In recent years, it has become increasingly common for choral teachers to have transitioning and gender-fluid singers in their choirs. A quick online search will reveal some excellent literature centered on vocal pedagogy and transitioning voices. However, we should also consider the statistics surrounding mental health risks among transgender youth. While we may think that we are accommodating and inclusive of all our students, we need to take extra steps to ensure that students across the gender-identity spectrum feel safe, comfortable, and happy. We should also be mindful of the potential impact of even the most basic choral practices—from gendered terminology, to choir uniforms, to student assumptions.
Last year, one of my fifth grade students, Rose*, began the transition process. The school community was very supportive. A gender-neutral bathroom was created, students and families were educated about the transition process, and new expectations and information were disseminated to faculty. I wrote a note for Rose on the first page of her choir binder, telling her that I would do my very best to make sure she felt comfortable in my class.
Since then, I have learned a lot about my teaching practice and have become more mindful of my blind spots and areas for growth. Rose is now one of my advisees, and I work in conjunction with her parents and the school psychologist to help her feel safe, and hopefully happy, at school. There are many aspects of student life to consider as part of this goal, and there have been some bumps in the road, but I know that Rose finds happiness and solace in choir. In this post, I will detail some basic topics that choral teachers might reconsider as they examine the inclusivity of their practices. I hope this post can spark a dialogue wherein other teachers offer their tips and ideas, as well.
Changing (Or Reinforcing) the Culture
At the start of the school year, we explored timbre and range, analyzing the voices of a variety of musical artists, then exploring our own. I am finding that a more thorough understanding of these concepts helps students embrace their own voices and celebrate differences. I stress that anyone could potentially be in any section, and that sectioning is based on timbre and range rather than gender. Additionally, I try to be mindful of language during rehearsals, avoiding gendered terms like “ladies” and “gentlemen.” Instead, I opt for section names (Part 1, Part 2, Soprano, Alto, Baritone, etc.) and am considerate of students’ personal pronouns. I am also mindful when selecting repertoire that the lyrics do not reinforce gender stereotypes.
I’ll admit, I’m still fairly traditional when it comes to concert dress. I want my students to look formal and uniform. Formal dress denotes a significant event, and for many students, performing on stage is a major accomplishment. I want it to be recognized as such. I don’t require uniforms specific to boys and girls, opting instead for formal, accepted attire that includes white shirts paired with black bottoms (both pants and skirts are acceptable) and black shoes. Students have the option of adding a bow tie or necktie, and students across the gender-identity spectrum have exercised this option in the past.
Emphasizing Vocal Technique
At the end of the day, healthy singing is paramount. Rose has been taking hormone blockers since fifth grade. So, fortunately, she does not need to worry about a changing voice that goes against her gender identity. However, many students begin the transition process later, after the onset of puberty. When a student’s voice is deeper or higher than they think it should be, it can cause dysphoria, a sense of stress or extreme discomfort about their body and how they are perceived socially. In this situation, we should double-down on emphasizing posture, breathing, healthy sound production, and the idea that any gender can sing any part. We should also be reading the literature, attending the workshops, and making ourselves more knowledgeable about trans and non-binary singers and how to best serve them vocally, socially, and emotionally.
Some Resources to Get Started
There are some excellent resources online if you are ready to learn more about teaching trans choral students. Joshua Palkki’s ACDA publication, Inclusivity in Action: Transgender Students in the Choral Classroom, is a thoughtful, well-researched study of three transitioning students and their experiences in choir. A Place in the Choir is a YouTube interview with a transitioning high school student who found choir to be a major part of understanding and accepting himself. Alfred Music’s article, “How Gender-Inclusive Is My Choir?,” provides teachers with practical strategies for inclusion and offers additional resources. There is truly a wealth of additional, current research available to help guide your practice.
Doing What We Do Best
Choir has earned a reputation in popular culture as a place of refuge. Let’s continue to embrace and uplift everyone, especially those most in need of our support. I challenge us all to learn and grow together, using music to build bridges, understanding, and community.