Understanding How Variations in Gender Expression Can Affect Vocal Pedagogy

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed May 24, 2022

Learn more: inspiration, gender inclusivity

Transgender person leaning over a desk

Sometimes in life, there is nothing more simplistic and satisfying than a chicken nugget from McDonald's. It's one of those foods that I could eat at 9:00 in the morning or 9:00 in the evening. As long as my Sweet and Sour sauce is in the bag (bonus points if the fries are extra hot), when there's a McNugget in my hand, I'm McHappy.

However, when that ruinous McNugget craving hits, I'm forced to either spend way too much money having them delivered to me—something I refuse to admit having done—or I have to take the time to get in my car and embark on a quest to the fabled Golden Arches. And as a transgender person, that can be exhausting.

It isn't the actual physical act of driving, or in my case, occasionally screaming at the ludicrousness that is Houston traffic, but the mental preparation it can take to endure a possible trigger of gender dysphoria via an unintentional misgendering by the restaurant worker. While most people tend to focus on their decision of what meal they would like to order, I am busy being cognizant of the tonality, verbiage, and inflection that I use with my voice. What is the "feminine" way to say McNugget? If I only raise my baseline speaking pitch, will that be enough?

Inevitably, it becomes time to pull up to the drive-thru speaker. As soon as I pull up, the crackling sound of the worker comes through, asking for my order. My breath hitches, I raise my larynx, and in the most feminine voice I can muster, I order my McNuggets and Sweet and Sour sauce. The pause as the worker enters my order into their POS system is palpable at best. Will I be correctly gendered? Did I do enough?

"Alright, I have your order. Please pull around to the next window for your total, sir."      

Sir. With that one "sir," my day is partially ruined, or at the very least is a little less bright. The worker was simply trying to be polite and cordial, so I can't be upset with them, but that doesn't stop the hurt. I follow instructions and pull around. When the worker sees me, their "sir" instantly changes to a "ma'am." But the damage is already done. I pay for my food, pick up my McNuggets at the next window, and drive away. I get home, my heart aching a little from the misgendering, and look into my bag of food. The Sweet and Sour sauce is missing. Of course it is.

Transgender woman leaning against wall

We don't know what our transgender, non-binary, or gender expansive choir members are dealing with on a daily basis. There are times that some of their behaviors or external expressions of their gender can potentially affect their mindset, or at other times affect vocal pedagogy. It's essential for us as choir directors to understand how certain aspects of gender expression alteration can affect singing in a choir, so we can be more empathetic in our rehearsals.

As a reminder, gender expression is how one outwardly displays their gender. This can be done through the clothing or accessories that someone wears, their mannerisms, the way they speak, or maybe even how they walk. The vast majority of gender expression selections are choices that people make, whether consciously or subconsciously.

When it comes to choral singing, the voice is probably the most crucial consideration. Many transgender people manually raise or lower the pitch of their speaking voices to produce a more masculine or feminine sound. This tends to involve the individual using a higher laryngeal position or emphasizing the head or chest voice more profoundly. There are many voice therapists who work with trans individuals to achieve the desired vocal sound in a healthy and sufficient way. (An excellent resource for this is www.yourlessonsnow.com), But not everybody has equitable access to voice therapy or voice lessons. Vocal fatigue can occur by improperly adjusting their speaking—and especially singing pitch—or by using the altered voice for an extended period of time.

During my undergrad, I remember beginning to speak with a more feminine inflection and adjusting my speaking pitch to be higher in an effort for my voice to be more in line with my identity. I would get to my voice lessons, sing my repertoire for an hour, and when I got back to my car, I found my voice incredibly drained and exhausted. I had to spend some time in the privacy of my car doing some laryngeal relaxation exercises and using my lower speaking voice, which I was used to, in order to help give my vocal folds a break.

This is bound to happen in your rehearsals with a transgender person. Not all people will alter their voices, but many will. It is likely that they will have times when their voice is fatigued or tired more often than others. It can be frustrating to have a singer who does not have consistent and ready access to their instrument, but this is not uncommon. Be patient, and try to remember that it isn't a conscious decision but rather a part of their vocal process that they are adapting to as well.

Transgender woman with head on hands

Another common gender expression alteration is done via the selection of articles of clothing. Some transgender people, typically those who identify as transmasculine, or those wanting to appear more masculine, will wear binders. These are garments similar to a sports bra, but the primary function is to minimize the appearance of breast tissue. Transfeminine individuals, or those wanting to appear more feminine, may wear corsets or waist-trainers to create a more feminine shape.

There isn't yet enough research about the effects of corsets and waist-trainers, but there have been some studies into the physiological effects of chest binding in transgender adults. Participants in a 2017 study self-reported numerous health outcomes, including pain (chest, shoulder, back, abdominal), respiratory (cough, respiratory infections, shortness of breath), musculoskeletal (bad posture, rib or spine changes, rib fractures, shoulder joint 'popping,' muscle wasting) neurological (numbness, headache, lightheadedness or dizziness), gastrointestinal (digestive issues, heartburn), general (fatigue, overheating, weakness) or some skin/tissue issues*.

It does not necessarily follow that all transgender people who wear binders will experience all of the aforementioned symptoms, but rather some transgender people who wear binders will experience some of them.

So what does this mean for your choral members who wear binders? It's important to note that unless there is some important reason for you to ask about what underwear they are wearing, you do not need to ask if a binder is being worn. If a member volunteers that they are wearing a binder and directly inform you that it affects their singing ability or participation in the ensemble, you can discuss how to help them.

While ultimately, a transperson should discuss any medical concerns with their healthcare provider, Dr. Peitzmeier recommends that in order to alleviate some of the aforementioned symptoms, the binder-wearer should find an extended period of time to go without their binder. Beyond that, as a director, you can show kindness and respect and perhaps expect some minor limitations. These limitations could include slightly affected posture, diminished breath capacity, or even getting tired faster than others. It's okay to check in on your singer, but trust that they know themselves and will inform you if you need to be aware of any pressing issues.

How we express our gender is personal. There are many different avenues and paths in which our gender can be expressed. Some of these paths may be unfamiliar to you, and that's 100% okay. Just remember to keep an open mind and listen to your choir members. They may be experiencing something that you haven't personally dealt with, but that doesn't mean it isn't valid. And if something is affecting their singing or participation in the ensemble, don't be too quick to ask them to change their expression. Be kind and show grace; the smallest acts of kindness can go a long way. Let them sit instead of stand, give them frequent breaks, or even buy them some McNuggets—just be sure that the sauce is in the bag.

*Peitzmeier, S., Gardner, I., Weinand, J., Corbet, A., & Acevedo, K. (2016). Health impact of chest binding among transgender adults: a community-engaged, cross-sectional study. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 19(1), 64–75. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2016.1191675

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Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed

Melanie Stapleton (she/her) is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director located in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pursuing a PhD in Music Studies with a specialization in Music Education and an interdisciplinary certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas as well as a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed