Voice Training for Transgendered Singers: Once Upon A Time...
It's a whole new world, isn't it? And one of the big changes in the world of voice training is the adjustment to our thinking about voice types and labels! Like a lot of voice teachers, I consider myself to be a learner when it comes to the relatively new area of understanding how best to help transgendered singers along in their vocal journey.
I admit, with a little bit of regret, that I had an opportunity to learn and grow in this area quite a few years ago, when I was teaching Vocal Music in a high school. One of my classroom students was a person who was hoping to transition to female, but who already identified quite strongly as female. They had come to my school from a Catholic school, hoping for more understanding and acceptance from staff and students.This person had a lot of struggles in their personal life and was still in the throes of the adolescent sway between mature thinking and highly emotional teen naiveté. The student had a high, light head voice that was unreliable, typical of a tenor whose sound has not yet changed to either a more mature tenor or perhaps high baritone voice.
The student insisted that they were a soprano, and they wanted to sing primarily Disney princess repertoire. You know---"A Whole New World" and so on. In typical voice teacher fashion, I tried (very respectfully, of course!) to convince them that they were not soprano, because that voice type label belonged only to biologically female voices or to male voices before pubertal changes. I tried to get the student to accept the label of tenor or countertenor, despite their desperate assertion that they were soprano. When I think back now to that moment, I feel such a pang of regret and shame.
Why? Why do I feel shame about that moment? I was legitimately identifying what centuries of voice experts before me had also agreed on. I was kind. I was trying to be respectful and gentle. I was the expert, and this young teen had no training or knowledge in vocal technique and pedagogy. How could a 16-year-old male be a soprano? Or expect to sing Ariel and Belle?
Turns out my expertise was sorely under informed, in this case! The scholarly articles that have come out in the Journal of Singing since that time have illuminated the gaps in my understanding of how to train and classify voices of transgendered people. I suspect many voice teachers are experiencing this same learning now, too, as we all live in an increasingly gender- and sexuality-fluid society. I will write about specifics in this area of work in a later blog. For now, I am focussed on the emotion I still feel about that experience, all those years ago.
I dearly wish that I could speak to that person again. I would apologize to them for not finding a way to validate their beliefs in their voice type. I would say "I'm sorry for being so stuck in my training that I didn't go searching for answers from voice experts who might have known more than I did about transgendered singers at that time." I really hope that that person went on to find some peace and joy, after the struggles they faced in high school and in life. I hope that they don't remember me with anger, as the stubborn old teacher who just didn't get it, like so many other people around them at that time. I'm hoping that they forgive my bumbling attempt to train their voice as the efforts of someone who cared, but who didn't yet have the tools and information to give them what they needed. I did care then, and I do care now! I look forward to getting another chance to do a better job, when my next trans student comes along!
NEXT TIME: Looking at the latest research and thinking coming from voice experts on the unique aspects of physiology, tessitura, voice type labels, and repertoire for the transgendered singer!