“A Different Kind of Goose Bump”: Notes Toward an LGBTQ Choral Pedagogy
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the musical practices and procedures of choruses such as the famous Gay Men’s Chorus within the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) communities of the United States and Europe, and more specifically the discourse in and around them. It focuses on choral pedagogy as it is found in such ensembles and communities, drawing on the literature and first-hand accounts from singers, conductors and audience members, and examines what they uniquely value in their singing. Specific questions include: what is a good sound for an early MTF (male to female) transgender singer? Is it good to have female tenors in your ensemble, and if so, how many? How does the meaning of a song change for singers and audience when sung by a group of 250 gay men? How does that inflect the way in which that song should be taught to the singers? In short, is there a queer choral pedagogy?
“There’s a different kind of goose-bump that you get singing with your tribe.”
The worldwide LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) choral movement is a vibrant and growing choral scene, featuring thousands of singers in hundreds of groups large and small, across almost all continents of the world. It is also a fascinating and unexplored research area that has the potential to reveal new questions, both for LGBTQ choral singing and for choral pedagogy as a whole.
Choral pedagogy may be seen as the teaching and learning of choral singing. Smith and Sataloff (2013, vii) see choral pedagogy as the union of five areas: choral conducting, musicianship, vocal knowledge, educational skills and leadership. Choral conducting is less of a focus here, but all the other areas are included at some point. Central to this chapter is the proposition that choral pedagogy does not exist independent of its social context; that any social context will have embedded in it a set of underlying values, which define why we sing and what is important about it; and that these values will inflect the teaching and learning of choral singing in different ways. The social context and values under discussion here are those of the LGBTQ movement.
LGBTQ choruses are one example of a group that has in common a minority characteristic, such as age, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Such minorities are by implication in some way excluded, “other,” or “subaltern” (Gramsci, quoted in Spivak, 1988). For Spivak, the “subaltern” are also the oppressed, in choral singing perhaps the voiceless. For de Kock (1992) they are agents of social change, excluded from the hegemonic discourse. Examples of “subaltern” choruses might include: minority choruses of older people such as the Young@Heart Chorus of Western Massachusetts or the UK’s The Zimmers; ethnic minority and faith-based choruses such as The London Community Gospel Choir or the Harlem Gospel Choir; or LGBTQ minority choruses, such as One Voice Mixed Chorus in Minnesota or the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. LGBTQ (p. 364) choruses not only contain members from their LGBTQ communities but also claim to represent them by telling their stories through song. All these groups challenge perceptions that the communities they represent are in some way disempowered. All have a strong conviction born from exclusion that their stories should be heard.
Two other well established and fertile fields of study are relevant to this topic. The first is Gender or Queer Studies, which, to simplify, begins from the premise that the linked but separate concepts of gender and sexuality are contingent, constructed, and based on false dualities. These dualities, such as gay/straight and man/woman, are seen as grounded in structures of language (Butler, 1990). The second is Queer Musicology, which grows from the theoretical frameworks of critical musicology, and seeks to identify the queer voice in music. It critiques canonicity and other conventional analytical and historical frameworks around musical texts and procedures, because they have tended to exclude minority composers, performers, and styles (Whiteley & Recenga, 2006; Brett, Wood, & Thomas, 2006). While noting both these fields as significant and from time to time touching on topics that fall within their purview, this chapter for reasons of space and clarity limits itself to the domain of choral pedagogy.
There is considerable fluidity from country to country and even from city to city around the use of the acronym LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). Others include LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTI, GLBT, and LGBTQISS. The word “queer” is also emerging at the time of writing no longer as a term of abuse, but as a term that encompasses them all. Aware of the historical and current debates around these contested terms, for simplicity I shall be using the acronym “LGBTQ” as a shorthand throughout this chapter, to mean all singers and singer groups that identify as gender-and-sexuality-nonconforming. The terms “choir” and “chorus” are used interchangeably here to mean any group of singers.
