A Transgender Voice Teacher’s Recommendations for Working with Transgender Singers
By Eli Conley
I’ve talked to many voice teachers in recent years who are seeking guidance about how to work with transgender and non-binary singers.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I’m a private voice teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a transgender man who has worked with many transgender and non-binary voice students. I also lead community singing classes for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual people and allies. I’ve sung in many choirs, and taken voice lessons from some wonderful teachers. I’m also a performing singer-songwriter who records and tours regularly.
All of these experiences have led me to believe that voice teachers, choir directors, and other voice professionals can do a lot to shift the culture of singing spaces, transforming them from spaces that are often unintentionally hostile to transgender and non-binary singers into spaces of support and gender liberation.
I was inspired to write this article after a discussion about working with transgender singers came up on an online listserv for teachers trained in Somatic Voicework™, the body-based voice training program created by Jeanie LoVetri.
One of the things I love about Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method is that Jeanie LoVetri teaches that to achieve a healthy, versatile voice, singers of all genders and genres of music must strengthen both their head and chest registers, and learn to blend them together into a coordinated mix in the middle voice. Watching her teach a cisgender baritone to access his head register for the first time in order to make his whole voice stronger made so much sense to me as a transgender singer. I had to burst open the gender boxes that people placed on me as a young person, and I know the emotional and vocal freedom that has come from that. Why should singers let gender expectations hold them back from using the full range of their voices?
The world in general, and of vocal music in particular, is often deeply invested in a binary, either/or concept of gender. Yet we probably all know male countertenors, female tenors, and people who enjoy singing repertoire that is not traditionally considered “appropriate” for their gendered voice part who challenge this either/or thinking. So with my students I begin by emphasizing the idea that “low voice = masculine = male,” and “high voice = feminine = female” is a cultural construction. These assumed equivalences are in no way innately true. Making singing spaces more liberatory and welcoming to trans and non-binary people requires voice professionals to challenge these sorts of commonly held assumptions.
Here are some concrete suggestions for voice teachers, choral directors, and other voice professionals concerning everything from how voice parts are assigned to how choirs’ dress codes are defined and presented. I draw from on my own experiences, as well as interviews that I conducted with a number of transgender and non-binary singers and teachers. The names of my interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.
First I’d like to share some definitions, and help clear up some common misperceptions about transgender and non-binary people.
First, Know This: The Basics
Gender non-conforming people have always existed in every culture, though the words we use to describe ourselves have changed over time. The word most in use today is transgender.
Transgender is an umbrella term for people who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth based on their genitalia. Cisgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity is the same as the one they were assigned at birth. For example, if your parents announced “it’s a girl” when you were born and you identify as a woman, you are a cisgender woman.
The term transgender includes transgender men like me and Chaz Bono – men who were assigned female at birth. It also includes transgender women like Laverne Cox and Laura Jane Grace – women who were assigned male at birth.
Within the community, the word transgender is often shortened to trans. Whether in the short or long form, the word is an adjective. So you could say someone is a transgender woman or a trans woman. It is incorrect to describe someone as a trans-woman, transwoman, or a trangendered woman.
There are also many people whose gender identities fall outside of the traditional man/woman binary. Non-binary people might experience their gender as encompassing aspects of both maleness and femaleness, or they might identify as a separate gender entirely. Words they might use to describe their gender identity include non-binary, genderqueer, two spirit, gender neutral, agender, bigender, stud, butch, femme, transfeminine, or transmasculine. Many non-binary people go by gender neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze.” Some non-binary people identify as transgender, and some do not.
Transition refers to the time in a transgender or non-binary person’s life when they shift the way they present their gender to the world. The social aspects of transition often include changing your name, asking friends and family to refer to you by a different gender pronoun (like “she” instead of “he”), and changing the clothes you wear.
Often, cisgender people place far too much emphasis on trans and non-binary people’s bodies. The focus should be on respecting our gender identities, and seeing us in the way we wish to be seen, regardless of our physical state; however, I am including a bit of information here about bodies, because it relates to the voice, therefore is relevant for voice professionals.
