Guest blogger Joshua Palkki is Assistant Professor of Vocal/Chorus Music Education at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach. At CSULB, he leads the University Choir, teaches courses in music education, interfaces with the College of Education, and mentors graduate students in music education. Joshua received his Ph.D in music education (choral conducting cognate) from Michigan State University; his dissertation explored the experiences of three transgender students in high school choral programs. At MSU, he studied conducting with Dr. Sandra Snow, Dr. Jonathan Reed, and Dr. David Rayl, and received a university-wide award for his work on LGBTQ inclusion in choral music education. Dr. Palkki has served as a guest conductor across the country and one of his latest projects includes the creation of queeringchoir.com, a resource site for all things LGBTQ in choral music education.
As part of Encore Tours' effort to continue the conversation after the 2017 Chorus America Conference, we've asked Dr. Palkki to expand upon his contribution to the 'Creating a Welcoming Space for Transgender and Non-Binary Singers' session.
As the spectrum of gender identities expands, choral conductor-teachers will interact with an increasing number of transgender/genderqueer/gender non-conforming/etc. singers. Gender is not a binary (male/female) and not everyone prefers to be affiliated with a gender identity (as one participant in my dissertation study said, “I think gender is dumb and I really don’t see the need to have one”). There are a number of terms people use to identify their gender. In a large-scale study of nearly 3,500 transgender people, participants used 603 unique identifiers to describe their gender identity (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011). Choirs can and should be safe havens for all LGBTQA singers—but particularly for transgender singers who may or may not face a disconnect between their gender identity and their vocal range (Palkki, 2017). Below are some ways that choral conductor-teachers can be supportive and inclusive of transgender singers (this is far from an exhaustive list--for more advice, see Miller (2016) and Palkki (2017).
- Name and Pronouns. Do not assume that you know each singer's pronoun preference. Be sure to find out each person's name and pronouns, especially at the beginning of each semester/term. This can be done by, for example, asking each singer to write their given name (as printed on a roster, for example), the name they prefer to use, and their pronouns.
- Vocal Range. Some trans people consider their speaking and singing voices a vital way that they "do" or "perform" their gender in public. Therefore, for these singers, it may be important for choral conductor-teachers to enable them to sing a voice part that matches their gender identity. For example, a trans woman (assigned male at birth but now identifies as female) may wish to sing alto even though she previously sang tenor or bass. For some trans people, their voice and their gender identity have little or no connection, meaning that a trans woman may be comfortable singing bass. As I wrote in my recent Choral Journal article: "Choral music educators can determine through conversation the level of connection, if any between a trans student's voice and gender identity. Based on this conversation, a personalized voice part plan can be devised. Conceptually, this is similar to middle level choral educators who modify, adapt, or compose voice parts to fit the vocal range of singers in the midst of the voice change. Vocal health should always be taken into consideration, of course, but the connection between the choral experience and gender identity may determine whether or not a student continues to sing in choir" (Palkki, 2017, p. 25)
- Rehearsal Language. Choral conductor-teachers should not assume that they know the gender identify of each of their choristers. Refer to voice parts, not genders. For example, comments like “men please sing at m. 7, or “let’s have the ladies sing here” are not inclusive.
- Uniforms. “Traditional” uniforms (e.g., tuxedoes and dresses) can reify the gender binary. Would a gender non-conforming singer feel comfortable in your choir? If the answer is no, perhaps you could consider other options—a third option perhaps—or one gender-neutral uniform for everyone. Separates are another inclusive idea—choose different options for shirts/blouses and pants/skirts (for example, TOPS: one blouse without buttons, two different cuts/styles of black button-down; BOTTOMS: two cuts of black slacks and one black skirt). This way singers can mix-and-match a uniform that makes them feel comfortable.
- Ensemble Structure. Like uniforms, “Men’s Choirs” and “Women’s Choirs” may not be welcoming for transgender singers. For example, would a trans man who sings soprano be welcome in a “Men’s Choir”? Just because he is a soprano makes him no less of a man. The time may be here to re-name our ensembles to remove gendered labels that may no longer apply.
- Choir Audition Policies (including Honor Choir Auditions). Some states have updated their honor choir audition policies to honor and include trans singers. Are there policies in your organization that specify that only certain genders can audition for specific voice parts? If so, you may consider updating this policy.
- Safe Space. Choral conductor-teachers can let their singers know that they are supportive of all LGBTQA singers. Through language in your handbook/syllabus/choir room posters, a safe space sticker on your classroom/office door, or spoken words, you can let all singers know that you acknowledge and honor singers of all gender identities.
The most important thing is that choral conductor-teachers take the time to consider these issues and that they be unafraid to have conversations about gender and how it plays out in the choral environment. Simply put, if you don’t know, ask!
There are many resources out there on the topic of trans students and gender identity. A few that may be particularly helpful:
- Wells, K., Roberts, G., & Allan, C. (2012). Supporting transgender and transsexual students in K-12 schools: A guide for educators. Ottawa, ON, CA: Canadian Teachers’ Federation.
- You can download free Safe Space stickers here from GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.
- Visit queeringchoir.com, a new website dedicated to LGBTQA issues in choral music education.
- Join the LGBTQA safe space for music educators Facebook page.
All singers should feel safe in our choirs—regardless of gender identity. I sincerely hope that you will take some time to consider how to include all singers. If you have further questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.queeringchoir.com.
Beemyn, G., & Rankin, S. R. (2011). The lives of transgender people. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Miller, J. R. (2016). Creating choirs that welcome transgender singers. Choral Journal, 57(4), 61–63.
Palkki, J. (2017). Inclusivity in action: Transgender students in the choral classroom. Choral Journal, 57(11), 20–34.
For more music ed resources and expert guest contributions, subscribe to the Backstage Blog!
About the Author
Kate first discovered the power of intercultural communication and exchange through music on a month-long trip to China and Japan with her college wind ensemble. She's been hooked on traveling ever since and has performed with different groups in cities such Beijing, London, and Kyoto to name a few! Kate is a clarinet player and a passionate arts advocate with degrees in music, arts administration, and cultural policy. Kate is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Encore Tours.More Content by Kate Huffman