The Gendered Singing Voice: Burn it all down! // Jessye DeSilva

In recent years, I’ve become somewhat of a “gender killjoy” within my vocal pedagogy community. I wouldn’t say I ever set out to be THAT person, but I’m happy to accept the role. I am myself a nonbinary queer person, and so you could say this issue is personal for me. By “killjoy,” I don’t necessarily mean that I’m out to spoil everyone’s fun, but I AM most definitely here to make you question all of your assumptions about gender and vocal pedagogy.

For some context I’ll start at the beginning, or as close to it as possible. I grew up knowing that the options society presented me with as someone assigned male at birth never quite fit. I was born in the mid 1980s to a relatively conservative Christian household – my father was a minister and my mom was, at the time, a stay-at-home wife and mother. Being a “boy” meant a number of things, most of which I wasn’t too keen on. Sports, roughhousing, growing into the “head” of a household with a wife and kids – none of these things felt like me. On the other hand, things society deemed as feminine – long, flowing garments and hair, a connection with the deeply emotional, and for me, even the witchy and mystical – these things felt not even like things I chose, but rather like things that were at the core of who I was from a very young age. 

As was the case with me, I think those of us raised and socialized in a western, white-supremacist society have long lacked the vocabulary to articulate any sense of gender identity beyond the binary, cisnormative male vs. female. I know I wasn’t really exposed to the idea of gender fluidity until well into adulthood, and for me this came largely from some of my college-level voice students. However, the current climate of fluidity around gender isn’t so much a “new trend” as it is a renaissance of ideas and human experiences which have been around as long as we have existed on this planet. The splitting of the human experience into either “male” or “female” is as much a construct of white colonialism as is race. 

You see, while many of us feel quite comfortable with binaries (they really are in some ways how we learn to make sense of the world and language in early childhood), they can fall short in depicting the human experience. The idea that our bodies (our hormones, our genetalia, our secondary sex characteristics like body hair, breast tissue, etc) determine our gender identity isn’t the case. Sex and gender are not one in the same, and furthermore sexual orientation is yet another facet in the intricately-cut gemstone of our experience. While many folks do indeed feel a connection with the gender they were assigned at birth, norming and privileging this experience (the cisgender experience) excludes not only trans, nonbinary, and genderfluid folks, but also folks who are intersex. I also believe that this narrative of “two genders” also hurts cisgender people.

So how does this relate to singing and vocal pedagogy? Well, I’m glad you asked! This is where it gets juicy and where I get REALLY fired up. 

Many of us who have studied the human singing voice have been taught to approach our own voices and those of our students through the lens of either the male or female voice. We are taught in traditional western vocal pedagogy that “male voices” operate a certain way after puberty, and “female voices” operate differently. We are taught to assume certain vocal registers will happen in certain places, and even that certain timbres will or won’t be present based on the gender of the singer, and if these things AREN’T the case, there is some sort of defect or pathology which needs to be addressed and “fixed.” 

However, the fact of the matter is that trans, intersex, nonbinary and even cis singers have a diverse variety of vocal experiences. A trans masculine singer may or may not opt to undergo testosterone-based hormone therapy. If they do, their vocal folds may thicken and their access to lower pitches may expand. However, their vocal tract and the larynx itself will not grow in the way someone who undergoes testosterone-dominant puberty might, and so while they might sing below the staff (tenor/baritone/bass), their resonance strategies will necessarily differ, and register events (passaggi in classical vocal pedagogy) will not necessarily be the same as a cis male singer. Another trans masculine singer may NOT opt for hormone therapy, and thus might still sing above the staff in the soprano range – this singer’s voice might behave in a way traditional vocal pedagogy would label as “female,” but the singer is NOT female.

A trans feminine singer who opts for estrogen-based hormone therapy may experience physical changes in their body and appearance, however if this singer had previously gone through testosterone-based puberty, the vocal tract and vocal folds will not “shrink,” and so they will retain their access to lower pitches. This singer may choose to continue singing below the staff or they may employ resonance strategies to “feminize” their voice in order to access a lighter and higher register in both speech and singing. Traditional vocal pedagogy would likely refer to this as a “male voice,” but this singer is not male. Furthermore, folks like myself are lumped into either “male” or “female” categories depending on the range of our singing voice and the perceived size and shape of our vocal tract, and yet we don’t identify on the gender binary. I have no more a “male” voice than I do a “female” one. 

While we can perhaps generalize by saying that a singer who undergoes testosterone-dominant puberty during adolescence will have a relatively larger larynx, vocal tract, and vocal folds, we have to also understand that every voice is different regardless of gender identity. No two cis women have the same size and shape vocal tract (not to mention resonance chambers!). We cannot dissect our students to look at and measure the physical differences between their larynges, but we know this to be true on some level. And so why do we continue to treat their voices as if they must line up on two sides of the spectrum in terms of gender? I may have come to this philosophy through a lens of inclusivity and safety for myself and my gender nonconforming students, but what of my cisgender students whose voices don’t fit the perceived norm? How many singers who identify as cisgender have developed inferiority complexes when they discover something “different” about their own instruments? When we talk about timbre in terms of what is to be desired or expected, we aren’t necessarily talking about vocal science, rather we are often talking about aesthetics. Rather than equating aesthetics with fact, wouldn’t our field be so much richer if we could teach the voice in front of us to sing with efficiency and comfort, and to explore the colors available to them as they relate to the styles THEY want to sing? Many of us who are teachers have experienced some form of gatekeeping in relation to our own journeys as students. Why would we want to place similar gates in the paths of our students?

While many strict categorical notions of the voice come from the western classical tradition, those of us who work in the diverse field of popular musics often receive our training either in classical programs or from teachers who began there. This issue of academia and training is perhaps another conversation entirely, but suffice it to say, the roots of white supremacy and cisnormativity run DEEP not only in our society, but also in our field! If we want to combat elitism in the music community and fully explore the diversity of styles available to us today, we must also re-examine the role of gender in upholding an outdated (and frankly, inaccurate) notion of how we view the human voice. 

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