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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Earlham College Hosts Transgender Singing Voice Conference

participants in the 2019 Transgender Singing Voice Conference
courtesy of Danielle Cozart Steele
The second biannual Transgender Singing Voice Conference was held at Earlham College in May.

In the last several years, many more transgender and non-binary artists have emerged onto the American cultural scene.  Recently Earlham College, 50 miles west of Dayton, held a gathering for singers called the Transgender Singing Voice Conference.  

It brought together about 200 music educators, composers and transgender and non-binary singers from all over the U.S.  

Choir director Danielle Cozart Steele organized the first Transgender Singing Voice Conference in 2017. When asked what inspired her to create the conference, she told this story about one of her choir members – a member of the bass section.

Four years earlier, this student confided to Cozart Steele, “well, actually, I would like to start coming to class dressed in women’s clothing. This is how I feel the most comfortable, and I’m hoping for your support.” 

Choir director Cozart-Steele used the pseudonym Charlotte for her student. At first, Charlotte only wore dresses during rehearsals. A few months later she began to go out with choir members dressed as a female. Then Charlotte made another request. 

Cozart Steele said that Charlotte came back to her and said, “Now I would like to sing in the alto section, rather than in the bass section, so that my social function as an alto and the voice part that I am singing aligns with who I am as a human being.

Charlotte had no upper register to sing alto.  So Cozart-Steele coached Charlotte to broaden her range over the next two years to comfortably sing strong alto parts. One Day, they hit a road block.   

“Her voice was cracking and popping,” remarked Cozart Steele. “She was having trouble initiating sound, and her range had gotten smaller, and I was…really perplexed. So we sat down and talked, and she had had a discussion with her mom, and her mom had challenged her gender identity, and that was directly reflected in her ability to use her voice.” 

Bill Culverhouse, a choral director at SUNY Binghamton who led a workshop at the conference, explains this intertwining of voice and identity.   

Culverhouse recognizes that, “Your voice is a way of channeling into sound who you are, what you strive for, what you dream.”

As Charlotte’s story suggests, over the past six years, vocal educators have come to challenge the assumptions of choral singing. That men sing base and women sing alto.

“Everybody actually has this wider vocal compass available to them, says Culverhouse, “but that we are socialized into only using a narrower portion of it, especially in choir.”

In one workshop, Culverhouse led students through a tenor line that glides from upper to lower register to help choral participants experience a greater range of voice. 

Eli Berman also presented at the conference.  Berman, a student at Princeton University, identifies as non-binary.  Berman describes the tension of voice and self: I’m always bumping against what other people’s ideas of what my voice means. And my falsetto is just like, “Oh, I can sing alto if you want.” It’s fun, you know. But then realizing, no, this is my whole voice, this is all of it, and this is…all of me.  Berman now composes and sings vocal works that explore body, voice, and identity. Currently his compositions borrow from the fluid styles of Jewish cantorial singing to address fluidity of gender identity in the voice and body. 

Other trans composers are thinking about what inclusion means for choirs. Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, who identifies as female, has created the Choral Reef project. It calls for choirs to improvise parts of the work.  Bussewitz-Quarm believes that the transgender singer’s “voice is part of their transition, so exploring their voice can only help them. And the other members of the choir are interacting one on one with trans singers. They’re given permission through experimentation of this.” 

Bussewitz-Quarm, who chooses to use male pronouns, grew up with a chronic illness and a crushed vertebrae that required multiple surgeries and relearning to walk.   He felt removed from the world.  Bussewitz-Quarm recounts this body dysphoria: “I was physiologically a boy, emotionally a girl, and you know so where did I fit in? And, you know, music was a place where I fit in."

Bussewitz-Quarm struggled with his body and gender until late in his life.  He describes this struggle this way: “There was this growing level of dissonance inside me. A dissonant void. That should be the name of my next choral piece! There was a certain point where I felt like I needed to find peace within.” 

The music educators, composers, and singers at this conference are making room for new voices in choirs across the country.  As Bussewitz-Quarm sees it, “We’re all going through transitions and the more we can support each other, you know, the stronger we are."

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.

David Seitz learned his audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. Some of these stories have won awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors. He is deeply grateful that most of his stories address social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.
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