(CW: mention of eating disorder)
What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness? For me, it was my voice.
As a performer, my voice was one of the biggest obstacles in my coming out. In the theatres where I worked back home, I was known for my voice; specifically, how high it could go. I played Marian in The Music Man, Rosa Bud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and whenever I was in the ensemble, the music director would add in an extra high note at the end of songs just for me. I had put so much of my value and identity into my voice that the thought of it changing was absolutely terrifying.
But I couldn’t keep pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. During one voice lesson, my teacher communicated to me that if I kept up my current eating habits (or lack thereof), I could do permanent damage to my voice. My eating disorder had been what I had used to cope with my body. I had been sacrificing my mental and physical health for my voice. But now, my voice was on the other side of the line, too.
I finally came out as transgender at 16 and, after a while, started testosterone. The issues I had been experiencing with my body dissolved, along with my disordered eating. I was so much more comfortable in my body and myself. While I was absolutely catapulting into my new life, finally able to feel the joy that was pushed down with the rest of my identity, the one thing that I mourned was my voice. I missed being able to pick up any piece of music and know that my voice could hit whatever notes were required. I now had to live with uncertainty.
After about a year and a half, my voice settled comfortably in a high-tenor range. What had I been worried about? My new voice was great – I could hit all those Dear Evan Hansen notes. This was right about the time I was auditioning for colleges. I was accepted into both of my dream schools and enrolled at Baldwin Wallace University. Then, three weeks before I arrived on campus, my voice made a major shift.
The first assignment of the year was to audition for the fall show. I had chosen my songs at the beginning of the summer and could no longer hit the notes required. Surrounded by future-Broadway-star peers, I felt so lost. I had always been a ‘singer first,’ but no longer knew how to operate my instrument. I felt untalented and began to think I didn’t deserve to have been admitted to such a prestigious program. I was worried I might have to change the direction of my career.
It has taken a while for me to regain confidence in my voice and learn how to navigate its many new avenues. For the majority of my freshman year, I was terrified of my upper register and was afraid to practice. It was painful to not be able to hit soaring high notes that I previously had access to, and I didn’t want to demonstrate to myself that I could no longer hit them.
Something I have learned as a trans performer is that time away from performing can often be invaluable. Before college, I took breaks from dancing when my dysphoria got to be too much, I took a break from performing entirely right after I came out, and back home after my first year of college, I decided not to sing for a month. I didn’t sing until I wanted to, until I wanted to start exploring my upper range.
While my freshman year was extremely difficult, I can safely say that I am incredibly excited about the direction my voice is headed. My voice seems to have settled and my upper range is opening back up. I am gaining more and more confidence in it every day. My voice suits me much more now than it did before, and I am finally starting to sing the songs I always wanted to sing.
Singing is an important part of the musical theatre world, but many things need to be improved in order to make it accessible and enjoyable for trans students and performers. Here are a few ways to help trans and nonbinary singers feel more comfortable:
1. Get rid of gendered distinctions on voice parts. We need to get rid of the idea that certain vocal ranges denote certain genders. We can all name a cisgender singer whose vocal range sits outside of what we consider ‘typical’ for their gender. We need to stop using terms like ‘countertenor’ and ‘contralto.’ If you are talking about people whose voices fall in the alto range, call them an alto, regardless of gender. If you are calling for tenors and basses to sing a part, ask for ‘tenors and basses,’ not ‘men.’ People of all genders fit into every vocal distinction.
2. Modulate keys to fit our voices. Far too many trans voices have been harmed because they are trying to fit a sound their voice is not designed to produce. Our voices are marvelous, beautiful instruments, whether or not they conform to cis-normative standards. If we are best for a role, hire us and modulate the key. It truly is that simple.
Every year miscast reminds nonbinary and trans people that the industry thinks that gender is binary and that we can transpose songs out of context and celebrate cis people singing the songs while keeping trans people out of actual roles. https://t.co/DATEFnEfCU
— JJ Maley (@thedailymaley) May 16, 2021
3. Have multiple keys at the ready. Some of our voices are shifting and changing. Have multiple keys ready for when they grow. This was something that my college voice teacher has done that has been incredibly helpful as we became acquainted with my new voice.
4. Read up on trans voices. Often hormone therapies and certain gender-affirming surgeries can affect our singing voices. Voice teachers, directors, music directors, etc. should educate themselves on how our voices work. Even with hormone replacement therapy, trans voices often operate differently than their cis counterparts. Those who plan to work with singers should educate themselves on these differences. I recommend reading “The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices” by Liz Jackson Hearns and Brain Kremer.
5. Learn about Vocal Dysphoria. Vocal dysphoria is the discomfort that some trans people feel regarding their voice as it relates to their gender. It can come up at any time. There have been lessons where I have experienced vocal dysphoria and became overwhelmed and an instructor gotten angry or kept pushing. There may be certain parts of our voices that we are only rarely comfortable using. Please be patient with us.
6. Ask us about what we are comfortable singing and what we want to sing. Some of us are comfortable singing songs written for people with the gender we were assigned at birth. Some of us are not. Pronouns in songs can be changed, keys can be modulated. Absolutely provide suggestions for repertoire, but become comfortable with us saying no.
The journey through one’s new voice can be incredibly frightening and extremely difficult, but the implementation of practices that allow space for students and performers to learn and grow will not only make them more comfortable, it will make space for trans artists in the industry going forward.