Vocal and Gender Identity in the Choral Setting
Awareness of our students’ gender identity and potential issues originating in traditional choral settings are a current concern for many choral directors. In a past Choral Journal article, Jane Ramseyer Miller addresses the topic of Creating Choirs that Welcome Transgender Singers. Jane articulates many issues around this reality for choral professionals. She provides helpful examples of singers in vocal transitions and their ongoing vocal development. Her article inspired me to consider how I can better serve my students.
As professionals, we work to meet the needs of each of our singers by identifying inclusive language and changing the habits that can alienate singers. MMEA has recently voted to ratify the names of the Minnesota All-State Choirs to match the Minnesota ACDA Honor Choirs. The 2018 Central-North Central ACDA Conference will feature four honor choirs – two of which are named “Changed/Changing” and “Treble”. Professional conversations throughout choral music education are focused on the semantics of being inclusive. Are we truly asking the right questions and getting to the heart of the issues related to our singers’ vocal development and quality experience? Are we truly aware of the needs of our students? Do we know enough about the physiology of the voice and proper pedagogical techniques to help facilitate their vocal development and success in choir?
In an effort to honor the student voice(s) and continue my journey of knowledge and understanding, I want to introduce you to two current and one former student.
Jamie identifies as transgender and started his physical transition through testosterone treatments in August of 2016. Jamie is an alto by vocal range and currently sings in and is President of the Women’s Choir.
Lily identifies as genderfluid and is a low alto/high tenor in terms of range. Lily was in the Women’s Choir last year because that is where she personally identified but she was unable to sing the majority of repertoire throughout the year because of range limitations. Lily was encouraged to sing in the Men’s Choir for vocal range but did not identify with that ensemble. Lily currently sings tenor in the Concert Choir.
Amber sang in the Varsity Women’s Choir with Lily last year. Amber has had a testosterone imbalance her entire life. She identifies female but vocally presents as a low tenor/baritone. Amber was encouraged to sing in the Men’s Choir for vocal range but did not identify with that ensemble. Amber has since moved out of state. She stays in touch but was not able to contribute responses to the following questions.
Although their personal journeys and testimonies are different, they share common thoughts about singing in choir.
What are the challenges that you face in choir?
Jamie — misgendering, difficulties with breaks in voice, good and bad voice days, and fluctuations in voice.
Lily — fitting in, not identifying with the gender of the tenor section, just getting to know new kids and being accepted.
As a lifelong singer, what are your thoughts or concerns about your voice throughout this process of change?
Jamie — I’m afraid of losing my range and my voice becoming scratchy and hard to sing with and losing my vibrato/voice quality that I’ve worked very hard for.
Lily — None really. It is what it is.
Discuss your voice and the importance of self-identity as it relates to vocal quality.
Jamie — My singing voice is very important to me, and just because I am an alto (mezzo-soprano range) doesn’t change the fact that it is my voice, and therefore is a boy’s voice. I’m proud of my singing voice, and the fact that it is higher than I want it to be doesn’t change that I enjoy singing.
Lily — I have always had a lower voice. I started singing in choir in 8th grade. I was always an alto. Now I am finally seated in the tenor section.
What makes singing in choir difficult?
Jamie — My voice fluctuates a lot and sometimes is scratchy and hard to work with. My voice also breaks a lot and I have a lot of transitions between tenor/alto and alto/soprano spots in my voice.
Lily — Seating based on gender.
What are the positive elements of singing in choir for you?
Jamie — Everyone in choir is very accepting of me and I’ve made a lot of good friends through choir. It is one of my favorite things to bond over. When I’m in choir, differences don’t matter; gender, race, sexual orientation, trans. Everyone comes together and sings and that’s what really matters.
Lily — I have made new friends in choir that I would not have had. I like to sing and explore voice. I am discovering the possibilities of my voice.
What do you most want [your director] to know or consider?
Jamie — I never plan to stop singing to the best of my ability and I want to make the best of the rest of my years in high school in choir, and to make a change in the choir program; to let trans kids know it is possible to sing no matter what. There are good days and bad days, but in the end, choir will always be worth it.
Lily — Nothing. I don’t want any extra attention. I want to fit in with all others, male and female regardless of what section I sing in.
This was my simple attempt at getting to know my students and learning about their struggles and triumphs. Their words may or may not have provided you with new information, but the point is that we need to stop and take time to ask questions. These two students have been abundantly patient, understanding, and gracious as we work through these years together. They are fundamentally committed to singing and authentically interested in their personal vocal development. They are amazing young people.
Referring to the article by Jane Ramseyer Miller and drawing conclusions from my students’ statements this begins a list of considerations for us:
- Listen to [their] voice and help [them] to sing in a range that is healthy
- All singers should feel safe and welcome
- In a new setting, ask singers their preferred pronoun if present with an ambiguous gender
- Regularly track a singer who is undergoing testosterone treatment
- Invite all singers to audition for any solo that fits their vocal range
- Inquire about their medical transition if applicable
- Assign sections based upon range and vocal color rather than gender
- Use gender neutral language in rehearsal and insist that all follow this expectation
- Refer to singers by their voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) rather than genders
- Use “people”, “folks”, “friends”, or “everyone” when referring to the choir as a whole
- Examine requirements mandating gender-specific concert attire
- Consider black pants for all singers
- Reconsider the names of your ensembles to match the identity of the ensemble
- Consider logistics related to tour/travel/housing for GLBTQ students and all members of the ensemble
How do you respond when a transgender singer identifies male, has a treble vocal range, and wants to sing in the men’s choir? When a singer identifies as female, has a solidly tenor vocal range, and wants to sing in the women’s choir? How does the name of the choir impact the sense of belonging of the singer when they do not identify with the majority? If our primary responsibility is the vocal development of our singers, how do we respond to these kinds of questions? How are we increasing our knowledge and understanding to better serve all of our students?
This article is not intended to provide answers but to merely spark and encourage more meaningful conversations. I am grateful for these students with whom I work. They have fully and patiently supported me in trying to expand my understanding and maintain a “choir home” for each and every singer in our program. Our working together has made me aware of how much I don’t know. I still don’t fully know what I don’t know, but I sure am trying. Real progress can be made if we open our minds and hearts to explore the reality of our students’ journey so that we may provide the tools and setting to enable all to successfully experience making music.
Creating Choirs that Welcome Transgender Singers
Jane Ramseyer Miller
Choral Journal, Volume 57, Number 4