The Singer’s Library: Transgender Voices

When I was a beginning voice teacher, I was eager to teach any student who came to me for lessons. I quickly found, however, that the students who had different voice types or different backgrounds from my own presented significant challenges to my early skills as a teacher.

Although every voice student requires individualized instruction, teachers can be more effective when they have general information related to the populations of the students with whom they work. This is partly the motivation behind The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices. Authors Liz Jackson Hearns and Brian Kremer drew on their experience working with trans singers in writing the book, which they discuss in the conversation below. (Unattributed comments indicate a collective response.)

How did you come to specialize in teaching transgender singers?

Brian: It was a process of self-awareness. As a teacher, my goal is to be able to properly teach and serve any student who walks into my studio. I recognized that this was a population of students that I was ill-equipped to teach, and I wanted to remedy that.  

Liz: A bit by accident, actually. My first trans student was a violin player who happened to switch instruments to voice and began studying with me several years ago. He is a philosophy professor and author, and took the time to guide me through experiences of gender exploration. It became clear that providing voice education for gender-expansive folks was necessary, and I immersed myself in as much information as I could in order to be helpful. That student has remained a good friend and an important role model for cultural responsiveness—and he wrote the foreword to our book! 

How much experience did you have working with transgender singers before you decided to write this guide?

Brian: Much of my experience came from researching and writing the book. I taught my first transgender singing student during the initial research study I conducted.  

Liz: When Brian and I started working together, I had been teaching trans and non-binary singers for a few years, and had started learning about what other teachers might need as a guide to doing the work by training the other teachers at The Voice Lab.

Were you mentored in this work by other teachers or is the book primarily borne out of your own experiences in the studio?

There really was no opportunity to be mentored by other teachers and that was much of the catalyst for writing the book. This was the first comprehensive resource of its kind, investigating successful approaches to training transgender and non-binary singers. Part of the research emerged from our own teaching experiences as well as many discussions with students for whom this is their lived experience.

In working with transgender singers, did you find you had to vastly alter your teaching or did you simply need to gain some new knowledge in order to proceed most effectively?

Yes, we have found that we needed to vastly alter our teaching to successfully train transgender students. Many teachers who decide to do this work realize that there will be technical and pedagogical shifts, but sometimes are unaware of how crucial the cultural shifts are. Training a transgender student takes a specific vocabulary of appropriate language, an understanding of the student’s life experience, and an awareness of the profound relationships between voice and gender.


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It seems significant that the title refers to the book as a “guide” rather than a “manual” or “method.” Can you explain that choice?

It is our experience that good voice teaching involves training the student in front of you. Students are all unique in their vocal issues, learning styles, and personalities. There is no manual to training anyone because we are all so different. One of the messages we hope to offer with the book is that there is no single right way to be in a vocal and educational space with another person. Every experience is deeply personal, and our responsibility is to ensure that we are entering that space with compassion and flexibility.

You include a list of “Terms and Vocabulary for LGBTQIA+ Identities” as well as some “Problematic Terminology” that can be hurtful or offensive, even if those terms have been commonly used in the past. Are you concerned that some of the terms you use and advocate in the book will eventually become outdated as well?

We are not concerned about it; rather, we expect it. Language evolves over time, especially within a community that is still discovering and claiming terminology that attempts to describe lived experiences. The best way to understand evolving language is to try to develop empathy for what it must be like to only recently have access to words that describe your reality. It’s natural for that language to shift as more accurate descriptors become available.

Has your studio work with those in the trans community changed the way you work with cisgender singers?

Absolutely. Once you begin investigating this topic, you realize how gendered our industry is. Everything from the voice classification system and choral parts to roles and repertoire are entrenched in a binary gender system. We use more thought now when considering repertoire, exercise sequences, and ways of exploring the whole voice. Within this binary system, sometimes parts of our voices are deemed invalid, inauthentic, or unimportant, and that can be harmful to any singer.

What are some elements of your teaching that are different now than when you first began working with trans singers?

Brian: The largest adjustment for me is the increased value I put on meeting every student with who they are now and working to help them achieve their goals for the future with less consideration for what the traditions of the industry may expect them to be.   

Liz: One of the biggest shifts for me has been to develop awareness of when students have agency over their learning experience. Trans and non-binary folks often do not have agency within their own lives, with their bodies, or even their names. It’s important to understand when and how voice teachers can either revoke or instill agency within a voice lesson. In my own education, it was not uncommon for instructions to include phrases like, “look in the mirror” or “put your hand on your belly/ribs/back.” Now, when I’m working with all my students, I use phrases that begin with “what would it be like to…” especially when addressing anything related to the body. This gives the student the opportunity to choose whether they are interested in engaging in instruction with intention and autonomy. Aside from building more trust within the studio, I think it has also helped with technical retention.

What do you ultimately hope the book will help accomplish?

We hope the book will be the beginning of a very important conversation around serving a diverse population of students who are searching for support from compassionate and knowledgeable voice teachers. This book is not the only resource needed to do this work well. More resources are being written and becoming more readily available, and it is exciting that our book is part of the growing knowledge base.

Review

The authors of The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices bring unique experience to the book. Brian Kremer is an assistant professor of voice and music theatre at Elon University, specializing in contemporary performance styles. He has lectured internationally on training transgender singers. Liz Jackson Hearns is the owner of The Voice Lab, Inc., in Chicago and is a co-founder of ResonaTe, Chicago’s all-transgender chorus. She is also the author of One Weird Trick: A User’s Guide to Transgender Voice, an invaluable resource in its own right.

As a vocal pedagogy text, The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices is appropriately technical as it covers the requisite elements of pitch, registration, resonance, and articulation. Arguably more important, however, is the book’s focus on the person behind each voice. The heart of the book deals with honoring trans individuals for who they are, better understanding their experiences, and allowing them the autonomy to decide which elements of their voices they wish to explore and develop.

The need for The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices is summed up brilliantly in the foreword by Das Janssen: “Human beings are social animals. We need one another and we need to be heard. And we need to be heard as who and what we are.”

As society is becoming increasingly aware of issues that relate to those in the transgender community, it is demonstrably clear how woefully inadequate historical voice  pedagogy has been on the topic. The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices is a pioneering resource that should be considered required reading for modern voice teachers in order that their instruction be inclusive and relevant to all the current and future students they serve.

Brian Manternach

Tenor Brian Manternach teaches voice at the University of Utah in the Musical Theatre Program. He holds degrees in vocal performance from Saint John’s University in Minnesota (BA), the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MM), and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (DM). He can be reached at bmantern@gmail.com.