This interview took place online on 134 August 2020 between City’s Head of the Department of Music, Dr Ian Pace, and BMus graduate Siân Dicker.
Ian Pace: I’d like to welcome Siân Dicker. Siân graduated from City in 2014 and went on to complete a Masters in vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, before heading into their world-renowned 2 year opera course. Siân has won various prizes since leaving City, including the Llangollen Eisteddfod International Voice of the Future, the Royal Overseas League singers prize and is currently an ambassador of song for Oxford Lieder 2020. She’s currently looking forward to singing in Garsington Opera’s semi-staged production of Beethoven’s Fidelio taking place in September.
Sian, great to see you again! You’ve gone on to do a lot of very impressive things since finishing at City. How much did you envisage in this respect during your time with us?
Siân Dicker: Morning Ian, and morning everyone! Great to be here thanks for inviting me to chat. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities since leaving City but they mostly stemmed from the connections I made whilst I was at City; most notably my singing teacher Marie Vassiliou who I studied with whilst at City and who is still my teacher now. I knew I wanted to be a singer when I was at City but I most certainly didn’t envisage that I would go on to study at Guildhall or embark on the career that I have. I often feel like it’s been a case of being in the right place at the right time, but the performance opportunities I had at City certainly set me on the right path and kick started those contacts and connections. Notably, Guildhall connections through Marie and others but also ensembles which shaped my singing experience whilst at City including the chamber choir, the opera ensemble which we ran as a student-led project for a while and also performance opportunities with yourself, Ian – wonderful memories of Charroux! I always hoped I would have the opportunity to make a career as a singer but realised nothing was ever certain, but these experiences gave me a huge boost in terms of confidence and putting myself and my name out there.
IP: How did you find what you were doing as a singer while at City related to the rest of the course?
SD: For me, my singing experiences and the modules I was taking became entirely integrated. Some of this was expected – I took 19th century opera, performance, Historical performance practice, Investigating Western Music and many other modules that were directly related to the music I was singing and they informed my approach and my relationship with that music, its text and its history. Other modules/ensembles I took also had a huge impact on my singing but in a way that I had never anticipated it expected, notably African Drumming and the musicianship aspect that came along with that – even though I was a viola player and had played in orchestras, rhythm and readying rhythm were aspects of my own musicianship that I had always struggled with. At some point in the first couple of terms doing African drumming, it all just clicked into place and I could suddenly read rhythms that would have thrown me completely beforehand. It has really opened up a whole new aspect of performance for me because I now have a thriving relationship with singing new music; something I would have completely avoided beforehand. It’s given me access to a whole genre I wouldn’t previously have felt able to approach with confidence.
IP: What were some of your primary musical interests before you started at City?
SD: Singing and opera of course, and I have always been a big Wagner fan – this continued to develop during my time at City and I had a great time writing my third year major project on the Act 3 love duet in Siegfried with supervision from Alexander Lingas!
But I also had some interest in music education and this was something that was really nurtured whilst I was at City. I took the Professional Studies module and did a work placement with a music education charity, Sound Connections. This relationship grew beyond my time at City and I worked for them before embarking upon my studies at Guildhall – I still have strong connections with the music education world (particularly with Live Music Now for whom I deliver interactive performances in care homes and SEND schools) and this absolutely started with the connection made through that module at City.
IP: Do you think musicians in general should have some involvement with educational work?
SD: I think it’s a great way to see a direct impact of the work you’re doing – you get to see in a much more immediate way how your work is benefitting others. For me it’s about feeling and reminding myself that my work and my singing isn’t for me – it’s easy to get stuck in a practice room and ask yourself who it is you’re actually benefitting by practicing scales and runs for hours on end! I feel like if you’re just an artist for your own personal enjoyment then that’s great, but if you want to create a career for yourself then it can often lead to a lot of self-criticism and doubt. Art and music are for sharing and educational output is one of the most rewarding ways to do that. Educational work also doesn’t have to mean 1-1 teaching – I’m terrible at that and am much more confident and comfortable leading a workshop and/or creating an interactive performance for people to share in!
On a practical level I think it’s rare these days that professional musicians have a career solely set in performance, it’s not sustainable and so being involved in education work is a great way to share your artistry, pay the bills and most importantly soak up those experiences and learn from those you’re working with.
IP: I remember your taking a big interest in various philosophical writings from the nineteenth century, including Schopenhauer, some of Wagner’s writings, and so on. Do these remain an interest, or other musicological matters?
SD: Absolutely! Philosophical writings from Schopenhauer and Wagner’s relationship to those had a huge impact on my approach to his music, both as a listener and a performer. Last year I actually performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and explored a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ approach through song (of course Wagner’s thoughts on this were centred around opera). I engaged an actor, a visual artist and a gallery space and we created a piece where we all (myself a pianist included) created a piece in response to Wagner’s music and also letters he wrote to Mathilde Wesendock. The primary focus and drive behind this was to create a more accessible performance of the music and make it easier to share with a more diverse audience. Wagner’s music can often appear difficult to engage with and so we used his own concepts and ideas with cross-arts collaboration to try and create a more inclusive space to share his work. I’d love to do this again soon!
IP: Obviously, as a prodigious performer, you could have chosen to go to university or to conservatoire. What made you opt for the former?
SD: As a young singer with a bigger voice, I needed more time to develop vocally and technically, university provided me with the opportunity to develop not only as a singer but as a full rounded musician and musicologist . The opportunity to dip your toe into the world of musicology is an experience that is unique to studying music at university. The opportunity to study a diverse range of modules alongside of performance studies appealed to me greatly and wouldn’t have been as readily available if I had studied my undergraduate at a conservatoire. Exploring a culturally diverse range of music and modules has had a lasting impact on me as a performer and leaving with a degree from university has opened doors for me, not only in the performance world but other sectors also. This was important to me when I was applying to study.
IP: Could you give me any further examples of anything you have sung for which your musicological training impacted upon you sang it?
SD: I mentioned how I very much took a musicological approach in my performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder last year. So I suppose that’s the most specific example, but I always do musicological research around any music (especially opera) that I’m approaching and particularly enjoy educating myself on the relationships between composers, librettists and their lives at that time. This can only ever enhance your understanding of the character you’re playing.
IP: What would you advise to young people thinking of pursuing music in higher education?
SD: I think my main price of advice would be to push yourself to explore genres and areas of music that are out of your comfort zone and that you might not have previously considered. They could have a huge impact on how you approach your own work and for me personally that’s one of the things I gained most at City. It was unexpected but pushing myself to explore the diverse range of options available at City had a huge impact on myself as an artist and my professional development when leaving university.
IP: Sian, thanks so much for doing this interview. Would you share some links for those who want to hear you perform?
SD: Thanks for having me! Can’t recommend City highly enough and am very proud to be an alumna. You can find all info and links to some performances on my website:
Thanks Ian, it’s been great to reconnect!