RTRL.22: Nurturing Safety for LGBTQ Students (Palkki & Caldwell, 2018)


Palkki, J., & Caldwell, P. (2018). “We are often invisible”: A survey on safe space for LGBTQ students in secondary school choral programs. Research Studies in Music Education, 40(1), 28-49.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the nature of the role secondary choral programs play in creating safe space for LGBTQ students?

What did the researchers do?

Palkki and Caldwell surveyed 1,123 collegiate choral students from the U.S. and Canada who identified as members of the LGBTQ population. The survey included a variety of Likert-type items as well as open-ended questions pertaining to participants’ experiences as LGBTQ singers in middle school and high school choirs. 

What did the researchers find?

Quantitative data analysis indicated that high school choral programs were more strongly perceived as safe spaces for LGBTQ students than middle school programs, and respondents reported feeling safer expressing their LGBTQ identities in their high school choral programs. Through qualitative analysis of open-ended responses, Palkki and Caldwell found that “the overwhelming message … was that the singers wanted choral conductor-teachers to acknowledge and/or discuss LGBTQ issues in the choral music classroom…. Participants believed that if choral educators did not discuss [matters of gender identity and sexuality] in a culture and schools that are heteronormative and cisgender-centric, that they were not open and accepting” (p. 35). Without specifically addressing LGBTQ issues, general “no-bullying/zero-tolerance” policies were not effective in helping students feel safe and supported by the teacher. Numerous respondents indicated that directors’ failure to confront homophobic slurs hindered students’ sense of safety. Conversely, having teachers “come out” as allies for LGBTQ students is extremely encouraging. Inclusion of LGBTQ topics in the curriculum, such as LGBTQ composers/lyricists, can be “symbolic and influential” (p. 37). Additionally, “LGBTQ students may feel excluded from experiences and conversations in which they do not see themselves represented” (p. 38), such as exclusively heteronormative language or lyrics. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Unless we make it explicitly clear to our students that our classroom is a safe space for LGBTQ individuals, they are likely to assume it’s not. Here are some suggestions based on Palkki and Caldwell’s findings:

  • Display a “safe space” sticker or sign in your classroom or on your office door, such as this printable one from GLSEN. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents commented, “It might sound silly, but the ‘safe space’ sticker makes all the difference in the world. Even if you don’t talk about it to that teacher, knowing they won’t tolerate any negativity about that makes a world of emotional difference” (p. 37). 
  • Be sensitive and thoughtful when choosing music, consciously considering the feelings and experiences of your queer and gender non-conforming students. As described by one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “heteronormativity in songs is very troubling. And the way that traditional worship songs and outdated homophobia are linked together made singing worship songs very uncomfortable for me” (p. 38). 
  • Rethink gendered language. For example, one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents noted, “A trope that has become standard choral parlance of referring to TB voices as ‘men’ and SA voices as ‘women’ is EXTREMELY CISSEXIST IN NATURE [capitalization in original] and [makes] me as a transperson singing in a choir feel very awkward and uncomfortable” (p. 40). Instead of referring to singers as men/women, they could be referred to by their voice parts (e.g., treble voices, sopranos and altos, etc.).
  • Choose concert attire that will allow all students to be comfortable. Avoid traditional “gendered” performance uniforms, instead opting for concert black or providing several uniform options from which students can choose. In the words of one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “forcing everyone with a vagina to wear a dress is bullshit” (p. 40).
  • Include LGBTQ topics in your classroom. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents suggested, “When a piece by a queer composer is done, or if the text is written by someone queer, mention it. Show queer youth that, yes, this beautiful work was written by someone who is queer. Allow their dreams to be as infinite and indestructible as non-queer kids” (p. 38).


RTRL.05: “Voice Change and Singing Experiences of Adolescent Females” (Sweet, 2018)


Sweet, B. (2018). Voice change and singing experiences of adolescent females. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 133-149.

What did the researcher want to know?

How does the adolescent female voice change influence young women’s use of their voice and their participation in singing in middle school, high school, and/or college?

What did the researcher do?

Sweet (2018) studied 17 female collegiate choral singers through one-on-one and focus group interviews.  She prompted the young women to reflect on their singing experiences since age 11, vocal challenges they have faced, and perceptions of how others interacted with them during their voice change experiences.

What did the researcher find?

Participants recalled experiencing numerous vocal challenges during adolescence, including vocal cracks, breaks, weakness, and unpredictability.  Additional challenges, such as laryngeal tension and lack of vocal flexibility, continued throughout adolescence.  Some participants noted that these changes extended into their 20s.

Participants’ recollections of their singing experiences since age 11 were more negative than positive. Emotions like frustration, fear, sadness, self-doubt, insecurity, and self-deprecation were prominent in their memories of singing during voice changes.  Sweet keenly noted that, as conveyed via participants’ tone of voice, facial expressions, and word emphasis, vocal challenges during adolescence were highly emotional experiences.

Teachers’ classification of adolescent female voices was a notable theme among the singers’ experiences.  “Participants who experienced a loss of strength or color in their higher range and had a stronger lower range mostly sang alto lines; participants who experienced a lack of phonation or lost power in lower notes were mostly assigned to higher vocal lines” (p. 142).  Rather than working with these singers through their difficulties, they felt their teachers had assigned them voice parts based on what was needed for the choir as a whole, at times even assigning them to sing vocal parts that were physically uncomfortable.  Additionally, “many participants felt that being assigned a particular voice part in middle school or early high school and rarely (or never) singing notes outside of that assigned voice part, sometimes for the entirety of their involvement in school choir, limited their vocal development and/or singing potential” (p. 142). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Compared to the male voice change, the female adolescent voice change has received far less attention.  Choral teachers need to be aware of the unique challenges that voice change can pose for female students.  Teachers should be sensitive to the negative emotions adolescent female singers may experience as their voices change and help support students through these transitions.  Additionally, teachers might consider the ways in which the assigning of voice parts can benefit or hinder female singers and communicate and collaborate with them to determine flexible voice part assignment and enable a healthy and positive singing experience. 


  • Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Adolescent Voice Change in Music Education, by Bridget Sweet
    • This upcoming book, scheduled for publication in October 2019 by Oxford University Press, encourages a holistic approach to working with adolescent changing voices and addresses female and male voices equally. According to Sweet, “the book is about understanding that voice change is tied up in so many aspects of adolescence and, to best teach/assist/support our students, we have to understand the bigger picture of this time of life, including psychological factors, emotional factors, many different facets of physiological growth, as well as the influence and impact of society’s perceptions of adolescence and voice change” (personal correspondence).
    • Update: Pre-order is available! Find on Amazon here.
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Choral Journal and the Adolescent Female Changing Voice:”
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Keeping the Glass Half Full: Teaching Adolescents with a Holistic Perspective”
  • The Female Voice, by Jean Abitbol
    • This brand new book features a variety of topics related to the female voice, including voice change during puberty, throughout the menstrual cycle, and as a result of hormonal birth control.