"I want to start dressing as a female, but I am only going to dress as a female in choir because that's where I feel safe."
That's what Danielle Steele's first transgender student said to her in 2013. Little did she know that working with Charlotte (as Steele calls her throughout her research) would change the way she looked at choral music forever, and would lead to one of the first transgender singing conferences in the country.
It's no secret that when someone transitions their voice often changes — and that's where Steele's work began in 2013, by helping singers craft how that change happens.
She started giving private voice lessons to two transgender students, one male to female and one female to male. They both wanted to be in her choir programs but had trouble controlling their singing.
As their voices grew stronger so did Steele's teaching reputation (in addition to private lessons, Steele is the assistant director of choral activities at Earlham College). She was asked to work with more trans and nonbinary vocalists, helping them master their chosen vocal range.
"When they started to transition, the vocals became so wildly out of control," says Steele. "The voice is one of the first ways that people assess our gender presentation. So the voice becomes something dangerous."
Transgender singers can be outed involuntarily by something small, like a crack in their voice or slipping into a register that doesn't (traditionally) match their presented gender.
"That can quite literally be lethally dangerous," says Steele.
As the lessons went on, Steele kept notes on what worked, what didn't and why. One of her biggest struggles was the practical problem of molding someone's voice from one register to another.
So Steele started with the basics — speaking.
Steele began with humming exercises, phonating, and helping them feel their voices.
"They were able to gain vocal control and function much more quickly than if I just had them singing," says Steele.
She notes that female to male transgender singers who are on testosterone are able to control their voices a bit easier. According to her, there is no research that estrogen impacts vocal chord; while testosterone radically affects the voice. "Male to female transgender people have a much harder time when it comes to accessing a singing voice that is both healthy and one that they enjoy hearing," says Steele.
The research and lessons came with a learning curve for Steele, but the frustrating part was having to blaze an academic trail. Like most 34-year-olds, Steele started posting those frustrations on Facebook.
"There are quite literally — or at the time — zero resources," says Steele. "I am not exaggerating."
Those posts eventually connected her with Sandi Hammond, an Earlham alumna and human rights activist, who created Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus. (Which picked up national attention from outlets like O, The Oprah Magazine.) Hammond invited her out to Boston to work with the chorus in early 2016. By springtime, Steele was presenting her research at an LGBT issues and music conference at the University of Illinois. Other educators started to seek her out, hoping to gain advice. They wanted to know how to place their trans singers in the chorus, how to teach them and what repertoire to use with a nonbinary student.
The Tennessee Music Educators Association was particularly interested. (The group is comparable to Indiana's Circle the State choirs.) They were in the process of redoing their audition policy because they realized that transgender singers weren't able to sing in their preferred ensemble. Steele guided them in changing the culture of the classroom and addressing the vocal pedagogy.
It became clear that she wasn't the only educator wrestling with the gender-normative standards instilled in choral music. So Steele decided to create a three-day conference at Earlham College focused entirely on how to instruct anyone on vocal control.
"When we are trained to be educators, they mention marginalized groups," says Steele. "And you may have a day in class talking about the LGBT population, but it's not like you have a whole semester delving deeply into those issues."
She hopes the conference will offer resources to educators who haven't touched the field yet.
"We want them to go in and begin dismantling gender bias in the classroom. ... Choral music is inherently gendered — from the way that we assign voice parts, often to the type of music we expect a given ensemble to sing. Training these educators to go in and begin critically looking at that system is important."