Gender Biases in Traditional Voice Education

By Liz Jackson Hearns and Brian Kremer

Authors of The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices

Nowhere else in the musical arts are gender roles as staunchly established and upheld as in voice. The binary gender system presides over voice parts, repertoire choices, role casting, competitions, costuming, dressing rooms, and more. Because the established social gender roles of singers have never been deconstructed or recalibrated, the prevalence of the binary system is so ingrained that it often goes unnoticed until someone who does not fit into the system disrupts it. That disruption leaves many voice teachers and music educators at a loss for means to guide their students in ways that support them artistically and help build their careers in such a heavily gendered environment. It also leaves many gender diverse singers, or would-be singers, unable to find or rely on culturally responsive and pedagogically competent teachers, alone in trying to discover their own authentic, true voice. By engaging in discussion and education about gender-inclusive voice care for singers, we can develop new ways of hearing and guiding voices that affirm, welcome, and hold a place for all singers of all genders.

Voice Part Categorizations

One of the more obvious places that gender binaries impact singers and singing education is voice part classification. The traditional Fach system is, in many ways, an antiquated guide for the modern singer, and especially so for a gender diverse singer. Even choral voice parts are delineated and described as they relate to the gender of the singer. Two singers could have identical voice ranges, weight, color, and style; they could sing the same repertoire and audition for the same stage roles, but each might have a different voice part category because of their gender. Does the gender of the singer somehow change the sound of their voice?

Choosing to adopt a particular voice part category requires that the singer choose a gender, essentially. This can be limiting for transgender and gender nonbinary singers because of the traditionally gendered associations that accompany voice classifications. Female low-voiced singers, male high-voiced singers, and gender nonbinary singers are left without any appropriate voice part category. The ensuing confusion on the part of the casting directors may prevent transgender and gender diverse singers from being considered for stage roles, choral contracts, solos, or competitions, because these singers do not fit the mold. Rather than consider the validity and usefulness of the system and make room for growth beyond its outdated modes, educational institutions and casting agencies attempt to box these diverse and boundary-defying singers into established gender norms. Trans singers are then left bewildered with nowhere to belong, and face enormous obstacles to artistic and career development.

Repertoire

Because the singing instrument is the only instrument that creates words, singers are tasked with telling understandable and compelling stories, either as themselves or through character interpretation. The gender identity of the singer may prove to be a factor when deciding if a piece is the right fit, so that the artistic intent of the singer complements the artistic intent of the composer or librettist. Voice teachers may be inclined to suggest repertoire for their students that is either overtly or deceptively gendered, which may be appropriate for the voice quality but grossly inappropriate for the singer. There are very few, if any, pastoral pieces for bass-baritone or songs of sexual and military conquest for soprano. Trans singers may have few options when creating performances or audition books to find repertoire that aligns with both their technical skill and personal identity.

Voice Pedagogy Language

Voice teachers and students form deep personal and artistic bonds inside the voice studio, and it should be a safe place for discovery and exploration for all singers, regardless of gender. Traditional voice pedagogy assumes a level of comfort with one’s body and voice that is likely not present for a transgender or gender nonbinary singer. Trans singers sometimes must overcome the difficulties and limitations that arise from gender dysphoria, especially around voice. Voice is a characteristic through which we categorize people by gender, subconsciously and automatically, and trans people are often acutely aware of the ways that voice can influence how the world sees and hears us. That awareness can lead to extreme discomfort around making vocal sound at all, discomfort with the body as it relates to voice, discomfort or disconnection from sensations in the body, or hypervigilance about parts of the body or the sound of the voice.

Gender-inclusive voice pedagogy can include language that differs from traditional ways of teaching voice by giving agency and autonomy to the singer when learning new skills or taking on new vocal tasks. Gender neutral language also helps alleviate—or at the very least prevents exacerbation of—some symptoms of gender dysphoria for singers, especially when referring to the parts of the body needed for singing or qualities of vocal sound. Rather than describing the sound of a voice as “masculine” or “feminine,” the teacher is challenged to use more specific descriptors, which may actually improve pedagogical efficacy for all students, including trans singers.

First Steps

Transgender voice care is a burgeoning field and serves a population in need of qualified teachers and practitioners. As voice teachers, our responsibilities are to support our students and to help them meet their musical, artistic, personal, and career goals. This often requires us to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and work together toward changes in the systems that hold our students back. There is still much to learn in this realm of voice, and the first steps involve recognizing and reframing our own subconscious judgments, self-perceptions, perceptions about others, biases with regard to voice, and other factors that we may carry into a lesson with a trans student that could pose serious barriers to that student’s success. The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices aims to aid in the development of a successful vocal pedagogy for the training of transgender singers, help the academic community understand the needs of transgender students as it pertains to vocal training, and engage in a broader discussion about the presence of transgender students in lessons and classes and how this positively impacts teaching, curriculum, and classroom environments.