RTRL.39: Accommodating Transgender Singers (Aguirre, 2018)

Source:

Aguirre, R. (2018). Finding the trans voice: A review of the literature on accommodating transgender singers. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 37(1), 36-41.

What did the researcher want to know?

What guidance can existing research provide to help music educators better meet the needs of transgender singers?

What did the researcher do?

Aguirre conducted a literature review of existing research studies pertaining to the transgender singing experience or that provide suggestions for working with transgender singers.

What did the researcher find?

Aguirre first presents definitions of relevant terminology:

  • sex = designation (male or female) assigned at birth
  • gender = social construct that encompasses both gender identify and gender expression and exists on a spectrum (not only male/female but also nonbinary, etc.)
  • transgender = describing one whose birth-assigned sex does not align with their gender identify, gender expression, or both. Note: “The proper term to use when discussing this population is transgender, not the past tense verb ending in -ed, as using the verb form of this word implies that something has happened to this person” (p. 37).
    • male-to-female transgender (MtF or trans-female/woman) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was male but identifies as female
    • female-to-male transgender (FtM or trans-male/man) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was female but identifies as male
    • (**NOTE: Some feel that the the terms MtF/FtM are inappropriate because they suggest that something “happened” to the person. Instead, we might use the terms AFAB (assigned female at birth) or AMAB (assigned male at birth).

Aguirre’s review of the literature found the following:

  1. Many educators feel unprepared to work with the LGBTQ community.
  2. While some studies show that many transgender students report having more positive experiences in their music classes compared to the rest of school, other studies show that some music teachers are not comfortable using gender-neutral language in their classrooms.
  3. The choral classroom may be a more likely source of obstacles for transgender students than other music classrooms. This is due to gendered voice parts, gendered ensemble types, gendered rehearsal language, and/or gendered concert attire that are prevalent among many choral music education programs.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music educators should be sensitive to the unique needs of all students but especially of their transgender students. Existing research shows that transgender students notice and appreciate their teachers’ efforts to provide a more inclusive environment. Here are some ways that music teachers can make their classrooms a more inclusive environment for their trans students:

  • Avoid gendered language when addressing students. Instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”, try using a gender-neutral term, such as “students”, “musicians”, or “everyone.” Specifically in the choral classroom, try referring to students by voice part rather than sex (e.g., “sopranos and altos” rather than “ladies/girls”).
  • Be sure to address students by their correct pronouns (e.g., they/them, she/her, he/him). At the beginning of each semester, you might ask students to complete an information/background form, in which you ask them to indicate their preferred pronouns. After reviewing these, prepare for class by devoting conscious attention to practicing the correct pronouns of any students you find yourself misgendering. Practicing the proper pronouns outside of class will help you use them more comfortably and automatically in class. It is also acceptable to avoid pronouns altogether and use a student’s preferred first name. This article provides some helpful tips for using gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Teach your students that “voice part, like sexuality, is independent of gender identity or gender expression…. Tenors and basses do not have to be males, while sopranos and altos do not have to be females” (p. 39). Note that this is not an entirely new concept, as some cisgender females with low voices may sing tenor or cisgender males with high voices may sing alto/countertenor.) (NOTE: Cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.)
  • If you currently have gendered ensemble names, consider renaming these to be gender-neutral. For example, “men’s choir” could become “tenor/bass choir”; “women’s choir” could become “treble choir”. 
  • Choose gender-neutral concert attire or allow students to choose the option in which they will feel most comfortable. 
  • Be aware of specific needs of trans men versus trans women. Some female trans students (AMAB) may be able to sing in their falsetto if their preference is to sing the also or soprano part. Provide such students with this option as well as guidance in doing so. Male trans students (AFAB) who are starting testosterone may experience voice change similar to adolescent cisgender males and need the same sensitivity and guidance from their teacher.
  • Rewrite vocal parts for specific students when needed.

Resources:

 

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

Source:

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. 

Resources:

  • 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.