In this first of a series of articles on vocal health, I talk to Shannon Torrence, a successful and talented voice actor who has recently struggled with vocal issues.
JMC: Tell us about how you got started in voiceover.
Shannon: After college I was living in Orange County with my parents, with no career plan. I was working at a shipping supplies company as a customer service representative doing the, “Office Space” thing. My coworkers seemed to enjoy my impersonations of the customers I’d take calls from but other than that, I wasn’t doing any performing. One day I was in the break room breaking open my office lunch bag when I happened to notice an ad in the paper for voiceover classes. I didn’t even consider that voiceover was a real profession I could get into and get paid to do it, but I thought acting classes would be a fun diversion from the monotony of my clock-in, clock-out existence. I got home that afternoon and my mom said to me, “I cut out this ad from the paper today and thought you might be interested.” BIG REVEAL: It was THE SAME ad I had taken home from work with me. My dad was kind enough to offer to pay for classes as a sort of grad school equivalent, and told me he’d always thought I should be a clown, and I began studying at Del Mar Media Arts in Irvine, found out I had a natural knack for it, eventually moved up to LA, met MJ Lallo who offered to manage me, and an agent followed.
JMC: What did your career look like before you started having vocal health issues?
Shannon: Before I started having vocal issues, I was literally living my dream. I had always said I wanted a job I didn’t HAVE to go to, felt I wasn’t really good at much other than communicating and connecting with people and wasn’t sure how that would translate to making a living. I’d worked for many years in offices as a low level assistant, bored out of my skull and feeling unfulfilled. I’d also worked in catering, as a babysitter, in commercial casting and many other odd jobs that were fun but I was struggling to pay my bills. More importantly I just KNEW I had more to offer but for years I’d given up on the idea of making a living JUST from acting so I took a lot of “safety” jobs and I’d become stressed out and exhausted. When adrenal fatigue finally set in, I decided to give up my day job in casting and pursue VO again on my own, with only a couple of regional agents, using casting sites. I drove for Uber for 2 weeks before I didn’t need to anymore, and then the bookings just started coming in. I was so busy I had to invest in a proper home studio and equipment and before you know it, I was excited to wake up in the morning to go to “work”. I was doing everything from business narration to commercials to video games and every day was fun and new and different. I was suddenly no longer lacking for income and the anxiety lifted. I was happier than I’d ever been in my life, and a total workaholic.
JMC: Can you describe how you first knew there was a problem?
Shannon: I first started noticing that I was frying or graveling out at the ends of sentences, or when trying to land the brand name or website address. A client once asked if I could stop, “growling”. I was working 8-9 hours a day, auditioning nonstop and doing recording sessions every day, with very few breaks, and was still transitioning out of working late nights at a music club as a booker, talking over noise for hours. Having come from a place of lack, I was just so intent on keeping the work flowing, I wasn’t thinking about vocal health. My voice started to feel really strained and tired but I pushed through it. I started having postnasal drip a lot, and there was a lot of throat clearing and frustration. I went to Amy Chapman, a wonderful voice therapist in LA, and she taught me some vocal exercises and told me to use a standing desk and I noticed improvement and I thought, “There. All better now.” But I didn’t stay diligent about the daily exercises and had so little knowledge of what was happening in my throat and vocal cords, I just kept pushing. One day after having dinner in a very loud restaurant where I had to shout to speak with my friend, I woke up and my voice was so tight I could hardly speak. It wasn’t like laryngitis; it was as if my throat was in a vice and I couldn’t squeeze the words out. I went to an ENT, was told I had some reflux, told to take TUMS and I’d be good to go. Things got worse. Then I was told I had allergies and was given allergy medication. Found out I did not actually have allergies. I was given cortisone for my swollen vocal cords. Eventually I couldn’t speak without sounding extremely hoarse, breathy and constricted and I’d lost so much range I couldn’t do any intense or passionate or soft and contemplative reads at all.
JMC: Tell us about how your condition progressed, and where you are today.
Shannon: I am beyond grateful that by continuing to treat my chronic reflux and staying on top of it and being strict with my diet and lifestyle choices, I am finally back to work again. I still do have reflux every day. Some days I have hoarseness or difficulty in my lower range, but I am able work through it using vocal techniques and sometimes simply resting and coming back to it later. Voicing is never as easy and fluid as it used to be, and that’s frustrating, but I’m actually learning to work with my new rasp and embrace it and my clients have been happy with my work. I do vocal exercises every day, eat a lowfat mostly vegetarian diet, refrain from eating 3-4 hours before bed, sleep on a wedge pillow and take PPIs daily.
JMC: How has it impacted your voiceover business, and what lessons have you learned?
Shannon: While this was a traumatic, upsetting experience and a long, difficult road, it has actually brought me to a much better place. I was working WAY too many hours and on weekends. Voiceover was actually an addiction for me. A football player can’t just run out on the field and play football 24/7 without risking serious injury. A dancer can’t dance every day all day without repetitive use injuries. We are vocal athletes, and rest is JUST as important as doing the work. I have found the balance. I now do 5-10 auditions a day as opposed to 40 and focus on quality, not quantity. This leads to 1 job a day rather than 3-4, but that’s OK with me now. I now also work as a part time babysitter and I LOVE the kids I work with and find that work SO fulfilling. I’ve learned that I don’t have to bang out every job RIGHT NOW, that a client is perfectly happy to wait. I used to treat auditions like a Whack-A-Mole game. I had to do them ALLLL or I’d have FOMO (fear of missing out), wondering if I missed a single one, if THAT would have been the job that was supposed to be mine. Now I truly believe that the jobs that are right for you will come to you, one way or another, and I relax into that faith and let it be. I only do the auditions that I know I can really rock and that pay the fairest rates and a lot of my work comes directly from repeat clients whether I audition or not. The amazing coach Dave Walsh helped me to re-learn how I read copy. He taught me to really lock in to my own authentic voice and sound, rather than sounding the way I think the voice of the spot SHOULD sound. And so in a way, having reflux related vocal cord dysfunction has been a helper–it FORCES me to speak in my natural range and style because if I don’t, my voice WILL crack and fry. It helps me stay in my lane and I’ve learned that not every job is for me and my type, and that’s OK. It’s not worth manipulating my voice to try to sound older or more futuristic or more commanding and causing vocal strain when there are so many jobs I’m perfect for that I can do breezily. I have such a great appreciation now every time I step into the booth and record. I understand how my voice works, how reflux affects my voice, which exercises help keep my vocal cords limber, and how important rest and self care is. I’m really excited to be back in the game and am enjoying being more selective about the jobs I go after. I’m saving my voice for what’s really important … communicating with and being present for family, friends and for life both in the booth and outside of it!