More about being a singer

March 17, 2011 § 18 Comments

I just wanted to do an update in what I suspect will become a series of sorts. Talking about the difficulties of being trans and being a singer.


I don’t know what it is at the moment but I feel like I’m being torn apart. By the transsexual nature of my bodily awareness, and the glory of being a musician. Maybe it’s worse at the moment because so many of my friends are in the early stages of taking T. I suspect it has more to do with allowing myself, finally, to grieve the path I can’t take – that of transitioning fully, and finally having the right kind of body. The body that would allow me to express my non-binary gender to the fullest – because, despite what some idiots believe, it’s totally possible to be both transsexual and genderqueer/androgynous. Because I would rock the whole facial hair/lipstick look.


Also, perhaps, the question. People who love classical music know better than to ask. But I’ve had a lot of this, recently: “surely you could take T and just have a lower voice?”


It’s not that it can’t happen. Trans guys can keep a singing voice, though, depending on age and level of vocal expertise before hormones, there seems to be an astonishing level of risk. Too many men lose their ability to vocalise altogether. I haven’t heard of a single incident of a classical singer going through this process, and I have yet to read of a trans guy keeping a vocal range and quality after T that would leave him capable of singing in the classical style as a professional.


I wish people who ask that question would think: “If it were that simple, wouldn’t they have done it already?” Because it’s not that simple. I started vocal training at 13, and serious serious serious vocal training at 24. I can’t smoke, drink too much (or at all before gigs – sometimes for weeks in advance), eat the wrong foods, sleep too little, talk too loudly. Every part of your body becomes a beautiful and lovingly cared for machine – changing the way you exercise, hold yourself, move yourself through the world. You end up knowing far more than you ever wanted to know about mucus. Hormonal fluctuation, at the smallest level, has a tremendous impact. And with a three octave range that takes up 3 hours a day in rehearsal and practice (more at peak times)  – you can’t afford the tiniest change to throw you off balance. A cold is a catastrophe. To take the time out to have your voice break, knowing that it would never have the same range, beauty or security? Unthinkable. And then, if it had survived to a level where it could still be at a viable professional level? I wouldn’t have the right range to sing the right music anymore. Because this is the deal with early music: a mezzo is where you want to be to play the hero, the poet, the king, the god. Drop down to tenor and your repertoire dries up.


Imagine the best sex of your life. The best you’ve ever had – where you and your partner have reached a level of understanding so beyond language that language itself seems like a broken, misshapen, abortive mistake. Where your senses are stretched out so far, and for so long that you’re in agony, and it’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever felt. Where you step outside of time, and outside of your body, and everything is sure, and beautiful, and you can’t help but cry. That is what singing feels like. Consistently. All of the jouissance, none of the heartbreak. When that happens, my dysphoria disappears.


And then, when the music stops, it rushes back.


I don’t even know what I’m trying to achieve, by writing this. Except, maybe, it will serve as an example to those who think that being trans is the foremost concern in trans people’s lives. Who think we don’t make hard choices. That we don’t serve different and opposing masters. And to share with anyone else who may have made a similar trade-off.


Please don’t ask me again why I can’t take T.




§ 18 Responses to More about being a singer

  • Joshua says:

    You’ll probably enjoy this…

    Middle C – From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the first person documentary Middle C, chronicles Tristan Whiston’s year-long gender transition from woman to man – through the change in his singing voice. Whiston first performed as solo soprano at the age of six and years of hard work led to an accomplished singing career.

  • cnlester says:

    Thank you – have lined it up to watch. It’s going to make me all emotional though – damn it 😉

  • Suvi-Tuuli Allan says:

    Y’know, I’m a trans woman, and I would really like to have a higher voice. I think that I understand how you feel, but I don’t think that I could pass the chance to make my voice sound higher if I could. I don’t know… I have such mixed feelings about this. 😦

  • Jennie Kermode says:

    Could a topically applied testosterone cream (like the ones given to some post-menopausal cis women) help with facial hair without compromising your voice? I realise it would inevitably raise your overall testosterone levels, but perhaps not by that much.

