May 8, 2017

Beyond the choir uniform: Making the choral experience a more inclusive one!

by Mariana Farah and Felix Rose

More often than not, teachers in all fields are confronted with the ever-so-present challenge of making the classroom a safe and welcoming environment for all. Promoting a creative and engaging environment where diverse ideas are encouraged and embraced stand at the core of developing and implementing a well-rounded curriculum in all areas. The most current controversy surrounding the so-called “gender-neutral bathroom bill” is yet another example of how topics related to differences of any kind still pose challenges to our legislators, and to our society as a whole.

At the center of these discussions are often children and parents of different races, genders, and background who are fighting to keep their sons and daughters safe, happy, and engaged. In the classrooms, there are the teachers who are charged with the responsibility to continue to educate and promote a supportive environment for all. While the genderfluid and transgender students may challenge all teachers and administrators to promote practices for gender inclusivity, in the choir room, these practices certainly go beyond pronouns and the choral uniform.

A number of school districts and schools are finally changing the names of their gender-specific choirs (from Women’s and Men’s Chorus to Treble and Tenor and Bass Chorus, for example) to create more inclusive ensembles. Some schools are also revising their choir uniform to eliminate the idea that the women must wear dresses or skirts while the men wear pants. Choral directors are often reminded that they should stop referring to the tenor and bass sections as the “men” and the soprano and alto sections as the “women.” These are all relevant points that must be addressed in schools and music institutions worldwide if we vow to promote a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.

Beyond that, as vocal professionals, choral directors also face the more difficult challenge of vocal placement for genderfluid students as well as those who are transitioning. These students greatly wish to be placed in the section that best match their gender identity, yet vocally they may not belong there. While we all should want our students to feel included, it is our job to make sure that they are using their instruments in a healthy way. There is no question that more research needs to be done when it comes to vocal pedagogy for transgender students and singers who are transitioning. We still do not have a clear understanding of how hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery impact one’s vocal abilities. It is certainly my hope that ENTs, vocal pedagogues, voice teachers, and choir directors will engage more heavily in substantial research that will lead to safe vocal practices for transgender students and students in transition.

While this particular article does not focus on the health-related issues surrounding this topic, it is a kind, heart-felt testimony of a former student who is now a colleague. Felix Rose was and continues to be a beautiful singer whose love of music and choir transcends gender and the barriers between classical and popular music. Felix has perfect pitch, a beautiful tone, a brilliant mind, and an open soul: some of the most wonderful attributes a choral director dares to dream about. Below, Felix describes their experience in choir as a genderfluid singer and gives us even more convincing reasons why we must vow to look beyond the choir uniform. The choral community must come together to address the various facets involving singers of different gender identities. It is past the time for us to engage in more serious conversation and research that will allow us to promote a truly inclusive and creative environment and more meaningful performances.

It's Not Just the Uniform
A genderfluid vocalist's experience in the choral and classical singing field

By Felix Rose

The dress was absolutely stunning. Waves of metallic silver floral print cascaded over a serene navy blue on the skirt, with a solid-colored top section to provide contrast.* The design had been agreed on by the vast majority of the sopranos and altos in the choir, and indeed, they had good taste. I had to admit that.

Not only was it a work of art, but it was handmade just for me by the mother of a fellow choir member, to fit my exact waist size and build.

And that just added to the guilt I had about feeling completely awkward and uncomfortable putting it on.
As a genderfluid person, I prefer to stick to "neutral" articles of clothing and stray away from the more traditionally-feminine ones. It's through this sort of wardrobe that I am able to feel comfortable no matter where my gender identity may lie at any particular point in time. If I put that dress on, I knew I wouldn't feel at all like myself, and not only would it simply be unpleasant, but it would distract me from my singing.

I spoke with the choral director about my unease in wearing the uniform due to my genderfluidity, and thankfully, he was understanding about it. "I don't want my singers to feel uncomfortable," he told me. "If you want, you can wear black slacks for concerts."

That was kind of him, and it was immensely relieving to know that he accepted me as I am, but then there was another issue to consider - I wasn't out to most people yet, and I'm still not. What would my family think if they came to a concert and saw all the other sopranos and altos in their perfect symmetrical rows, all wearing the regulation dress - and then there I was on the end in a pair of pants? Would they think I was just being spoiled and unprofessional? Would I be forced to explain it to them after the performance?

Truth be told, it wasn't just about the uniform. It was about what it symbolized: society's constant nagging at me to represent myself as somebody else, simply because I was born with certain body parts. You're a "girl," they said, so you have to wear this kind of clothing, and you must have this type of personality and these specific interests, and on and on. And in a field where I felt I should be able to express myself as openly as possible, this felt especially out-of-place - and entirely unnecessary to begin with.

* * *

The gender dysphoria can surface in much more pervasive matters than clothing as well. For me, it has also showed up as a struggle with vocal classification.

When I was in college, I had a voice teacher who insisted over and over that I was a soprano. Nothing I said could change her mind, despite the fact that other instructors had different opinions and actually allowed me to sing in my natural low-to-mid range, which I had fought to preserve due to the fact that a low range sounded more gender-neutral to me than a higher one. This college was notorious for pushing students' voices up as high as they would go - freshmen would come in as booming baritones and rich-voiced mezzos, and they would graduate as tenors and sopranos (and most likely with vocal health problems as a result). I narrowly escaped this issue myself once I switched from vocal performance to a music composition major and thus only needed to take my applied instrument for five semesters. If I'd taken voice at this school for just a few months longer, it could have caused me to abandon classical singing forever.

"No, that's not your real timbre," she'd insist. "You don't need that much space. You're a soprano!"
...Okay, then. I squeezed the back of my throat into a smaller shape and sang the exercise again.
"Perfect!" she enthused with a bright smile. "There's your real voice!"

Um, except it hurts to sing like that, I muttered inwardly. But I didn't want to argue. After all, I was only 21 years old and my voice hadn't fully developed yet, so who was I to deny her? Maybe it would become more natural as the lesson progressed.

But after 45 straight minutes of singing above the staff, I ended up walking out of the lesson crying, feeling like a bear had clawed at my larynx, and hoping nobody else would walk down the hall and see me with tears streaming down my face.

Not only had she completely mistyped my voice (which promptly relaxed back into a mezzo range as soon as I quit lessons), which is problematic in itself, but the slight felt deeper than that. I didn't want to sing soprano because that isn't me. It would rob me of the neutral sound that I was already lucky enough to have as someone who feels completely genderless half the time. Yes, I know I have a young-looking face, a small frame, and am perceived as female. No, I really don't want to be pigeonholed into ingenue roles. I've been expected to take on similar "girly" roles in my daily life at some point, as is the case with nearly everyone perceived as a woman, and it's not something I wish to repeat. As a voice teacher, you may have the best intentions in mind, but you do not get to decide what I'm comfortable with.

What these particular vocal coaches need to realize is that not only is it physically unhealthy and psychologically damaging to try to mold a young singer's voice into something it is not, but it can be ten times as harmful when that singer is trans or non-binary and already struggles with their physical presentation not matching up to their identity.

In a way, the voice is the most personal instrument that exists, and it's because it's the one we're born with. If I'm already on the edge of tears for whatever reason, singing will send me bawling. That doesn't happen when I play piano or viola. There's a certain visceral component to the voice, both literally and figuratively, that makes it deeply rooted in our identity. If we are not allowed to use that particular instrument to express ourselves to the fullest - and especially if it's used against us to insist that we are not who we know we are - then what do we have left?

It is this type of flawed training that can put many promising young singers off from classical singing entirely.

* * *
So what can we do about this in the classical vocal field? Is this a reality that trans and non-binary individuals must face in an area of their life that's meant to be one of the most liberating, or are we willing to break the boundaries we've set for ourselves? I definitely think we can and should remedy the situation in several ways, and there are many, many questions we need to ask ourselves in this regard.

How can a trans or NB person allow their voice to grow, reach its full potential, and stay in good health while still allowing it to align with their gender?

Should we stop calling all sopranos and altos "ladies" (and all tenors and basses "men") in rehearsal and just identify them by sections so as to break down the idea that each voice type is inherently gendered? Choral directors don't seem to have a problem making exceptions for male countertenors, so why not those of us who aren't cis? What if we're squirming in our seats at the repeated gender misidentification, but we don't want to have to come out to the whole ensemble?
How does hormone replacement therapy factor into one's vocal health as a classical singer, if one so chooses to use it? Do we have enough teachers who are well-versed in the effects of HRT on the voice? What about feminization techniques for those who wish to have a more feminine sound than they currently do?

These are but a few issues of which instructors need to be more aware, and my experience is far from the only one out there. Vocal teachers and directors, just like any educators dealing with the arts, are in a field where they are immersed in a pool of promising talent, and their job is to help their students actualize their potential. But it's not just about the technical aspects of one's instrument - and it's not just about some petulant tomboy who doesn't like wearing skirts in concert, either. The voice is the most inherently human and irreplaceable instrument we have, and it is a symbol of who we are. And if we are going to help bring that out of each other, we need to be sure we mold that voice into a tool with which we can express ourselves freely.

That is what singing is all about: free expression and making beautiful, poignant art. It's meant to be a medium through which one can blossom and be wholly themselves, regardless of societal expectations.

And nobody - neither your instructors, peers, family members, nor anybody else in any area of your life - has the right to decide your identity for you.

*Certain details have been changed so as to protect the identities of the individuals and/or ensemble described.