Until a few years ago there was little to no research on transgender singing voice issues or tools for choral instructors to help their trans and non-binary students. A lot has changed in two years since Earlham College Adjunct Instructor Danielle Cozart Steele founded a conference to encourage research and assistance.
"They wanted to sing and they needed support," Steele says of her students and why she created the Transgender Singing Voice Conference. "All of us [instructors] were crafting pedagogy from scratch, and so as we began to dialogue with each other the thought was instead of all us inventing the wheel on our own separately, why not come together and share our best practices and our ideas."
Steele says the field has grown dramatically since the first conference in 2017, for which she had to seek out and invite presenters. This year it is an adjudicated, peer-reviewed conference with attendees from around the world.
Sessions include how to create inclusive choral classrooms and voice studios; speech language pathologists talking about finding one's optimal voice; and presentations from researchers who've studied their own transitions. The goal is to foster relationships between professionals serving trans and non-binary communities while providing practical experiences, Steele says.
Western Kentucky University graduate student Alexander Reeves attended the first conference and is back this year to talk about his own work looking at how hormone therapy affects the singing voice.
"It is in a sense like puberty but because of how the voice develops already through puberty the hormones will cause a slightly different change in a transgender person than a person who is going through puberty for the first time," he says.
As an undergrad, Reeves remembers going before his professors after just a few months of hormone therapy.
"I had auditioned before I started taking [testosterone], so I went in and they were expecting me to be able to sing three octaves ... and I could maybe hash out five notes," he says. "I had to learn through the voice changes and how to develop my voice as somebody who was a soprano and is now a tenor."
Reeves describes singing as an escape from the world's daily concerns. He's looking forward to making new connections and learning about transgender people in education and best practices for including people in all aspects of singing.
You Can Still Do Handel's "Messiah"
One of the biggest misconceptions, especially among choral directors Steele says, is that they have to start from scratch when working with transgender or non-binary singers.
"They [worry] they are going to have to eschew the canon, that they can no longer do Handel's 'Messiah,' and that somehow by incorporating these voices into their choruses that they're going to have to radically change all of their techniques and all of their repertoire. To an extent you do have to do some radical changes, but you can also perform a transgender 'Messiah.' "
By that she means there are ways "to incorporate transitioning voices and still do the works that are so beloved and so important."
Instructors need to consider, for example, that a person's vocal range may change from week to week. The conference aims to give instructors tools for working with and encouraging their students.
Earlham's choirs will join participants in performing and workshopping original works. Organizers are asking composers to submit musical scores for and about trans and non-binary issues.
There are also concerns about repertoire, especially for people who choose not to undergo hormonal treatments.
"Repertoire is highly gendered," Steele points out. Parts are frequently focused around stereotypes, so you might have a female-identified student singing lullabies to children or about meeting men while male-identified singers may be relegated to singing about being manly.
"Breaking out of the box repertoire-wise requires some bravery and creativity on both the part of the student and the instructor."
Earlham College Adjunct Instructor Danielle Cozart Steele talks about the Second Transgender Singing Voice Conference in this promotional video: