Singing and T – some tentative thoughts
January 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
My singing teacher shared a video with me this morning that I found extremely helpful, demonstrating just how much of a change relaxing and opening up makes on the vocal mechanism and on the sound – the difference between a high, tight larynx and a lower, released one (with a nice, floated tongue). The whole video is invaluable, but if you want to see just how much of a difference it makes, have a look from 3:20 onwards:
As promised, an update on the (gradual) research I’m doing into the effects of testosterone on vocal production in FAAB people (with a soupçon of information on singing for other trans people, MAAB and FAAB).
First, obviously, a proviso or two. My research, is it stands, is a combination of anecdotal evidence and theoretical exploration. Given the time and the opportunity I would love to do something more formal – but, for the moment, everything I know is based on working with my students, cis and trans, and all the pedagogical works on singing I can get my hands on and find time to read. What I know about the voice I know as a singer, not a doctor – background here, if you’re not a regular reader.
So, with that out of the way…
…When I first started writing about this, about two years ago, this was the situation as I understood it:
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.
Well, I have yet to hear of a professional classical singer going through the process of taking T and emerging as a professional classical singer on the other side. But I have, I’m very pleased to say, now heard and taught a few trans men on T who’re singing beautifully as amateur singers. Of my students (hi students!), none were professional singers before T – but all are now more than capable of singing in amateur classical choirs should they want to, or as folk/alt/rock/blues performers (hint to students to whom I have been dropping hints). The majority have found voices in the baritone range – but I’ve also had a few tenors, and a bass. Again, reminder that this is a self-selecting group (men invested enough to singing to pursue lessons) – but I haven’t heard a single case of a ‘lost’ voice. In fact, the problems they’ve had in singing appear to have the same root as the majority of the problems my others students have, one that I certainly share and have to work on in my own singing – of having a high, tight larynx, of trying to deliberately sing from the larynx, rather than relaxing and using the whole body as an instrument. It was that tightness and stress that was causing my cis male students’ voices to crack and strain – turns out it was the same for the trans male students too.
Linked to that general problem, of trying to deliberately force out the sound from the throat, was the one of getting used to a different size and placement of the larynx. It was a problem I’d work on with my adolescent cis male students, and I figured it was worth trying the same approach with my trans male students – it seems to work. Many people are taught to belt rather than to sing, and get used to trying to control what the vocal mechanism is doing (again – this was the case with me) – they create the sound through deliberate effort. Problem is, when the larynx grows and moves into a slightly different placement, you’re left unable to do what you used to do and, therefore, unable to sing. Pitching becomes particular difficult for those used to pitching ‘by feel’ because ‘the feel’ isn’t where it used to be. The only solution I’ve found to this is what I work on with my teacher – hearing the note before singing, and allowing the breath to reach it, rather than trying to force a sound out – of relaxation and visualisation, not ‘vocal’ effort.
These are only hints and questions – but I do wonder if, maybe, a lot of what we assume about T and singing isn’t correct? That the stories of people losing their voices utterly might, in some cases, have had happier endings with a good teacher and time to work on a different technique? I know we’ve all heard the classic choir boy story to support the idea that male adolescence is a crapshoot when it comes to the voice – I heard it from my father: start puberty with a beautiful treble, voice breaks, never sing again. But I haven’t heard that story from anyone invested in singing. The majority of male classical singers I know were choirboys – some of them had a period of several years where their voices were too all over the place to sing, and some had an easy transition from treble to alto to tenor. They all had good technique to get them through. Again, I’m not claiming to know it all, or saying that losing your voice at adolescence can’t happen – just that the only people I know who talk about it happening to them didn’t work on the issue with a singing teacher or two, but just gave up.
I’m sorry I can’t give a more definite answer, and tell people whether or not it’s safe to risk their voices on T. Another factor with my trans male students on T is that the oldest is not quite 40 – I don’t know if the same would hold true for someone beginning T at the age of 60, for example. What I can say is that things seem far more optimistic than I initially thought they were. Again, for me, taking T is out of the question – but that might not be the case for every singer, whether amateur or professional. I suspect that, if I only had my alternative singing to worry about, I would now feel that taking T was worth a shot (pun intended).
Before anything else, I would advise anyone reading this, of any sex or gender, to find themselves a sympathetic singing teacher if their voice matters to them. I feel it’s worth noting that, with my trans FAAB students NOT on T, the same work on opening up and relaxing the body, and getting away from deliberate strain on the larynx, helped them to find notes lower and richer than they knew they had – the same with my MAAB trans students (on HRT or not) with their higher ranges. Find a good teacher, invest in your technique and, if you’re having real problems, consider seeing a laryngeal specialist. And the very best of good luck, whatever path you decide to take.
Answers to questions after the jump:
I understand that, in general, the voice tends to gravitate lower in pitch as one gets older. Is that (assuming it’s accurate) in any way hormonal? Also, to what extent would you say androgynous vocal cues are dependent upon a sufficiently low range? Or, perhaps to put another way, how low does a voice need to be to not be ‘obviously’ gendered as female?
By older, presumably you’re meaning past the age of vocal maturity? I was always taught that the voice didn’t usually hit its full stride until around the ages of 28-30 – and, obviously, it continues to change throughout a singer’s life. Many sopranos do find that they end up as mezzo-sopranos – the same for tenors turning to baritones – and hormonal effects from menopause and pregnancy can certainly make big changes in a voice. How a voice is gendered isn’t all to do with pitch – in fact, the average male pitch and the average female pitch is fairly close together. Variety of intonation plays an enormous part, and changes in the ways words are pronounced. My speaking voice is lower than many male voices I know – but tends to get gendered as ‘sexy husky lady’ as a opposed to male. Nonbinary.org had a link to a very interesting vocal analyser that tracked how voices are gendered – send them a tweet at @nonbinaryorg?
I’m looking forward to your thoughts! Pre-T I sang soprano one and two. I’ve been having a really hard time relearning how to harmonize. I definitely didn’t realize that so much of my musical ability was based on memorizing what I sounded like/could do.
See the main blog post above! I think it might come down to learning how to anticipate and command, rather than listen and react – if that makes any sense.
I’ve cut down Kay’s question because of length, but
First off, I wanted to say thank you for sharing with me – I hope it doesn’t sound patronising to say that I think I understand a lot of where you’re coming from – and I think it sounds like we have a similar singing background in choral work. I’m sorry that I can’t give you a concrete answer – ultimately, you’re the only person who can decide if T is right for you, and if it’s a risk you’re willing to take. But a few thoughts. As you yourself said, 19 is very young vocally. The kind of training you’re able to do as an adolescent is quite different from the work you can do as an adult, and most professional singers don’t begin their formal adult training until about 21/22 – and certainly not opera training until older (in my experience usually around 25-28). Which is to say – there’s lots of work that you can still do, and you have time to consider your options. You mentioned lessons that were more work than fun – I hate to disillusion you, but the majority of singing is more work than fun. I started as a pianist, and always assumed that singing was an easier option – I was very wrong. The only thing I can definitely say to you is please get yourself a good singing teacher. If singing matters to you, if it brings you joy, then that’s something you deserve – to develop the best voice you have, and to support you in your music making. As to T – as I said above, my students on T have all developed beautiful, more traditionally ‘male’ voices – I don’t know how representative this is. At 19 you certainly have the luxury of being able to take time out from singing to allow your voice to break if you have to, and then come back when it’s a bit more stable – but giving you an assurance that your voice would definitely come back is beyond me. All I can say is – I hope that there’s hope. And I wish you all the very best of luck.