Having defined our terms, we can move on to our central question. To what extent is the teaching and learning of choral singing in LGBTQ choruses unique? Does the social context of LGBTQ choruses set up the conditions for a distinctive set of values, and so to a distinctive LGBTQ choral pedagogy? One example of such a value is inclusion, the idea that an LGBTQ group should be a safe space, welcoming and inclusive to all. Put simply, some might observe a need for inclusion in LGBTQ choruses that could sometimes be in tension with the need for musical quality. This is because the need for musical quality requires the group to audition singers, and so at times to actively exclude them! Could this tension be evidence of a unique choral pedagogy, a new set of decisions affecting the way singers are selected, the way musical quality is defined, the way songs are taught, the definition of vocal knowledge, the leadership style of the director, and so on?
To approach this question, accounts from the literature on choral pedagogy and a number of related fields are analyzed in relation to two long semistructured interviews with singers from LGBTQ choruses. Accounts from both of these sources are also contextualized by my own personal observations, as a writer who has also been the director of two LGBTQ choruses for a combined total of 14 years. The two interviewee singers were chosen because their individual cases were likely to provide relevant and richer data on the topics in hand. Neither was necessarily representative of all LGBTQ (p. 365) singers, though, as it turned out, their interviews also revealed that they were more representative of the majority of LGBTQ singers than I had suspected. A more systematic piece of work would have used a larger sample, and I am aware that I excluded both men and straight people, among many others. Both singers were outliers, indeed minorities, even within LGBTQ singing—a female tenor in one of the major Gay Men’s Choruses, and an MtF transgender alto in a mixed LGBTQ group. The interviews focused on what singing in an LGBTQ ensemble meant to that interviewee, and attempted to reveal how the choral pedagogy of their ensemble was inflected by their role as LGBTQ choruses. Neither requested complete anonymity, but the names of both have nevertheless been changed, to ensure a level of confidentiality. We begin with a short historical overview of the field.
A Growing World Movement
The LGBTQ movement started small and, like all change, local. The modern LGBTQ choral movement began in Philadelphia in North America, with the birth of Anna Crusis Women’s Choir in 1975 (GALA Choruses website, 2014). San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus began soon after. Their US national tour of major cities in 1979 led within weeks to the establishment of a small network of large all-male choruses, around which the core of the movement gradually grew in the early 1980s. The first US National Gay and Lesbian Choral Festival was held in 1983, and the organization that formed for that festival soon became GALA Choruses, which now oversees the US LGBTQ choral movement and has run a four-yearly festival ever since. By 2012, the Denver GALA Festival hosted 6,100 singers and delegates, representing 112 performing choruses, mainly from the United States and Canada but including several from across the world. The vast majority of these choruses are community choirs, broadly TTBB, SSAA and SATB, with annual budgets of under US $50,000, but there are also some that consist of only 5–10 singers. A large handful of choruses number over 250 singers and have also become major nonprofits, with annual budgets of over $1 million, dedicated outreach programs, and teams of full-time staff. The movement continues to grow, as legal structures and attitudes change and the community becomes more visible. According to the current Artistic Director of GALA, 12 new US GALA choruses joined the organization during 2014, and new choruses also appeared in Mexico City and Havana, Cuba in the last 12–18 months.
A similar movement gradually formed in Europe, with the foundation of, for example, the London Gay Men’s Chorus in 1991 and Paris’s Melomen in 1994. Europe’s equivalent organization to GALA Choruses is called Various Voices, which held its first festival in Groningen in 1995 (Legato-choirs.com, 2016). Again jumping forward to the present, the 2009 Various Voices Festival in London featured 76 choirs and around 2,800 paying participants, of whom the majority were from Germany (Fruitvox.org, 2009). The most recent 2014 Various Voices Festival in Dublin increased to 86 choirs, with around 3,400 (p. 366) paying participants. This Festival was cheaper to attend, but even so, this shows that, as in the United States, the European LGBTQ choral movement is healthy and growing at a rapid pace. More European groups are SATB, and ensembles and budgets tend to be smaller than in the United States, largely because the US philanthropic climate is more favorable and European ensembles are newer.