    • Nat says:

      Testosterone (and oestrogen) has a global effect, topical creams/gels don’t work locally. Trans men using testogel don’t experience one hairy patch where the gel is applied, they experience the onset of male puberty. Gel application can be helpful for administering much lower doses than normal or ensuring that changes are gradual/levels are consistent, rather than triggered by a large surge of testosterone (as happens during puberty). It’s still going to permanently affect the voice almost immediately.

      Rogaine/Minoxidil can be effective in triggering some facial hair growth without affecting the voice but has possible side effects and is not without risk (although they’re relatively minor given it’s an off the shelf medication). Also while there is evidence it’s mostly locally effective, it will likely cause some additional body hair growth elsewhere.

      I’m planning to write an article about this for Practical Androgyny at some point.

    • Nat says:

      Oh and also testogel and oestrogel should not be applied to the face, chest or genitals as they’re reported to thin the skin and can cause permanent damage.

    • Just Some Trans Guy says:

      Just anecdotally, I started out on a testosterone gel, and it lowered my voice quite a bit even at relatively low doses. I subsequently switched to injection, and while that method has increased my hair growth, my voice hasn’t really deepened any further since the initial drop.

  • sciamanna says:

    Oh, it would be an absolute shame to ruin a trained voice that gives you such a joy.

    I am a cis female tenor — not classically trained, nothing like your level of skill, and a smaller range too — but singing gives me great joy and I completely understand from experience the “altered state” of singing.

    And nobody ever makes much of seeing me in the “male” section of the choir. (Well except for some directors who profusely apologise after referring to “the men”, but that just makes me laugh.)

    I do not know what it would be like in the early opera scene, if it would be more of a problem to have a male mezzo singing trouser roles. I wish you success with all my heart. And don’t do bad things to your voice.

    • cnlester says:

      It’s an odd one. In terms of operatic roles I tend to stick to the male roles that would have been played either by a travesti singer or a castrati singer. Sadly, despite the historical accuracy of transgender behaviour on the opera stage, the modern classical world is often very narrow-minded. But onwards, ever onwards! Thank you for your kind words.

  • Nat says:

    I’m a tenor with a pretty androgynous voice, I should be comfortable with what I have, and I am learning to use the whole of my range, but truly I wish my voice hit the highs of my flute. Some part of me feels like androgyny (or perhaps I mean my true self expression?) is expressed through ‘angelic’ voices or the range of the castrati rather than a voice ambiguous in gender.

    I learnt to play the flute to compensate for a deficiency in my own self expression, I can’t imagine having a voice like yours and having to choose to sacrifice that or other aspects of my androgyny. So yes, this is my fumbling way of saying that I can understand your choice, your reasons and your sacrifice.

    I also found the radio documentary Middle C difficult to listen to as his voice begins to break. A friends just pointed me to a similar film you may also want to try to track down:

    Funny Kinda Guy follows the transition from female to male of transgendered singer-songwriter Simon de Voil. From his first injection of testosterone to the point when his maleness is undeniable, the transformation lasts more than a year and a half, and takes him from his native Scotland to the other side of the world. There is freedom and happiness along the way, as his long-sought masculinity flourishes; but there is also sadness and loss, as he irreversibly sacrifices his female singing voice to hormone treatment. A musical odyssey, the film features Simon’s well-crafted and original songs – it is a quirky self-portrait which gives the film its title. Simon’s music accompanies us on the journey and allows us a unique and personal insight into his world.

    • cnlester says:

      It’s not the range that bothers me – I agree with you, I hear high voices as androgynous, and I get to sing tenor for my alternative music anyway. I just wish there was an opt-out clause on some of the effects of T. “I’ll take a main course of muscle growth, a side order of facial hair – hold off on the voice breaking.’

      Hmmmm…tracking down…and thank you.

