I put off taking testosterone when I was first considering it because I was a trained singer. At the time in 2005, the singers I talked to who had taken testosterone told me they were no longer able to sing after their voices changed. I was very attached to and identified with my singing voice. I had a hunch that I would enjoy having a lower speaking voice and many of the other changes I knew testosterone would bring to my body, but I loved singing, and I didn't want to lose the ability to express myself in this fundamental way.
I am happy to say that my fears did not come true! Many years later, singing remains one of the things that gives me the most pleasure in life, and my voice is even stronger now than it was before.
Before I began taking testosterone in 2006, my voice was a high, lyric soprano. Within a couple of years of starting hormones, my voice had dropped to a high tenor range, and my comfort and agility in this new range has grown over time. For myself and many others I know, testosterone certainly changed our voices, and we did have to come through awkward vocal periods. But much like non-trans men whose voices change during puberty, trans masculine people can find a way through the creaking and cracking and come out strong singers on the other side of our vocal transitions. You will not have to stop singing!
I am now a touring indie folk singer-songwriter. I released my first full-length studio album, At The Seams, in 2013 and am working on a second album. Since my transition, I've also sung in semi-professional classical choruses and done the occasional paid classical church gig. I am very happy with my voice, even more so than I was before I transitioned. And I believe you can be too.
So, some advice for those who want to take testosterone and continue to sing --
1. Above all, don't stop singing! When you start taking testosterone, keep vocalizing, doing vocal warm up exercises and singing songs through the process -- gently. Don't push your voice to do anything that feels painful, strained or uncomfortable. I've found that the main reason folks have trouble with singing after their voices change is that they didn't continue to sing during the time when their voices were shifting. Once their voice changed, they don't know the lay of the land, and they are trying to sing as though they still have their old instrument. But when your voice is shifting from a violin to a cello, so to speak, of course you'll have to re-learn where the notes are! The more you keep singing (even when it feels strange), the better shape you'll be in when your voice eventually settles into its new range.
2. Find a way to make your favorite music shift with you. Change the key of the songs you sing so that they're in a comfortable spot for your voice. (If you're a guitarist like me, the capo is your friend.)
3. There will be a time when finding notes is awkward and you won't be able to find notes where you're used to them AKA match pitch, but if you keep singing, you'll get through it.
4. If your voice has already changed and you didn't sing as it changed, it's not too late for you to re-learn how to sing. Take some time to play with your voice and explore and find your way around your new instrument. Maybe the songs you used to sing won't work for you right now because you have built up muscle memory of singing the songs in a way that is no longer accessible to you. Try singing new songs by people whose voices sound closer to where your voice now sits. I remember when I was first discovering my tenor voice, two songs that I enjoyed newly being able to sing along with were "Miracle of Miracles" from Fiddler on the Roof and "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" by Rufus Wainwright.
5. Know that no matter how you approach your vocal transition, the process won't be linear. There may be some days when you have new low notes and the high notes won't come out, and some days when the reverse is true. There will almost certainly be a period when your passaggio -- the middle of your voice where you shift from chest voice to head voice and vice versa -- will be weak and your voice is likely to crack. There may be a time when there are some notes in the middle of your voice that you can't sing at all. This is normal.
6. The biggest changes will likely happen between the 3rd month and the 12th month of your first year on testosterone. I found that my own voice didn't truly settle into its new range until about 2 years in, and it's still changing -- just as everyone's voice changes gradually throughout their lifetime. Your voice will likely be slightly lower the day after you do your shot than it is at the end of your shot cycle. If you opt to stop taking testosterone at some point, know that your voice will change again, and you'll lose some of your new low notes. It won't return to your pre-testosterone voice, but it will become something yet again new. I have also heard from people who've had hysterectomies that their voices deepened further as a result.
7. As you explore your changing voice, I encourage you to sing gently, especially when singing in your high range (head voice AKA falsetto), and never push your voice or do anything that makes you feel pain or strain. Pay attention to your breath support and keep connected at all times to your diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. But don't give up on those high notes! There are plenty of guys who sing up there, like Bon Iver, Aaron Neville and the Bee Gees. Keep exercising your voice throughout your whole range, whatever it may be on a given day. Even if you don't think you'll ever want to sing high notes in a song, continuing to exercise your voice up there will actually help strengthen your middle and lower range.
8. Above all, just keep singing! I took private lessons, played my own songs, sang in a renaissance choir and a small baroque music ensemble as my voice was changing. Though my range was fluctuating between soprano, alto and tenor for some months, I did my best to sing every day and I found the process humbling, humorous and ultimately very helpful.
9. If you want to give your voice the best chance of a smooth transition, start testosterone gradually, rather than at a "full dose." From the studies I've read, going on a large dose of testosterone right from the outset of hormone therapy can cause your voice to change rapidly and have a less resonant quality. If you want to have the best chance of maintaining a strong singing voice, I encourage you to work with your doctor to start at a small dose of testosterone and gradually increase it over a period of months to find what dosage is best for you. This allows your voice to change gradually, rather than all at once. It is my understanding that this is similar to how non-trans men's bodies introduce adult testosterone into their systems when they go through puberty.
I'm not a medical professional, and I don't know what's right for anyone's body but mine, so I won't give you specific dose recommendations. Hopefully your doctor will be supportive and help you through this process in the way that works best for you. I will say that when I started hormones in 2006, a full dose was considered 200 mg per week. From what I hear anecdotally these days, many people (myself included) transition gradually, and in the end find they feel good taking less than 200 mg per week. If you want more information, there is a good piece by Maddox on the Tips for Trans Men blog about starting testosterone at a low dose and understanding dosage. If you are working with a doctor who has little experience with trans male patients, you can point them to Medical Therapy and Health Maintenance for Transgender Men: A Guide for Health Care Providers, a wonderful resource from Dr. Nick Gorton, Dr. Jamie Buth, and Dean Spade.
Transitioning slowly can also be socially awkward because the physical changes visible to others will not happen as quickly as if you started out at the maximum dose of testosterone. But for myself and many of my students, we've found it worth it to go slowly to assure a gradual transition for our voices, knowing that the changes will still come, they just won't happen as quickly. And of course, some people don't want full physical masculinization, or aren't sure whether they want to remain on hormones for the long term, so doing it gradually can be a great fit for folks in that boat. Above all, I think it's helpful to remember that it's not actually us who are awkward. It's our society, which is structured by transphobia, patriarchy and a binary view of gender that doesn't make room for the fabulous variety of genders and bodies that exist in the universe. But we can all be a part of building a more gender liberatory world!
10. I've learned from my reading, personal life experience and my observations working with other singers that the younger you transition, the more pliable your body is and therefore the more easily your voice will change. I believe that a big part of the reason my own vocal transition was relatively smooth is that I was twenty when I began taking testosterone. This is not to say that people transitioning at forty and above can't keep singing well, but it is important to know that your voice may not have as much elasticity as someone transitioning earlier in their life. Access to hormonal transition at a young age is definitely a privilege, not something that all trans people share. I hope that as time goes on we will have more research, information and personal stories about the most effective ways for people who transition later in life to have a smooth vocal transition. If you have thoughts on this and want to share your experience with me, I would love to hear them. I encourage you to contact me.
11. Above all, be patient with your voice and know that whatever it becomes, you will have a wonderful new instrument that is all your own.
12. Find a voice teacher you like and work with them. Your teacher doesn't have to be someone who's worked with transgender people before. Someone who's worked with non-trans boys going through puberty would likely be a good person to work with, as the vocal changes you'll be going through are similar, and many choir directors for adolescent boys have this specialty. Most important is that you work with someone you feel comfortable with, who respects you, your gender and your process, and who is willing to learn with you as they go. I worked with a student voice teacher during my transition who hadn't previously known any transgender people, but she was open and approached my changing voice with a curious mind, a kind heart and a will to research! She supported me to find my best voice, wherever it was at that day. I'm very thankful for her help, and it's part of the reason I teach singing today.
If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can work with me by taking private voice lessons or signing up for one of my singing classes for LGBTQ people and allies.
If you're not in the Bay Area and you're unable to find a teacher close to you, I am sometimes available to teach lessons over video skype. There is no substitute for working with a teacher in person, but I offer this option if you'd like to have the opportunity to work with someone with experience with trans male voices who can listen to where you're at right now, give you feedback and exercises to work with as your voice changes, and check in with you again at a future date.
13. Here are a couple of other resources --
*I've done several radio interviews where I discuss singing and my vocal transition in more depth, and play clips of my voice at different points in time. You can find them at this SoundCloud set.
*Alexandros Constansis is a Greek classical singer and voice teacher now based in the UK who is a transgender man himself. He has done the majority of the academic research on the trans male singing voice. In these pieces he writes about his own experiences as a professional singer who transitioned and continues to sing, as well as studies he's done teaching other transmasculine singers since 2003. He has a forthcoming book about transgender voices:
-The Changing Female-To-Male (FTM) Voice
-The Female-to-Male (FTM) Singing Voice and its Interaction with Queer Theory: Roles and Interdependency
*Joshua Riverdale has collected a number of personal stories and information about trans men and singing at TransGuys.com.
*This piece by voice teacher Brian Lee on recently changed voices and missing notes in the middle of one's voice was written about the voices of cisgender (non-transgender) boys during puberty, but I find it has relevance to transmasculine folks as well:
14. If you found this piece helpful, I invite you to support my music. As an independent queer musician, I do all of my own booking and put out my own albums. Your support would mean a lot to me, and it can make a big difference!
-Check out my music and videos.
-Get my album At The Seams (it's free, our you can order a CD directly from me!)
-Join my mailing list.
-Like my facebook page.
-Bring me to your city or college to play a show and/or lead a singing workshop.
-Come to my show when I'm playing in a city near you.
Your support is so appreciated!
7. I welcome your feedback, questions, stories and reflections about your own process. Comment on this post or e-mail me privately.
However you choose to do it, good luck and have fun on your journey with singing!