Similar movements are forming in Australasia and the Far East, starting, predictably, in major cities. There are major choruses in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Western Australia and Brisbane, and several in New Zealand, including GALS in Auckland and the Glamaphones in Wellington. “QTas” began in 2013 and is the newest Australasian choir from Hobart, Tasmania. Asian choruses have been emerging since the late ’90s. The opening ceremony of the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney featured a single Asian chorus—Hiraya, from the Philippines. At the time of writing, the Proud Voices Asia website lists 10 Asian LGBTQ-identified choruses in Japan alone, some of professional quality, and other choruses in Beijing, Manila, Singapore, Seoul, Taipei, and Pattaya. If proof of significant progress in LGBTQ visibility were needed, the Proud Voices website also says that new (and courageous) choruses are emerging in Shanghai and Tianjin. This is an exciting time in the LGBTQ chorus world, and there is much to sing about.
The Purpose of Singing
Inclusion, and an ecology of belonging
LGBTQ people have been excluded from the mainstream throughout history, and have fought since the late 1960s for the fundamental human rights to be visible, to love, to marry, to be protected under the law. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the inclusion and sense of community that singers of all backgrounds feel in a choral group is something especially important to LGBTQ singers. Choral groups, it turns out, have a unique function in the LGBTQ community, as a safe space and a place of deep belonging.
If you asked singers in the two LGBTQ choruses the author has directed why they sing, 70%–80% would say “because these are my friends” or “this is my chosen family.” The concept came up multiple times in both interviews. First, here is Francis, an LGBTQ choral singer of several years’ experience:
[My father] used to go to barbershop chorus every Monday night, and it was his community. … I suddenly realized I was going to my community on a Monday night, and it was quite similar…
Minority communities look for opportunities to be with one another, right? … because they feel welcome, they feel like they belong…
I wanted something else … that uniqueness, that ‘club’ness, that lack of external judgment that certain minorities … feel from the world around them… there’s a different kind of goose-bump that you get singing with your tribe… (p. 367)
People take the time, there is much more of a sense of care and compassion and empathy for one another, that I would guess is not part and parcel of what you would see in other choruses …
Likewise Jennifer, an MtF transgender woman and a relative newcomer to this world, reported:
There’s just a great … sense of camaraderie, just by virtue of the fact that we are in this LGBTI part of the community … It’s just great for all of us just to have somewhere where we know we are on even terms with everyone else …
[It was] such a disparate group of people … and everyone … there just wasn’t an ounce of friction anywhere … in a group of people, you’d expect someone to rub someone up the wrong way… It’s just a friendly group …
It was clear that everyone had a real level of comfort in being with people who have experienced similar things … either prejudices or just concerns … about how the so-called normal part of the community sees them…
It’s not just having the group that you know and a place where you can go and be perfectly comfortable in yourself but … there’s also a very real possibility that there’ll be a genuine friend that you’ll add to your circle of friends that already exists.
Jennifer also noted that socializing almost became too important in rehearsals:
we actually have had discussions about … we need to have someone to get up, when we have a break half way through … and say, “Right you lot, shut up and get back in your chairs!” … because everyone is getting on so well on a social basis… [laughs]
Here the interviewees are representative of the majority of LGBTQ singers. Their singing embodies and facilitates for them a vitally important fellowship. This fellowship takes place via the ad hoc conversations, dating opportunities, lifelong friendships, partnerships, and marriages that happen around it. Members of these groups are each other’s “chosen family,” and many in my chorus would rather spend major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with other chorus members than with their biological families. A number have been rejected by their families, but many more feel merely tolerated, or in some lesser way not entirely comfortable. This almost church-like feeling of belonging creates a solidarity, a teamwork, an ownership, and a sense of purpose that binds the musical processes of the ensemble together.
Turning now to choral pedagogy and especially to leadership, the role of the director becomes almost that of a church pastor, empowered to create the safe space and facilitate that sense of belonging, as well as direct a rehearsal. S/he explains and models the values underlying the social behavior in the room as well as teaching the songs. At times, if there is a marriage or a death in the chorus, it can become the director’s role to use the singing to facilitate the community’s celebrations or remembrances. At other times, the director can simply share personal stories about her or his own life, and lead other non-singing activities that bring the group together. The director guards and communicates (p. 368) the values as well as managing the singing, and the two reflect each other. Excellent musician colleagues of mine have even been fired from groups for failing to communicate or embody a group’s values in this way.
