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. In some ways 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 grew over time. [Edited in 2017 to add: After about ten years on testosterone I noticed that my voice had dropped a bit more, though I was still definitely a tenor. In a way this isn't surprising; I started hormones at 20, and now I'm in my early 30's. Many people's voices deepen naturally as they age.]
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 cisgender 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've released two albums: At The Seams in 2013 and Strong and Tender in 2017. 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, 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 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 one reason many folks have trouble with singing after their voices change is that they didn't sing during the time when their voices were shifting. When they go back to sing after the change, 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! Singing is a physical process, and we rely a lot on muscle memory. So 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 likely 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. Don't stop! Keep experimenting, getting to know where the notes are in your new voice and 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. I also recommend seeking out a voice teacher and doing some singing lessons.
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 "bridge" in the middle of your voice where you shift from chest register to head register -- will be weak and your voice is likely to crack a lot. Sing gently through that area as best you can while things are changing. There may even 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. Keep exercising your voice throughout your whole range, whatever it may be on a given day. Sing gently in your head register (also called falsetto), but keep using it. There are plenty of guys who sing up there, like Bon Iver, Aaron Neville and the Bee Gees. Even if you don't think you'll ever want to sing in head register in a song, continuing to exercise your voice up there will actually help strengthen your middle and lower range and help you avoid straining your voice. Never push your voice to do anything that makes you feel pain or strain. Stay connected to your body and your diaphragmatic (belly) breathing.
8. 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." 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. Alexandros Constansis has written about this in his 2008 study The Changing Female to Male (FTM) Voice.
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.
Hopefully your doctor will be supportive and help you through this process in the way that works best for you. 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. I will say that when I started hormones in 2006, a full dose was considered 100 mg per week. From what I hear anecdotally these days, many people are transitioning gradually, and in the end find they feel good taking significantly less than 100 mg per week -- myself included.
There is a good piece by Micah AKA Maddox about starting testosterone at a low dose and understanding dosage. I also encourage you to check out Medical Therapy and Health Maintenance for Transgender Men: A Guide for Health Care Providers by Dr. Nick Gorton, Dr. Jamie Buth, and Dean Spade. This can be a helpful resource to share with your doctor if they don't have experience providing care for trans masculine people, and can also help you understand your own health needs.
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 a large dose of testosterone right away. 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 starting at a low dose can be a great fit for folks in that boat. 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 later in life can't keep singing well, but it's 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.
11. Find a voice teacher you like and take lessons with them. Ask around and see if any trans folks in your area have voice teachers they recommend. You can find a list of voice teachers who work with trans and non-binary people here. You can also join one of my online singing classes for LGBTQIA people and allies.
More trans people are becoming voice teachers and voice professionals, which is exciting to me because I want more peers in this field. (If you're a trans voice teacher, please reach out, I would love to connect with you!)
More and more cisgender voice teachers are also learning how to work with trans singers. But if you live in an area where you can't find someone with experience, don't lose hope. Most voice teachers are caring, considerate people who are willing to learn. You can share with them my piece Creating Gender Liberatory Singing Spaces: A Transgender Voice Teacher's Recommendations for Working with Transgender Singers. You might seek out someone who's worked with cisgender boys going through puberty. The vocal changes you'll be going through are similar, and many voice teachers have experience working with adolescent boys while their voices change. Ask around and see if anyone you know has a voice teacher they like. Check out Yelp reviews for voice teachers in your area, read people's websites and reach out to the teachers you like the sound of. I personally teach using an approach called Somatic Voicework - The LoVetri Method™, and I find it to be very helpful for my students. You can search for teachers of this method by location here.
Most important is that you work with someone you feel comfortable with. Someone who respects you, your gender identity, 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. It's part of the reason I teach singing today.
- 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 classical singer and voice teacher based in the UK who is a transgender man. He has done the majority of the academic research that I have been able to find 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:
- 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 boys during puberty, but I find it has relevance to trans masculine folks as well.
- Lal Zimman has done some interesting research about trans men's speaking voices.
- I've written a piece with advice for voice teachers working with transgender singers. I encourage you to share it with your teachers.
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