Physical transition means undergoing medical procedures to bring the body more in line with the person’s gender identity. This can include hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis for hair removal, and/or gender-affirming surgeries.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as an all-encompassing “sex change surgery.” In fact, transition is not necessarily a linear process of “before” and “after,” but rather a period of change. Transgender or non-binary people choose what, if any, physical changes are right for them.
It’s important to note that there are many transgender and non-binary people who don’t pursue physical transition at all. The reasons for this are as varied as are transgender and non-binary people. Many of us simply have no desire to alter our bodies. Our gender identities are no less real or valid if this is our path.
Physical transition can also be prohibitively expensive. Many insurance companies do not currently deem hormone therapy and medical procedures associated with transition “medically necessary,” so many plans do not cover them. Thankfully this is changing due to the work of transgender and non-binary activists and our allies! Still, many people who are interested in physical transition unfortunately cannot afford it because it is not covered by their insurance.
In addition, transgender and non-binary people often face employment and medical discrimination, making it even more difficult to access the healthcare we need. This is especially true of people who live at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, including transgender women, low-income trans people, trans people of color, trans immigrants, trans youth, and trans people with disabilities.
If you work with kids and teens, it can be helpful to know that many young trans people transition socially (changing names and pronouns, for instance) long before they make any decisions about physical transition. This may be because they and their parents want more time to make sure physical transition is right for them. It can also be due to a lack of parental or physician support. Increasingly, pre-adolescent trans people are using puberty blocking hormones so they can wait to pursue hormonal transition without going through puberty in the meantime.
Suggestions for All Voice Professionals
First and most important, listen to your transgender and non-binary students. Honor their gender identities, see them as they wish to be seen, and be open to learning. Transgender and non-binary people are a part of the beautiful diversity of humankind. If we challenge your ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman, feminine or masculine, neither or both, that’s good! Rather than asking us to change to make you more comfortable, I encourage you to open up your ideas to create space for us instead.
Educate yourself about transgender and non-binary issues. There are many books and websites out there to help you become more familiar with our community, and learn how to be our ally. I recommend a couple of great places to start in the notes at the end of this article.
Make sure you always use the correct names and pronouns for your singers. If you aren’t sure what name or pronouns someone prefers, it’s fine to ask. Doing this shows that you respect them, and see them in the way they wish to be seen. If you mess up, don’t make it a big deal – apologize and move on. Make an extra effort to make sure you get it right the next time.
Refer to voice parts by name, rather than saying “men” when you mean tenors and basses, and “women” when you mean altos and sopranos. This is something that every single transgender and non-binary singer I interviewed emphasized as an important way to help them feel seen and welcomed in singing spaces. In my group singing classes, I refer to baritones and basses as “low voices,” tenors and altos as “middle voices” and sopranos and mezzos as “high voices.” I introduce this concept at the beginning of each class I teach. I emphasize that someone’s voice part is independent of that person’s gender, and that I assign parts based on best vocal fit.
Be open to the fact that singers’ voices may change over time. When transgender men and transmasculine non-binary people take testosterone to masculinize our bodies, our voices drop in a way similar to how cisgender men’s voices drop at puberty. Unfortunately, there is not yet much research on what physically happens to the larynx through this process. There is a period that usually begins three to six months after starting testosterone when a transitioning person’s voice will crack, especially in the passaggio. Pitch matching may become difficult for a while because the singer’s muscle memory will no longer produce the expected note. It’s a bit like going from playing a violin to a cello; it will take some time to learn this new instrument! Some of the notes in the singer’s passaggio may disappear altogether for a while, but they usually come back, especially if you help them adjust to using their new low range comfortably, and continue to gently exercise their head register as well. Eventually, usually after a year to two years of being on hormones, the singer’s voice will stop changing, and will settle into a particular range. Alexandros Constansis is a trans male singer and voice teacher who has published some papers on this topic. For more information, you can also see my essay with advice for trans and non-binary singers who are taking testosterone.