Little has been written specifically from the LGBTQ or other minority perspective about the especially deep feeling of belonging felt by members of these groups. However, literature from the related field of community music strongly supports the existence of this general phenomenon. Small (2008) famously opened the door to the theory of community music with his concept of “musicking,” and more recently, Hayes (2007) also sees LGBTQ choral singing as a form of community music. Higgins (2009, 2012) covers a huge selection of community music activity across the world, large and small—everything from at risk teenager groups to massive community samba bands, while Woodward and Pestano (2013) and Deane, Dawson, & McCab (2012) also write about community music programs for the marginalized. Higgins always focuses on the way in which the musical activity brings individuals, communities, performers, and audiences together.
Perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon is the way in which members, audiences, and directors alike experience musical processes and community processes as intertwined, even interchangeable. Though not explicitly discussing LGBTQ choruses, Ansdell (2010) summarizes this aptly:
The group is performing for their organization, and to people from their local community … As Christopher Small (1998) puts it, the group is performing not just the music, or themselves, but a whole ecology of relationships: to each other, to their context, to their culture and its many complexities and conflicts. They are creating community [sic] through their musical performance. Equally the audience… doesn’t just sit there and listen: they join in. During and afterwards, there are congratulations, but also an advanced sense of connection and belonging for all involved. (2010, p. 37)
Music facilitates community and integrates members by giving them the song as a common purpose. The music also embodies that integration, through, for example, the sense of listening, the blending of voices, and the unity of the rhythm.
Turning now to writing about choral singing, “fellowship” is also a key finding noted by Langston and Barrett (2008) in their study of what they call “social capital” in a community choir. Likewise, in their campaign for “A Choir in Every Care home” SoundSense a leading UK community music provider and research organization, concludes on their 2016 website that “Singing can lift spirits, but it can also do so much more. There is now hard evidence to show that music participation can help those living with dementia to engage and remember; and more generally, alleviate the effects of breathing diseases; reduce stress and anxiety; and build relationships between residents, carers and staff.”
Chorus America’s 2009 study of the benefits of choral singing notes that it has a direct impact on team-building, the social skills of singers, and community participation. Of (p. 369) gospel singing, Davis (2013) acknowledges the same ability of music to pull a minority and oppressed ethnic community together:
Gospel music is largely synonymous with Christian churches, specifically those where the membership is predominantly African American. This music is the tenure of the African American community who filled it with history and tradition. (2013, p. 6)
It would be a truism to state that most musical activity and choral singing fosters a sense of community. My observation here is that community and inclusion is an especially central value for members of these minority or “subaltern” choruses. For many LGBTQ members, community and inclusion are the very reason these choruses exist and this creates a unique social context, an ecology of belonging, which is expressed both through the musical practices and procedures and through the verbal language and other behavior of the group. Relationship and music unify as a single integrated phenomenon.
The second unique feature of the social context of LGBTQ choral groups is that members and ensembles often see themselves as activist. Choirs advocate for political change through their singing, and the music functions as a tool for expressing the values of the group and for changing hearts and minds. As we shall see, this activism varies in level and type much more than inclusion does. Singers and directors can take a variety of positions in relation to the activist function of their groups, but all are aware of the issue.
Jennifer’s quieter activism takes the form of simply being visible:
From a personal point of view, I am not a radical… But I like to make sure I’m seen, so that more people will just see that [this] clearly transgender person… doesn’t look like Dame Edna Everage, does ordinary things… and hopefully just defuse the misconceptions that I think most people have… about certainly male-to-female transgender people. I’m not sure about the rest of the choir, I think there’s a feeling of… yeah, getting out there… and just doing something that people can enjoy. And if you do something that they enjoy, then they tend not to dislike you [laughs] … or tend to lose what misgivings they might have had.
