Not titling this one with lyrics because I couldn’t think of anything fitting.
I am a transgender man and I am a musician. Where this intersects is in my singing voice. Past the cut is my experience in learning how to use (and find!) my voice while medically transitioning.
This is a blog entry I’ve been wanting to write for a while. It’s the perfect way to start using my domain again, which turns 10 this year! I hope to transform this space into something more functional.
The 20th will mark three years since I began my transition journey. There’s been a lot of life that’s happened in these three years, but the focus of this entry is the physical, emotional, and musical aspect of transition.
My body has undergone a great deal of visibly noticeable changes. The most obvious is that I now have facial hair that is starting to fill in to a beard. My face and hairline have changed and I have considerably more body hair. My body has also distributed fat to a more “male” pattern, including in my face. The fat around my hips has migrated to my abdomen, making my hips considerably less noticeable. I sweat more and my body temperature is a bit higher. While I’ve lost almost a full cup size in my chest, I cannot wait until top surgery takes care of the rest. There’s been other physical changes that are less PG that I won’t go into, but let’s just say that I’m happy with how well-endowed I am.
And then there’s my voice!
During my undergraduate studies, I expanded on my vocal training. I graduated as a soprano (A3ish-D♯6/E6 on a great day) and I took great pride in my singing voice. For you non-musicians, a soprano is the highest vocal part pitch-wise.
Throughout my childhood, I had worked hard on my voice and becoming a confident soprano. I didn’t have much family support. I’ve mentioned my abusive upbringing several times here. My brother would routinely call me “tone deaf”, which would make my father tell me to stop singing because I was hurting my brother’s ears with how “terrible” I was. When I’d not stop, I’d get beaten for upsetting my brother and told that I’m wasting my time with this music thing. I internalized some of that and doubted my singing ability for years because of it and still do on ocaission. But I never stopped singing or working on my voice. I never stopped dreaming of breaking free from my hell and pursuing music — including singing. Outside of the house, I’d get praised for my voice. These contrasting and conflicting messages — my brother and father calling me “tone deaf” and told to stop… and being praised by everyone else — really weighed on me. I continue to live with self-doubt despite all evidence contrary.
Then there’s the fact that I never felt like my voice was truly “mine”.
While I continued to work and get better and better, it was largely to prove my family wrong. I also hid behind my voice for many years, trying to deny the fact that I’ve never felt like a girl because I was a soprano. I remember when my friends’ voices started cracking and dropping in middle school and wishing mine would do the same. I spent many nights truly hoping it would and tried to force my speaking voice lower, leading to constant vocal strain. Instead, I discovered the top of my range and felt even more uncomfortable. This is what I now identify as dysphoria, and this is one of my clearest memories of how horrible it felt. Dysphoria simply means a disconnect. In the case of many transgender individuals, this disconnect often manifests physically between our bodies and minds. While I can’t say that I’ve ever felt “trapped in the wrong body”, I can say that I’ve felt that disconnect. My voice was a constant disconnect. I sang with a voice that never truly felt “mine” for most of my life. Every time I’d sing, I’d feel that uneasiness and wishing it’d go away. It didn’t until recently.
So I made the best of it and got to study with Dr. In-Young Lee in my undergraduate studies. Dr. Lee really pushed and challenged my voice. She taught me how to fill it out and be more confident and unafraid to use it. She helped make my top octave strong and my voice more flexible and even across my range. During my most focus in the middle of my studies, I was able to sing over a 30-40 person concert band without a mic and comfortably. I felt unstoppable. This was put to the test several times and I got to premiere a few pieces for concert/wind band and soprano written by local composers (one was adamant about me not using a mic, to my chagrin). I took pride in this, as I do as a performer overall.
During one of these performances, my father was in attendance. He did his usual little act of praising me in front of everyone around…then as soon as we left? It turned to “you’re a piece of shit”, “you’re tone deaf”, “you can’t sing”, “give up already” “everyone was laughing at you” “you’re a disgrace to the family”. Cue more breakdowns. More tears. More self-loathing. Every “bad” audition I’ve ever had, his voice has been in my head telling me how I’ll never be anything. It’s made for some epic breakdowns over the years, even though I generally audition pretty well.
I am thankful for Dr. Lee and my education because it’s truly helped in my current vocal journey. I remember, begrudgingly, smoking 2-3 cigarettes before my weekly lesson, knowing that she expected me to sing at the top of my range. I spent many evenings practicing while crying and resentful at my body, wishing my voice would just drop so I wouldn’t have to spend an hour straight singing around A5 as expected. It didn’t feel authentic, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I thought I wasn’t practicing hard enough or well enough or not devoted enough for a while. I kept thinking that it would go away and I’d somehow be comfortable with it if I truly devoted myself to my studies.
