with chamber ensembles in New York City. I interviewed her about her experiences and vocal technique.
SM: Describe your background, training, and career
My background is highly classical. From the time I was eleven, I was trained classically. One of my majors in college was vocal performance with an emphasis in classical.
However I don’t really like a lot of the classical vocal pieces. They’re definitely challenging and useful for expanding range and making sure diction is good. I’ve taken the classical technique as much as it can be used to sing different genres of music. I sing a mixture of pop, folk,, and musical theater. I tend to shy away from fully classical performances. I did perform full-time for nine months with a full ensemble in New York City. That’s where we got into a lot of the German opera and Italian arias. There were things I really enjoyed about that, but it also taught me that I wouldn’t do well as a full-time classical musician. I prefer different genres of music.
SM: One of the things I noticed when I accompanied you once was the connection between your technical command of the voice and the emotional response of the audience.
I’ve been taught that there is a lot to be accomplished by knowing the technical art of singing. But I’ve also been taught that there is an equal important to channeling your emotions into your singing without losing the technical stuff. It’s an interesting mix–how do I sing this in a way that portrays a certain emotion? People that sing just by emotion tend to lose pitch a lot of times. Sometimes they’re voices will sound strange with cracking and sliding around. You can only sing that way for so long before you’re going to have vocal issues, and I think your overall performance will suffer.
If I sing a song technically as it is written, it lacks a lot of emotion. This is what I do when I sing classical pieces that I don’t like. I’ve been told by judges in competitions that I have command of technique, but in some pieces I lack emotion. I think there has to be a mix of the two if possible. Not everyone has the opportunity for training like I have had, but if you can get a little bit of training, I think it is very helpful. How to breathe, how to make vowel sounds. Sometimes I hear someone sing an “e” vowel, and it comes across so bright.
I tend not to burst into song. I’ll know I am going to sing later in the day, so I will warm up and be careful what I eat. I tend to be careful what I do with my voice. There are times I’ll have a song in my head, and I’ll hum it. But no, I don’t walk around the house singing in full voice. I can do a lot of damage to my voice that way.
Because of a medical problem I had a tube in my throat for a while. When the tube was taken away, it stripped away part of what protects my vocal chords. My vocal cords have been very susceptible to damage for the past eleven years. Things that are very acidic, like orange juice, I cannot have. I can feel it burn in my throat.
After I realized there was damage, there was the thought that I might not sing again. I had to see what kind of voice I had left. The pretube voice was very clear, a crystalline first soprano that could hit the top note of the piano. I don’t have that anymore. I have a slightly less clear tone. It lacks some of the crystalline quality. It’s not quite as soaring as it was. That makes classical stuff harder for me.
What I’ve come to appreciate is the richness and ability to use my voice to tell stories in the middle and lower range. I was a first soprano, and my place was way up high all the time. I’ve learned to cultivate the rich tone that can be found in the lower register. At first I was upset that I couldn’t hit the top note of the piano. Not that there’s any real need to do that. I can’t tell you a piece that requires you to sing that note. I have a wider range now because I have cultivated that lower range. Some of the higher range has come back, but I have had to acknowledge that my voice would not be the way it was before.
I’ve been very lucky to work with one teacher over all these twenty years, who has brought me back from the place where I couldn’t sing. As I’ve moved around the country we have adapted the way I am taught. I wouldn’t recommend this to people who haven’t had a lot of training, but we do a lot of Skype and phone.
SM: I do see people offering a lot of Internet lessons over Skype. For you this works because you’ve worked with one teacher for many years. You’re very familiar with each other.
She knows me, and if I sound a certain way she can ask me, are you doing such and such? She’ll say, “I don’t think your mouth is open very wide. If you open your mouth more … ” If you could do a video class to learn guitar or piano, I don’t know if that would be so bad. But for voice, there is something to be gained being in the same space with your teacher.
SM: It would have to be a very good connection and microphone for the teacher to really hear the voice.
There is one phone I have found over the years for my lessons, and that is the only one. I have to take very good care of it. I think it has something to do with analog versus digital. Digital phones don’t like singing and piano.