By contrast, Francis sees her chorus as having a much deeper impact on the listener’s attitudes and on society as a whole: “The chorus has the ability to be highly political… highly political… because you tell a story… that actually has the ability to affect someone’s heart and mind.” Indeed, Francis was initially critical of her chorus, because she felt the community emphasis of the group was much more evident than its political agenda:
It seemed very social to me… which was fine… [but] I was surprised at the degree to which members were uninformed about the LGBT movement landscape… There (p. 370) was a lack of knowledge and understanding about the players in the movement… they certainly would have called it an LGBT organization but I don’t think that they would … label themselves politically active.
For her, high musical quality is key to effective activism:
Now, did I want gay people to be turned down? Not really. But at the same time, I want my audience who is hearing a message, not to just hear the message but to hear the message from a blue chip chorus.
This need for effective activism through singing can lead to a further tension between a need for “blue chip” musical quality and that all-important LGBTQ need for inclusion. Auditions can be a particular bone of contention. Some choruses, including for example the London Gay Men’s Chorus or the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus, especially value inclusion. No audition takes place. Instead, members are voice-tested and all can sing in the group. In rehearsal, the pedagogy of mixed ability is more likely here. More and less advanced members will sing side by side for much of the time, while extra challenges are given to more experienced singers and extra support offered, voluntarily or compulsorily, to others. Programming in these choruses is more likely to include material at a range of difficulty levels too, so that everyone can excel.
By contrast, others do audition, excluding, in some cases, over 50% of applicants. Even so, many of these auditioning groups explicitly state in their missions that they see themselves as representing the LGBTQ members in their cities. The 2014 iteration of the website of Seattle Mens’ Chorus stated in the FAQ that:
Members of the chorus are representative of the large community in which we live in [sic]. Members range in age, size, color, profession, background and outside interests. Both singing and associate members share a common vision—a world that accepts and values its gay and lesbian citizens.
Others will explicitly prioritize musical quality over the values of both activism and inclusion, and can be even more competitive to get into. Golden Gate Men’s Chorus in San Francisco is one example of this, describing itself, like any other non-LGBTQ choral group, as:
Committed to excellence and joyous music-making; providing a supportive and nurturing atmosphere for our members’ artistic and social self-expression; and sharing and expanding the rich and continuing tradition of male choral music.
The all-important elements of inclusion and a sense of belonging are present here, but they are more in the background. Likewise, as with Jennifer’s group, political activism, is hardly explicit at all.
(p. 371) Repertoire and Programming
Sometimes LGBTQ, but not always
From the varied approach to activism identified in the previous section, one would assume that a similarly varied approach would also appear in LGBTQ chorus programming, and it seems this is the case. Jennifer’s group, for example, has its own broadly progressive artistic strategy, but she was at pains to emphasize that they do not always explicitly foreground LGBTQ issues. There is “a lot of original material” along with “original arrangements of classics” or “familiar tunes with a bit of a twist.” Her group also see themselves as “giving voice to local writers … not necessarily on an LGBTI theme.” When I asked whether there was nevertheless a particular political slant to the messages that the group sent out in its programs, she responded:
I suppose we are largely but not entirely left of center politically… but only in terms of sensitivity to … environmental issues and … obviously gay rights issues and … probably women’s issues as well … It’s not something that we push, but it’s clear that that’s where the leaning of most of the choir is at. … It’s not exclusive, there are a couple on the other side … certainly right of center.
For her, their programming is little different from that of the non-LGBTQ identified all-male chorus that she sang in before. Instead, their sole claim to LGBTQ uniqueness lies in their very presence: “No, I think just being there is our one claim to any uniqueness … Our being there as a symbol of the LGBTI community.”
By contrast, Francis was very clear about the uniqueness of her LGBTQ chorus’s repertoire and programming. Indeed, she felt it needed an explicitly LGBTQ component:
“With the chorus, yes, I believe part of its mission is to communicate a message through its music … The goose-bumpiest songs to sing … were songs that were universal in nature, that went … that spoke to me as a member of the LGBT community in some really profound way … And not always in a … not always in a “beat you over the head” kind of way.
In a recent performance, her chorus had performed a piece that drew parallels between the oppression of the LGBTQ community and the oppression of the Jews. She felt that the piece was especially successful because it built “a bridge between that straight Jewish person in the audience and the two hundred and some odd member LGBT chorus … and … to me the repertoire at its best includes those moments.”