Transgender women and transfeminine non-binary people’s voices do not change very much (if at all) as a result of taking hormones, but many people find that with practice, they are able to shift their singing voices to a higher place over time. I spoke to Tori, a singer, voice teacher and choral composer who is a trans woman, and she told me that in seventh grade she asked her choir director if she could sing with the altos. She wasn’t yet out as a transgender woman, but she could sing the alto notes and she knew she would feel more comfortable singing with the girls. Unfortunately, her director denied her request.
Tori dreaded the vocal changes she knew would come with puberty. She had never heard of the possibility of transitioning or taking puberty blockers, so she considered it inevitable that her voice would drop. Her voice did change, but in college she learned more about her options, and transitioned socially and physically to female. She trained vocally as a tenor, and had a great relationship with her voice teacher. The teacher was supportive of her transition, but she never thought to suggest that Tori try alto or countertenor repertoire. Tori wonders now what might have happened if she had. Eventually Tori moved to a new city and auditioned for a choir, electing not to share that she was transgender. The director listened to her, said “you’re not a tenor!” and placed her in the alto section. Tori told me she was overjoyed, and she has been singing alto ever since! That was the first time since middle school that she’d given herself permission to try singing alto. She now finds that when she sings tenor, her voice tires much more quickly than it does in an alto range.
I had a student who was a transgender man in his seventies who transitioned late in life. He had a warm, quiet chest register and a nice clear head register. He enjoyed recording himself singing all four voice parts of hymns. I might classify his vocal timbre as that of a tenor, but he had to use head register to sing D4 and above (though we worked on this!). He sang bass in a community choir, and it was very important to him to vocalize all the way down to E2 each week, even though that note was at the very edge of his range. As someone who still finds it exciting to be able to sing in that low octave myself, I understood why this was so important to him.
When my own voice was changing in college due to taking testosterone, my college choir director tested my range at the start of each semester, and let me shift parts as I needed to. I went from a first soprano to a first tenor over the course of a year, stopping by the altos on the way! I remember how validating it was the moment he told me that my voice was now indistinguishable from other young tenors he had heard.
My friend Ariana is a queer cisgender woman who is in community with many transgender people. She was in a treble choir in her teens where the director brought each singer in at the start of every season to do a range check. It wasn’t an audition, just a chance to see if the singer’s voice had shifted, since many people’s voices were changing due to puberty. What if we did this in adult choirs as well, tracking not just the changes in trans and non-binary people’s voices, but recognizing that everyone’s voice changes with time and age?
At the same time, don’t assume that all trans and non-binary people will be changing voice parts. My friend and colleague Max is a voice teacher who is a transgender man. He told me that when he auditioned for a gay men’s chorus, the director didn’t know he was trans and placed him in the first tenor section, which is the right spot for him. He had been taking testosterone for five years and was quite comfortable as a high tenor. However, the director eventually learned that Max was trans, and because he had only heard trans male singers who were baritones before, he assumed Max was not yet taking hormones, and would be starting soon. He approached Max about moving to the baritone section, and Max had to explain that his voice had already settled in the tenor range years ago.
Don’t ask questions about your students’ bodies that aren’t relevant to their voices. Transgender and non-binary people are often asked inappropriate, prying questions about our bodies. On my intake form for all new students, I include these questions: “Do you have any medical conditions, or have you had any medical procedures that might affect your voice?” and “Do you take any medications that might affect your voice? What dose do you take? For example: steroid inhalers, hormones, antihistamines, heartburn medication, etc.” Many students don’t realize that these kinds of medications can impact their voices, and this can be helpful information for me to have as their teacher. By asking this question, students can share anything they think might be relevant to your work together, and you are also respecting their privacy.