SM: Do you have a strict or regimented routine, or is it more spontaneous for practicing?
It depends on what I’m doing. Through high school and undergrad, I had a very strict way of practicing. As a voice major, you’re supposed to do that. I thought about getting a master in voice, but I realized I could either be a vocalist or a person. All through college I was a vocalist more than anything else. That regimented routine stifles everything else. I had no time for anything other than music. I would go to class and then spend 3 or 4 hours a day in a practice room. When you’re in a tiny, soundproof room with nothing there, you have recordings and you just sing and sing. You have no time for anything else. Once I graduated, I realized that I needed to come out of that and pursue something else as a career.
I think that it is always important to practice, and it took a long time for me to get my voice back, so I think it’s important that my voice gets a lot of care. I’m not as regimented as far as practicing four hours a day, but I do care for my voice. I don’t scream and yell, because that is unnecessary and damaging. I can feel a pull in my voice if I do something in an unnatural way.
SM: You take care of your voice, but you don’t have to keep that form all the time.
For a classical vocalist, there’s a certain level o commitment you have to have. Otherwise you’re not as marketable, and there’s someone who has more commitment. You end up losing opportunities because maybe you didn’t practice as much and the opportunity went to someone else. There’s that very competitive quality to classical performing that requires you to choose–am I a vocalist or a person? I enjoy other things but I can’t do them if I worry about practicing and auditioning and who might be better.
SM: Do you have any advice to give for someone who admires your music and wants to be a musician?
I would say, look for training if you can find it. Even if it’s something you do for just a year, look for someone who will train you in at least the foundations of healthy singing. We see classical and opera singers who sing into their sixties with beautiful voices. But we see pop singers and rock stars who sing for eight or ten years, and you can tell a difference in their voices.
Take good care of your voice. If a string breaks on an instrument, it can be repaired. Be kind to your voice as an instrument, because it cannot be repaired so easily.
Pick a kind of music you identify with. A classical foundation is good, but I think we also need to pick things we identify with. My voice teacher tells me I live in the haunting ballad, I live in a very narrative style. I think that’s true. Musical theater and folk convey a story or situation. Find something you like, that style that appeals to you and suits your voice. I think it’s funny when someone tries to sing country and pretends to have a southern accent. I find that highly ridiculous. Find something that pleases you and suits your voice.
When I sang opera, everything I sang sounded like opera. When I would spend time with my voice teacher, we would sing folk stuff, and it would sound like opera. I would sing “The Water Is Wide” as opera. Find things that feel very home-like to your voice and your heart. When you do things that pretend to be southern or British when you’re not, I’m not sure how that works. Find a place where you’re comfortable.
I don’t think it’s necessary to sing like anybody but myself. That takes a lot of self-confidence, that you can sing like yourself.
SM: Do you improvise when you’re not singing classical or operatic stuff?
Always. I think I told you when you accompanied me that you might not like the way I sing. Maybe it’s easier for a guitar. Pianists have complained that I don’t sing the same way all the time.
I tend to experiment with rhythms, phrasing, timing, and breathing. I find that phrasing is a really neat way to convey emotions. How much can I do that before I have changed the actual composition of the piece. It makes me challenging for some people to play for because you can’t read sheet music and know that’s exactly what I’m going to sing. Part of that is because I don’t read sheet music, I never have. Most of the time there’s something about the way it’s written that doesn’t work for me.
I think it makes things more difficult because I can’t tell you day by day how I will sing things. In competitions I’ve been told I can get away with it more than others because some of it is subtle enough that it doesn’t really change the composition of the song. Others tend to improvise and suddenly they’re not singing that song anymore.
If you’re going to totally leave that, then you need to work out a different arrangement. I have learned that improvisation is something I do well and I like. But coming from a classical background, I have an appreciation for how something is written. And in choral singing I can’t do that. People notice that it was written this way and you changed it, which comes through as me not knowing my piece. Whereas in folk or musical theater you tend to do those things, but in classical it’s seen as a sloppy way to perform.
I think that musical theater and folk are the two genres that allow you to tell a story. That’s where I tend to stay when I put things together to sing.