We can again observe here the tension in LGBTQ groups between musical quality and activism, but this time expressed through repertoire choice. Some take the more mainstream route by choosing repertoire that is “purely musical”—that is at the right level, that entertains an audience, and that creates beautiful sound. Others choose repertoire (p. 372) that will educate an audience about LGBTQ issues, and that communicates an activist message. This tension seems to occur from beginner groups right up to those at semipro and pro levels.
What a song means—Stylistic diversity and heteronormative “re-use”
A song’s meaning is often especially important to the singers in an LGBTQ chorus. Indeed, even if a song is audience friendly and fits with the theme of a show, members will sometimes refuse to sing it if it is not congruent with their personal, political, or religious beliefs. While this can clash with a director’s artistic vision, this connection members feel to the programming can make the art of an LGBTQ chorus especially compelling to audiences, because it becomes evident in performance that the programming resonates or does not resonate with members’ values. For example, while the Western tradition of Christian church music is massively important within the history of choral singing, songs with Christian connotations are sometimes excluded completely in LGBTQ contexts, because they are seen as homophobic. Other LGBTQ singers will feel very much at home in this repertoire. Some will take a less explicitly political and more spiritual position on what the song means, while others may choose to ignore any oppression they read into the music. Either way, the meaning of a Christian religious song in an LGBTQ context can fundamentally change.
A related phenomenon is the way in which a song can change meaning depending on the context in which it is sung, or where it sits in a program. One simple example would be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “We kiss in the shadow,” which takes on new and darker meaning sung by an LGBTQ group unable to kiss in the light. To give another more extensive and necessarily personal example, the statistic in our city recently was that 68% of new HIV infections come from a primary or regular partner, someone we are especially close to. So my chorus programmed Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” into a performance about living with HIV/AIDS, to highlight the “crazy” decisions some of us make about safer sex in the throes of passion. We used Morten Lauridsen’s gorgeous “Sure on this Shining Night” at a later point in the same show, at the moment where a very sick and possibly dying HIV positive man faces the prospect of death, comes to terms with it, and is at peace. We felt these songs fitted together because of the unique LGBTQ purpose of the singing. These are of course personal and anecdotal data, and at every performance, all choirs and audiences construct a new performance and necessarily read fresh meaning into songs. Nevertheless, the LGBTQ purpose and context led directly to distinctive repertoire choices, to a distinctive program order that would have made no sense elsewhere, and to a distinctiveness in the vocal pedagogy required.
Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” leads us on to stylistic diversity in LGBTQ choral singing. A number of factors are already influencing all choral directors to program in a wider range of musical styles. In the past 70 years, fundamental changes have taken place in the (p. 373) way mainstream choral music is produced, presented, and consumed. Since the advent of TV and radio in the 1930s and ’40s, most music has often been a mass-produced, electronically mediated product (Middleton, 1990; Shuker, 1994; Frith, 1996), dominated by record companies and more recently social media platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Vimeo. The role of web-based audio and video in recent years has also led to vast changes in musical tastes and a much-decreased role for live music generally. This has had its effect on choral publishing and choral repertoire, so that more popular music, jazz, musical theater and non-Western musics appear in choral programs of all kinds. Similar trends have also influenced how audiences expect singers to sound, through, for example, the use of microphones and amplification, changes in venue style and sound, and so on.
Maclachlan (2015) is currently the major piece of research on the topic of the distinctiveness of LGBTQ choral repertoire. Working mostly from interviews with choral directors, she proposes a definition with regard to GALA chorus (US-based) repertoire, consisting of three categories: ‘ “works (commissioned pieces), appropriated mainstream works (community songs), and re-used mainstream works.” On the subject of “re-using,” she quotes David Halperin, who concludes How To Be Gay by offering the following definition of gay culture:
[It] can refer to new works of literature, film, music, art, drama, dance and performance that are produced by queer people and that reflect on queer experience. Gay culture can also refer to mainstream works created mostly by heterosexual artists, plus some (closeted) ones, that queer people have selectively appropriated and re-used for anti-heteronormative purposes. (2012, p. 421)
My chorus was in that sense “re-using” the Beyoncé and the Lauridsen.
