Transgender Choruses Harness The (Changing) Power Of Voices
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It can be difficult for a transgender person to master their voice whether or not they choose to take hormones. Transgender choruses across the country are providing a place for singers to find support and joy while finding their new voice. C.J. Janovy of member station KCUR has the story.
C.J. JANOVY, BYLINE: As a young child growing up in South Africa, Gillian Power sang in school and church choirs.
GILLIAN POWER: It was one of the things that I remember from that time as something that was just so deeply joyful.
JANOVY: Now Power is in her early 40s. She came out as transgender a couple of years ago.
POWER: A person's sense of identity and who they are is so inextricably linked to their voice. The voice is probably one of the deepest signifiers of who a person is.
JANOVY: Female hormones didn't change Power's voice, so she's taking voice lessons.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One more time.
POWER: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
JANOVY: As she works with her teacher, Power seems to find the confidence to really breathe, to release feelings, to express her true self, things, she says, felt incompatible with her body for so long.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. Let yourself get through the transition on the way down. You did it splendidly on the way up.
JANOVY: Power lives in Kansas City with her wife and two young children. Last year on a business trip to Boston, she sat in on a rehearsal of that city's Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus.
POWER: And I was so deeply moved, and I said Kansas City needs a chorus, too.
JANOVY: So she started the Heartland Trans Chorus. The Boston ensemble that inspired it was founded by a non-trans performer and voice teacher named Sandi Hammond. She thinks of the trans-voice as an entirely new instrument, pointing out that during male puberty, vocal chords lengthen and thicken and the voice box grows. For trans men...
SANDI HAMMOND: It's going to be a different timbre, a different color. Some of the bottom notes that a bass might get are not as likely to appear. And for trans women, why are some able to explore what we call falsetto in the male voice to develop a more female sound and some are not? And then collectively, what is that timbre of a trans chorus?
JANOVY: Boston's Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus had it's first performance last month. Other choruses have started up in Chicago, Atlanta and New Hampshire. The biggest one is the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles.
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) Sing the greatest song. Stand on a star, and blaze a trail of desire through the dark...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Smile.
JANOVY: That's the Los Angeles chorus rehearsing a couple of months ago. When artistic director Lindsey Deaton put out the call for singers last summer, she didn't know what to expect.
LINDSEY DEATON: I had no idea, number one, who was going to show up, much less what their voice type was or what they could sing or if they could sing.
JANOVY: They could sing.
DEATON: I was so ecstatic. People came into the room and their spirits were bright.
JANOVY: As it's happening in other cities, people brought years of musical experience. Many of them had given up on the idea that they'd ever perform again, either because they lacked confidence in their new voices or they felt unwelcome in traditional church choirs or other community choruses. Deaton reached out to arrangers from gay choruses to help put songs in the right keys and registers.
DEATON: We were pretty close to being a TTBB chorus. That's tenor one, tenor two, baritone, bass chorus with some people singing a little higher. And thinking about it, of course, that's where we're going to end up. Most of our adult trans women are going to be singing tenor and baritone and bass, right? And most of our trans men who've been on testosterone and had a voice change, they're going to be down in tenor and bass and baritone, right?
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) My heart is aching.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A little less.
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) We're coming to the end...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ts a little less.
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) Coming through the fog...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Change.
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) Your sons and daughters. Let the river run.
JANOVY: Deaton says anyone who opens their ears will find something in common with trans singers.
DEATON: You know, the soul has a direct line through song. And that's what music is all about - is sharing emotion. And once you do that, then everybody gets it. Everybody gets it, unless your dead from the neck up, you know, and you don't hear. But I haven't seen anyone not get it so far.
TRANS CHORUS OF LOS ANGELES: (Singing) Let the river run. Let all the dreamers wake the nation.
JANOVY: The Trans Chorus of Los Angeles has concerts through the summer. In Kansas City, the Heartland Trans Chorus will give its first performance in June, just in time for the LGBT pride events. For NPR News, I'm C.J. Janovy in Kansas City.
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