He was the soprano soloist in every musical in high school. After taking testosterone as part of his transition to living as a man, he became a baritone and couldn’t relate to his voice anymore.
Modifying the voice to sound more masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral can be a tumultuous experience. The disorientation is compounded for transgender people who love to sing, since changes in their singing voices can differ from those in their speaking voices.
Little research has been done to measure the variable effects of hormone therapy on the singing voice. Case studies suggest that trans men on testosterone tend to lose “quite a bit” of their upper register while perhaps gaining a few notes in the lower register, says Sandi Hammond, director of the Boston-based Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus; other changes, such as increased resonance, are harder to quantify. Altering the voice without hormones can cause frustration; trans women may no longer wish to sing in male registers but struggle to reach higher notes.
The fear of not being able to sing anymore prevents some transgender people, particularly trans men, from transitioning as fully as they’d like. “Some have been singing half their lives; they feel they’re risking their passion or their livelihood,” says Hammond.
Hammond founded the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus in part to provide a safe space for people to explore their changing voices. Some members come to try singing for the first time since beginning transition. “There is one trans woman who can’t get as high as she would like during warmups, but it’s important that she’s in a place where she can try,” says Hammond. “She has support and technical guidance for getting there. So she’s actively finding her voice as a woman.”
Shifting into a new singing voice can be bittersweet. Hammond had a trans male student who used to sing with his sister, their voices indistinguishable. He recorded one last duet with her before starting testosterone. Other trans singers explore the relationship between their old and new identities by recording duets with themselves pre- and post-transition.
Singing individually and together not only can raise confidence and bring joy but can also be a social statement, says Hammond. “There’s so much transphobia out there that to have a positive vehicle for raising their voices is powerful.” When so many transgender-centric events are memorial ceremonies or human rights protests, communal singing becomes a refuge.
Not everyone in Hammond’s chorus wants to perform publicly, largely because they’re not out as transgender or they fear violence. Some members are currently exploring smaller, more private venues before attempting the chorus’s public debut in Boston, planned for early in 2016.
Hammond and her chorus have joined the efforts of trans musicians and a handful of researchers around the world to better understand what trans voices can do. The work is highlighting how singing voices don’t follow a gender binary to begin with. “I had a friend who was a natal male, not trans anything, a big, burly, bearded guy, who sang high, break-the-glass soprano,” Ruben Hopwood, coordinator of the Transgender Health Program at Boston’s Fenway Health, recalls. “We know there’s great variation.”
With all the nontraditional vocal ranges and qualities expressed within her chorus, the standard parts for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are “out the window,” says Hammond. “I have no sopranos or low basses. I have sort-of altos. I have a lot in what the binary choral world would consider the tenor/baritone range.”
Two out-of-state composers have volunteered to transpose songs so the chorus can build a basic repertoire. Hammond now is exploring the creation of new standard voice parts for trans singers: perhaps trans-upper, trans-mid, and trans-lower, or trans one, two, and three, she says.
“For me, creating these new standards is a metaphor for voice,” she adds. “That’s empowerment.”
Stephanie Dutchen is a science writer in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.