Whether or not a chorus identifies as LGBTQ, it can of course still specialize in repertoire in any style. At Various Voices 2014, for example, Dublin’s major LGBTQ ensemble “Gloria” opened its set very conventionally (and beautifully) with Mozart’s Ave Verum—they sing more mainstream or “standard” choral repertoire. By contrast, the US Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus is known for its spectacular authentic renditions of popular music, complete with costumes and choreography. Lavender Light Gospel Choir in New York City is famous for its commitment to the upholding the tradition of gospel music in a praise context for the LGBTQ community. In addition, Maclachlan is right that US LGBTQ choruses are known for commissioning many new works from major (often white male) contemporary composers, including John Corigliano, Morten Lauridsen and Stephen Schwartz.
Finally, Jennifer identifies in her account a different but related tension between the needs of the audience and the needs of the members: “What do the guys want to sing, but what do I really want people to hear?” she asks. In my group, there is hot debate among the “guys” between, on the one hand, a feeling that we should sing “meaningful” songs about current issues, such as marriage equality or teen bullying, and on the other, simply singing songs “for their own sake.” Members also enjoy repertoire that entertains (p. 374) them or is fun to learn, and I often program songs that I know will appeal to certain age groups of singers. Even so, a program that perfectly pleases our more invested membership may not necessarily also entertain or educate our audience members.
To summarize, what we have here is a rich and varied picture. Directors must often negotiate a distinctive path between more mainstream and more activism-minded members and audiences. Programming and repertoire choice are sometimes inflected by an activist intent in LGBTQ choruses, and by a uniquely strong sense of ownership over the repertoire sung. The data also reveals the need for some to sing songs that raise awareness of LGBTQ issues but that also resonate outside the community. This varies too, however, and other artistic strategies that have more in common with mainstream choruses are also in evidence—some sing standard repertoire or have other progressive artistic goals. A unique tension is revealed between the need to entertain and educate the LGBTQ singers in the group, and the need to entertain and educate a wider audience. Depending on the level of inclusion, an LGBTQ ensemble is also more likely to contain a wider range of singer experience and voice type than its mainstream equivalent, and this can affect repertoire choice. Some LGBTQ choruses have specialized successfully in particular areas of the choral repertoire, gay and non-gay. As Maclachlan (2014) notes, LGBTQ groups may not necessarily perform repertoire that is in itself distinctive, but when they do sing mainstream repertoire, it often changes meaning, is “re-used” and becomes “anti-heteronormative” because of the LGBTQ social context.
Vocal Technique and Resonance
We now move on to vocal sound itself, for many the heart of choral pedagogy, and here it is impossible to avoid the relationship between voice and gender. Francis sang tenor very successfully in a large, high-level all-male LGBTQ chorus for several years. An experienced singer, a key word for her was “blend”:
I found myself thinking that being a part of the chorus was going to force me to blend … it was going to FORCE me to blend … that it was going to stretch my ability to be an integral part of the community … and … that was critical to whether or not I was good at it … That said, it was for me in a lot of ways totally the best of both worlds, because I DID stick out … like I was able to stick out and stretch the blending muscles at the same time.
And later she defined the nature of her challenge with considerable self-awareness:
I thought that my being able to blend as a singer was something I had never been able to do very well, and I didn’t know if that was my ego … I didn’t know if I just didn’t want to blend … and I thought that this would be a very interesting way to explore that.
(p. 375) For her, the skills of choral “blend” relate directly to her ability to “blend” or “stick out” socially within the community of the group. Identifying as a lesbian woman, she sets herself the considerable challenge of gender “blending” too, as the only woman in a group of over 200 men. Gendered and community meanings specific to the LGBTQ context are articulated here through the musical process. Most crucially, it is this exploration of her social “blending” skills that is the driver for her being in the chorus at all.