Check in with your students regularly about how they feel singing in the range you’re working in. I let all of my students know up front that I will work with them on accessing the full extent of their ranges. I also take special care to let them know that if singing in one of those places is emotionally troubling for them, we can go very slowly, and do it just a little bit at a time. I find this is especially important when working with transgender and non-binary singers. Some trans women and transfeminine people are very uncomfortable accessing chest register, and some transgender men and transmasculine people are very uncomfortable accessing head register. They have often had to spend a lot of energy asserting their correct gender in a world that tells them they aren’t who they know themselves to be. So it can make them feel very vulnerable to sing in a register that is associated with the gender they were incorrectly assigned at birth. This is especially true if they are at all worried that hearing them sing in this quality will cause you to see them incorrectly, and use the wrong pronouns. While we want to challenge all of our singers to try new things, it is important to respect our students’ boundaries, and make sure we are not taking them too far outside their comfort zones.
When giving examples, acknowledge the diversity of human voices, and include transgender and non-binary singers. Help your students break down the idea that high voices are always female and low voices are always male. Play your students examples of singers with many different gender identities who sing in all different ranges – transgender and non-binary singers, as well as cisgender male countertenors and cisgender female baritones. One excellent source for hearing great trans singers is “37 ‘Trans Anthems’ by Trans Musicians,” from The Advocate.
Don’t assume that you will be able to tell if someone is transgender or non-binary just by looking or hearing that person sing. You may have already been working with transgender and non-binary singers and not known it. Trans people may choose to share that we are transgender with everyone, some people, or no one, and that is our decision to make. We do not owe it to you or anyone else to share this piece of information.
As author and activist Janet Mock says, “I have such a difficult time with the concept of ‘passing’ because I feel it gives this idea that there’s some kind of deception or trickery involved in our identities. I am a woman, people perceive me as a woman, and when I walk on the street, I am not ‘passing’ as anything. I am merely being myself. Often, my trans-ness does not lead the way when I walk into spaces, and that allows me safety and anonymity. And because trans people are marked as illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection – and this is a major burden for many trans people, a burden that I often do not have to carry in every space I enter because of the way that I look. Our safety should not be based on the way that we look.” I cannot recommend Mock’s book Redefining Realness highly enough!
Non-binary people face a different situation – no matter how many times they come out, they are often told they must “choose a side.” When they dress in ways that feel good to them, people may perceive them as “confusing,” and harass them for stepping outside of traditional binary gender boxes. They are confronted with the gender binary that denies their existence many times a day, every time they face a gendered bathroom, locker room, gender check box on a form, or are called “sir” or “ma’am.”
If students share that they are transgender or non-binary with you, respect their privacy and do not out them to others. As Micah Bazant explains in his excellent piece Trans Etiquette/Respect/Support 101, “Transphobia functions very differently than homophobia; being ‘out’ is not necessarily desirable or possible for us. Being a trans ally means supporting people in being more safe and healthy – which may mean anything between letting everyone they meet know they are trans, to keeping their gender history entirely confidential. Its crucial to support people in being as ‘out,’ or not, as they need to be.”
If you want to discuss a student with others, and the fact that the student is transgender or non-binary is important to what you are discussing, you can certainly mention that aspect of the student’s identity, but you should protect that student’s privacy, and not share his or her name or other potentially identifying information. Even if a person is out to you as trans or non-binary, it doesn’t mean that person wants others to know that information. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Transgender and non-binary people are at a high risk of being targeted for harassment, scrutiny and violence. Please allow us to share our transgender or non-binary identity in our own words, and on our own terms, if and when we choose.
Suggestions for Private Voice Teachers
Assign songs by what the student is interested in, and what will fit that student’s voice, rather than by gender. I had a student once who was a transgender woman in her sixties. She had a deep baritone voice in speaking and singing, and she had no problem with this. She had lived as a woman in the world for many years and was very comfortable with herself. She loved Les Miserables and she wanted to sing Javert’s songs. She didn’t see any contradiction between her female identity and her desire to sing in a baritone range, and neither did I. I was inspired by the way she did not let cultural expectations box her in.
I also spoke with Patrick, a classical singer who is a transgender man who has sung professionally for decades. Prior to taking testosterone, Patrick had a large range that allowed him to sing soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, and tenor repertoire comfortably. Yet he was often encouraged to “choose,” so he focused mostly on singing mezzo repertoire. This allowed him to play “pants roles” – young male roles written in a mezzo- soprano range and traditionally played by women, such as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. This felt much more comfortable to him than “wearing drag,” as he put it, in order to play female roles in operas. He wishes there had been more space for him to play soprano, mezzo, contralto, and tenor roles without being forced to pick one. This is one reason it’s important to support the development of transgender and gender non-conforming composers, so that new operas will be written that have roles for a wider variety of gender identities, and do not tie voice parts so strictly to traditional gendered roles.
When I assign songs to students, I always provide at least two options from which they can choose. This way if I choose a song that doesn’t resonate with them, they have another option. I also encourage my students to make me mix CDs or Spotify playlists of music they would like to sing. This way I can listen and identify which songs I think would be a good fit for their voices, and what we’re working on currently.
If a singer in a private lesson wants to sing something that is out of range, don’t try to change what they want to sing. Change the key, or alter the melody, so the song will be more comfortsble. I recognize that this is easier to do for those of us who teach contemporary commercial music, and play from chord symbols rather than sheet music, but thankfully we’re at a time when transposing scores is becoming easier with modern technology. Obviously, some songs have too wide of a range to work for certain singers, even if we change the key, but in general, I find it’s best to change the song, not the singer. It can mean a lot to a transgender or non-binary student to get to sing a song that feels aligned with that student’s gender in a comfortable key.
Offer a sliding scale for private lessons in order to be more accessible for transgender and non-binary students. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 29% of trans people in the United States live in poverty. The unemployment rate for trans people is three times higher than the U.S. average, and 30% of trans people with jobs report being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression. In addition, 30% of trans people had experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetimes. Trans people of color face even higher rates of discrimination, due to the compounding effects of racism and transphobia.
As a result, the cost of private lessons can be a big barrier to many transgender and non-binary people. By offering sliding scale rates to low income students, you will help make lessons affordable to people who would otherwise be unable to access them.
There are many ways to implement a sliding scale policy, and still meet your own financial needs. Teacher, artist, and feminist financial coach Hadassah Damien has written well this topic. You can also see how I frame my sliding scale on my website.
Suggestions for Choral and Ensemble Directors
Assign songs and voice parts by best vocal fit, rather than by gender. Just because someone is a woman, it doesn’t mean she must sing soprano or alto parts. The same goes for men. Non-binary people might have voices in any range. If a singer has a range that would allow him or her to sing multiple voice parts, ask what part(s) he or she would most like to sing. Placing some high-voiced men in the alto section and low-voiced women in the tenor section can go a long way toward creating a choral culture that has space for people of all genders, whether or not you are aware of the presence of transgender and non-binary singers in your group.
Let choral singers switch parts on different songs. This helps them become stronger, more versatile singers, not to mention improving their sight singing skills!
If you are having singers introduce themselves in a group, ask everyone to share what gender pronoun they prefer. At the first session of my group classes, we go around in a circle and share our names and preferred pronouns. I demonstrate first by saying, “My name is Eli, and I go by he and him.” By asking everyone to share their pronouns, you help normalize the idea that you can’t just by looking know someone’s gender and what pronouns that person prefers. If this is a new practice for you, you’ll probably need to explain why you’re doing it, but after you’ve done it a few times, be matter of fact about it, and it will become a part of the culture of your group, helping to create a safe space for trans and non-binary singers.
If your group is a men’s or women’s chorus, allow people who audition to self-identify whether the group is right for them. Max told me that in the gay men’s chorus with which he sings, there are a number of straight cisgender women who fill out the first tenor section. Though most of the rest of the members of the chorus are men, there is a huge range of gender expressions, from professional drag queens who identify as men and come to rehearsals in blouses and heels, to men who present their genders in very traditionally masculine ways. He feels there is a lot of space for him, a feminine, genderqueer transgender man, to be himself.