It never did.
The best thing about having vocal education is that I learned how to manipulate my voice, including my speaking voice, to almost comfortably speak in a lower tessitura without much strain. It gave me some relief when I started consciously manipulating my voice, but it still wasn’t enough. It still wasn’t “mine” and I felt like such a fraud most of the time. Get a few drinks in me, and that self-control would be out the window. I was hiding behind a growing voice while simultaneously taking pride in it and loathing what was coming out of my throat.
The irony in all of this is that my voice was my biggest concern when I finally came out and decided to start medically transitioning. Was I ready to let go of something that was such a part of my identity, even if I never really believed it to be my own? Was I ready to finally exist? Will I still be able to even sing after my voice changed? I was ready and willing to take that chance that I would never sing again — the dysphoria and emotional turmoil was too overpowering to just keep pushing through it.
Three years ago this week, I signed my informed consent documentation. In Pennsylvania, my home state, informed consent is the law. This means that someone can go into a doctor’s office and express their desire to transition. The medical provider will then get a history and provide the necessary information as to what hormones will likely do in great detail. The patient will sign off and consent to treatment. Then it’s off to the lab for bloodwork followed by the prescription. The immediate sense of relief that came in that appointment is indescribable. I spoke to my PCP about my hopes to return to music school and needing my voice for that. When he listened, that’s when I knew I was in good hands. I’m pretty upset that he’s leaving the office I’ve been going to, because he’s the first medical professional I’ve ever felt complete trust in.
In the coming weeks and months after my first shot (on 20 January 2016), my throat started feeling like there was an unscratchable itch. I was told to sing through it and don’t worry about trying to be gentle. I took that advice and it was pretty rough. My voice started becoming unstable and uneven starting with the top fourth of my range, but I never had any doubt that it was for the better. Because I was seeing a PCP that I trust, I knew it would somehow be ok.
Then my voice actually cracked. I started sounding like a teenage boy that day. At first I didn’t completely notice it, but friends noticed my squeeks. I had little control over my speaking voice and it was frustrating, but hilarious in the way a teenage boy’s voice starts dropping. One of my participants at work asked if Ursula had stolen my voice after I was out for a few weeks in the psych hospital. This is where my education truly became a crutch. I know what was going on physically and have the education to know academically, but how would I make this work in real life? How would I preserve my voice? Would I never be able to sing again? Or will I finally find my voice if I stuck through it? I started becoming more confident as my body started changing. I didn’t have any major drop for a few months, just some deepening and loss of my top half octave.
While I like to believe that it was a steep and quick drop, it wasn’t. My voice dropped pretty evenly because my PCP took great care of me. I gradually dropped just shy of an octave in the first 8-10 months. When I first started noticing it, everything started feeling right. Yet I still had little control over it and it was so unstable. I have been playing violin since I was a kid and have pretty strong relative pitch to A=440. I could “hear” A in my head strongly, but I couldn’t get it out of my vocal cords (I still can’t!). It was more frustration, but I never stopped knowing that it felt “right” and that hope that I will finally have the voice I’ve wanted since I could remember.
A year and a half in, I was down almost 2 octaves. A very gradual drop, although it still feels like it was sudden. I’m at a point where I honestly cannot remember what my voice sounded like three years ago. It’s not like I woke up one morning and I was the bass that I am today. I started having control over my voice again around that time. I started being able to have some muscle memory and started taking off the training wheels slowly. My education and fondness of music theory has served me well throughout all of this and I started having that “connection” between my mind and my voice that dysphoria kept getting in the way of. My confidence in singing was pretty much back, only without the fear of being outed. But I knew I had a long road ahead as I was started to get reacquainted with my singing voice.
Remember when I said I get super-rough on myself when it comes to “bad” auditions? When I was convinced my voice was settled in and not going to drop again (it hadn’t for several months), I felt “ready” to sing in a group again and decided to audition for an LGBT choir a few friends and their loved ones have been in. In my mind, I completely shit all over that audition and I hated myself for weeks over it. I have a bachelor’s degree in music and a singing background and a decent ear. My primary instrument is piccolo, so I definitely have a decent ear. It’s sometimes a curse to be an educated musician, but it was my father and brother’s voices in my head screaming at me.