  • Just Some Trans Guy says:

    Stumbled across your blog after clicking links to links to links, as one does. I just wanted to say I’m sorry–this is an excrutiating position to be in, and I wish you didn’t have to be.

    Also, in case validation is at all useful/desired (and if it isn’t, please feel free to ignore the rest of my comment): I totally get your concerns. I’ve never been a good singer, and I have no formal training–so I don’t at ALL want to compare my situation to yours, which is radically different–but I did play in a few musical groups over the years and have always liked hitting up karaoke bars. And T has completely changed how I sing; it’s like I don’t even know my own voice anymore, and I start singing too high or too low for my now-inscrutiable vocal range.

    In my case, it just means I’m a little worse at karaoke than I was before. I can only imagine how devastating it would be for a singer.


  • cnlester says:

    Just thank you in general.

  • Kristin says:

    So beautifully said, who we are is just as much about what bring us passion and bliss as it is about our gender or sexuality or any of the other things that are declared to be fundamental. To have to choose between these is heart-wrenching.

    I remember listening to a radio documentary following a classical singer from before he started taking T until through to when his voice had completely changed and he could no longer sing. It was heartbreaking, but, as with you, he knew he had made the right choice for him.

    Thank you for expressing this so eloquently.

  • Eli Conley says:

    Hi there,

    I’m a classically trained trans guy who was a lyric soprano. I transitioned at 20, and at 26 I now sing at a semi-professional level as a tenor. I’m also a voice teacher (though not a classical one), and I work with a number of other transmasculine people, both who have taken T and who don’t. I actually found your site by looking at the searches people use to find mine on google, so I just wanted to pop in.

    I totally understand your concerns. I was very conflicted about the possibility of losing my voice when I decided to transition. I didn’t know at that time whether I wanted to ultimately sing professionally, but I knew that being a good singer was incredibly important to my sense of self and ability to express myself. And I agree with you that it’s a crapshoot — no one knows what will happen to their voice when they take testosterone.

    With that said, I now know from personal experience that it is possible to take testosterone and not lose your classical singing voice, especially if you do it gradually and continue to practice and work with a teacher through that time. And from what I’ve seen, the younger you are, the more successful the vocal transition will be.

    In my case, I was in children’s choirs from around 11, and began private lessons at 16. I was a lyric soprano and continued taking private lessons, singing baroque music and with the collegium musicum at Oberlin Conservatory during my transition (though I wasn’t a full time voice major). These days I’ve been a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, have done some gigs as a paid church choir sub/soloist, and currently sing with the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, a semi-professional volunteer group. I’ve considered working toward solo classical performance again, most likely in the early music scene because of the light quality of my voice. But I’ve decided my path lies more in being a singer-songwriter and doing classical choral work on the side. I’d be happy to talk to you more about my experience privately if you’re ever interested.

    One last place I’ll point you, just in case you don’t know about it, is this piece by ftm classical singer and voice teacher Alexandros Constansis:

  • Kay says:

    I am having the same issue as you. I am classically trained and do not wish to lose my voice either but do wish to look more manly in my figure. I could not wish for my voice to fade and be unable to sing opera the way I can or any other type of music. I am a mezzo soprano and can sing from high tenor to high soprano and wish to transition but do not want to lose the higher part of my range. Sure I would love to go a little lower and be able to look like a man with my clothes off more but if I had to chose over losing my voice or just being a man with the aid of hormones I would chose not losing my voice and being trapped in my body and just shaving and passing as well as possible and just getting chest surgery to get rid of the horrible boobs on my chest. Just my idea. I am Pre-T and really badly want to transition but am afraid I will lose the most precious gift I have that helps me become less disphoric with myself and brings joy to others. Just wanted to let you know there are more then just you that are scared and looking for incite also.

    • cnlester says:

      Thanks for writing – I hope you find a tolerable solution. I wouldn’t say it’s fear – but anger, certainly. I do wish that people would understand that there are many, many factors that influence whether people take hormones or have surgery. Good luck x

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