Ariana was in a feminist women’s choir that had a lot of disagreements over whether they would allow transgender women to join their group. Some members said very hurtful things, asserting that transgender women were not truly women, and should therefore be excluded. These same women did not realize that some of the current members of the choir were assigned female at birth, but actually identified as non-binary. In the end, Ariana and a number of other singers left the group because they were not comfortable being a part of a women’s choir that excluded trans women, and didn’t create space for non-binary people.
Provide gender neutral bathrooms in your rehearsal and performance spaces for the chorus, and for your audience. Gendered bathrooms are often a site of stress for trans and non-binary people. Will the other people in the bathroom think we look like we “belong” in that room? Will they harass or attack us if they think we don’t? Where is a non-binary person supposed to go when confronted with two rooms, neither of which fit who they are? The solution is actually very simple – make all bathrooms gender neutral! This way everyone can go where they please without having to worry about how they’ll be perceived by others. If you rehearse or perform in a space where you can’t change the bathroom signs permanently, you can ask the space to allow you to put up temporary “gender neutral bathroom” signs on the doors during your events. This small action can go a long way to helping transgender and non-binary people feel safe, seen, and welcome.
Base your performance outfits on color, rather than on gender. Performance settings where the dress code is something like “wear black on the bottom and white on top” are great because they create space for people to choose for themselves what kind of clothing they feel best in, without feeling they will stick out from the group if they are dressed differently from others in their section.
If you feel you must have two different dress options, describe the options for dress without tying them to gender. For example, you might say “if you’re wearing a dress or a skirt, please wear all black. If you’re wearing pants, please wear black pants and a white shirt.” This way, singers can wear clothing that fits their gender expression regardless of what part they are singing, and non-binary singers are not left out.
Before I transitioned physically, I was out as transgender, and living as a man in most aspects of my life, but I was not out in choral settings. I was singing soprano in a choir, and I would have loved to wear a tuxedo at concerts like the other men. Yet I was afraid I would be told that I wasn’t allowed to because I would stick out in the soprano section, or worse, that I would be told I was not a “real man” until I changed my body. I waited until after I had started taking hormones to come out to the director, and come to concerts in a tux, but if I had known how supportive he would be, I would have come out sooner, and been much more comfortable. If the dress code had been framed as “tuxedo or all black” rather than being tied to gender, I would have known up front that I could wear a tux.
Patrick told me that at a certain point long before he took testosterone, he decided to start wearing a tuxedo rather than a dress when he performed. He was singing mezzo in a quartet at a festival, and thankfully the director and the other singers didn’t bat an eye. Yet at a later concert under the same conductor, this time singing soprano, he came in a tux, and was given a hard time. The conductor feared that the audience would be “distracted by a soprano in a suit.” Thankfully, Patrick stuck to his guns, and made it clear that he would be very distracted from his singing if he were wearing a dress. If we as teachers and conductors don’t take the chance to educate audiences, who will?
Though it might seem like a big change at first, shifting the culture of singing spaces in the ways that I suggest will benefit all the singers we work with. When we acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of genders and gender expressions in the world, we create more space for all singers to be authentically themselves.
Above all, I encourage you to approach transgender and non-binary singers as you would any other singer – be kind, compassionate, and open to learning new things. Thank you for doing this work. Your singers are lucky to have you as an ally on their journeys.
 A recent article about the success of puberty suppression in helping trans kids live happier lives: http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/09/16/3567886/transgender-puberty-suppression-study/
 Some great places to start educating yourself more about how to be an ally to transgender and non-binary people:
Trans Etiquette 101 by Micah Bazant is a short, very helpful read: http://www.transtorah.org/PDFs/Trans_Etiquette_101.pdf
The organization Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has a great piece called Tips for Allies to Transgender People: https://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies
Two books I highly recommend: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue by Leslie Feinberg.
I recommend joining the facebook group Teachers of Trans/GNC Singers to connect with other voice teachers doing this work.
Voice teacher Liz Jackson Hearns has compiled some resources specifically for voice professionals on this topic: http://www.thevoicelabinc.com/resources-transgender-voice-chicago.html
 http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk/2008/Constansis.htm, http://transposition.revues.org/353#tocto1n1