In hindsight, I didn’t do that badly considering the physical aspect of transition. In reality, my voice was not quite settled yet. Sure, it had deepened and dropped, but it wasn’t quite there and still a bit unstable, despite having regained some control.
My voice cracked and dropped another half an octave right after that audition, this time pretty quickly compared to the previous year. Everything I was starting to get comfortable with vocally changed again within weeks, but it wasn’t as rough as the two octaves prior. I was able to bounce back and my voice became stronger as a result because I didn’t just let my demons take over. I refused to let my father’s condescending voice get to me, but it briefly did.
I re-auditioned for the same choir out of spite and self-loathing a few months later and I couldn’t be happier over it.
The past year of singing in a choir again has truly allowed me to finally claim my voice. I sing with a local LGBT choir and we just performed Messiah a few weeks ago. It feels like I’ve gone full-circle. The last time I got to sing Messiah was a decade ago and I was very much a soprano. To get to sing this beautiful work in a voice I can call “mine” has been a very emotional experience. 2018 was a year that I got to re-visit work I did a decade ago as a younger, arrogant, and inexperienced musician. To end the year with such a piece was very fulfilling. Messiah helped me find my voice again. The notes on the pages have stayed as the same as they have been for nearly three centuries.
While my actual range has shrunk (from about 2.5 octaves to about an octave and a sixth), I can finally say that I have the voice I’ve dreamed of. I’ve slowly been working on getting some use of falsetto. I physically will never have that higher range (thankfully!), but I’m always the kind to push myself. I’d like to see what my lengthened and thickened vocal cords are capable of with some work.
With that, I’m still learning how to use my voice again now that it’s pretty much settled and done changing. To feel such a connection to my voice has been a great journey. There’s still a lot of growing and learning to be done. There’s adjustments — like reading in bass clef solely. My education is coming in handy there. There’s also having to rely on my ear in a way I’ve never really had to vocally. As a soprano, I never really actually had to read. As a fledgeling bass who spent 28 years as a soprano, my ear and education are essential. I can’t rely solely on muscle memory and actually have to take the time to read, and that challenge is fulfilling. My theory background is an asset in this area. I academically understand how a bass line works pre-this past century. The challenge is using that and placing it in my vocal cords without succumbing to my ear being influenced by higher vocal parts. This experience is making me realize just how much work I’ve yet to do.
I’ve also had to adjust how I play instruments. This has been the biggest surprise. It makes sense on the physical level, but I didn’t think it’d be this drastic a change. Because my vocal cords are longer and thicker, the air that goes through them has changed. The most noticeable difference is on alto saxophone. I find myself needing more air in my lower octave. On flute, my top octave has become more comfortable. On piccolo, my highest third is now effortless (but that can probably be attributed to being a more experienced player). On clarinet, I don’t really notice a difference, but I also switched to solely using Fibracell reeds in theatre. This was such an unexpected change!
So I’ve mostly focused on the physical stuff involving transition… What about the emotional and mental aspects? That’s the most important part of this process.
For starters, the dysphoria surrounding my voice is completely gone. I’m no longer afraid of my speaking voice outing me. I’m never misgendered solely on my voice. I no longer have to force my speaking voice lower because it just is, which is taking mental strain to always speak at a lower pitch away. In my nearly three years of hormones, I have found the voice I’ve been looking for since I was sitting in class in middle school. I listen to myself and finally, everything feels right. I don’t listen to recordings and not recognize my voice because that disconnect is no longer there. It is awkward to listen to recordings before I started though. I don’t recognize that voice. After 31 years, I finally feel good about how my voice sounds.
In the near future, hopefully this year, I hope to return to another round of music school. I hope to become a music therapist. Specifically, I would like to shift my focus from instrumental to working with transgender singers (especially transgender men). I’ve learned a lot in my transition, and I feel like my academic and professional goals have shifted into this direction. There aren’t a lot of resources for transgender singers. If I were to begin studying with again, I don’t quite know where to turn. This is living in a diverse and accepting and musically rich city like Philadelphia. Rural areas have even less resources.
In my choir, there are several of us in various phases of hormonal transition. I believe that music should be accessible to all who wish to experience it. I’ve been fortunate to keep singing through my voice changing, and I truly contribute my singing voice being preserved to this. It is something that I truly recommend to other transgender men. For me, it sucked for a while… but I pushed through the awkwardness of a second puberty and my voice came out stronger.
I cannot wait for what the future may bring and how my voice will continue to develop. For now, I’ve finally found comfort with it. I’ve finally found how I was meant to sound all along. And it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my transition into the man I was meant to be.