Our other interviewee, Jennifer, used to be a tenor when she identified as a man in her previous all-male choir. Having now started her transition, she decided, in collaboration with her director, to sing alto in her LGBTQ one. She found it a challenge:
It’s proving pretty … difficult … [our] MD has a different approach to breathing and that’s helping … I can hit higher notes, but having control … being able to run a sequence … of those higher notes together is taking some work, shall we say … It’s just as well we live out in the country [laughs] … If the little app on my phone is correct, I did hit a top D last week, but it did sound like a goose flying overhead [laughs].
That said, it was crucially important to her to continue:
Now that I’ve made my bed, I want to continue lying in it until it’s time someone comes up to me and says, “You are a complete waste of space, go back to the tenors!” [laughs]
Interestingly, her director continues to support her in this, both by providing singing lessons and allowing her to sing in the altos:
She says, “Well, actually I’d like you to try moving up there now, because when the altos get into a lower part of their range, they might lose a bit of puff, and you’re coming right into the heart of” … the strength of my voice. …She sees that as a little something to add to the choir so I’m … as I say, I quite like a challenge.
Her director also takes a much looser approach to assigning a voice part than many would, both within the LGBTQ community and outside it: “She has let people find their own level … let people have a bit of a go at it.”
While there is some writing on the transgender voice in general (Adler, Hirsch, & Mordaunt, 2012; Seeley, 2007), the transgender singing voice has not so far received much attention. The nearest work of use is the writing of Cooksey and others, who in the 1980s and 1990s kickstarted a well known and seminal wave of systematic research on the changing adolescent voice. Harries, Griffith, Walker, and Hawkins (1996) and others significantly moved forward the debate on how the voice changes at the onset of puberty. Cooksey’s 1999 book on the adolescent voice remains a standard for teachers, because, for example, it identifies clear stages in the process and offers practical advice. Especially useful in this gender nonconforming context, Cooksey also points out that teenage girls’ voices can change too, as does Gackle (2006). Questions remain on many (p. 376) transgender voice issues, including, for example, whether the changing adolescent voice is in fact an analogue of FtM transgender change; the exact effect of hormones on the transgender male singing voice later in life; and vocal strategies for the transgender woman.
The transgender singing voice is increasingly a hot topic within the LGBTQ choral movement at the time of writing. From my own discussions with directors, best practice, as with Jennifer, is to work on a case-by-case basis. It is often best to place transgender members in their voice part on the basis of their actual vocal range. This is not only more practical and vocally comfortable and makes for better blend, but also facilitates a useful rethink of a simplistic relationship between gender and voice part generally. Some choirs with trans singers rename the vocal parts, and others configure them in a range of ways, to make those with narrower or wider ranges more vocally comfortable. Voice testing more often is advisable as transition continues. It is also worth differentiating between the FtM and MtF experiences. Conventionally, the FtM transition is accompanied by hormone therapy that effectively takes the soprano or alto voice down in pitch by changing the nature and thickness of the vocal folds. This is much easier for the choral director or vocal coach to negotiate with the singer, because the journey is, at least in some ways, similar to that of the changing male voice. It is also easier for the singer concerned, who can often end up with extra flexibility vocally that they did not have before. With the MtF transition, no similar change in the vocal instrument itself can happen to aid the process. The results, as Jennifer found, can be unpredictable and can fit less well within the SATB framework. Where the voice lands in its sound and pitch range is also dependent on many factors, including previous voice part, age, and level of vocal technique.
Here a gender-nonconforming choral pedagogy is badly needed, and would be useful to transgender singers in choirs of all kinds. Our growing awareness of trans people’s needs presents a challenge to choral director trainers, very often schooled largely or solely in the vocal production techniques (and gender roles) of common-practice classical and church music from 18th to 20th centuries, or what I am labeling mainstream choral pedagogy. The issue of how to define a single good vocal resonance or technique for choral singers is thorny in all choral pedagogy, and as with repertoire, the mainstream is changing. For example, with regard only to higher men’s voices, there are now many models to choose from of real excellence and refinement, including Freddie Mercury in the popular music realm, Bobbie McFerrin in jazz, and Andreas Scholl in early music. The vocal resonance and articulation techniques used by Take 6, for example, are strikingly different from those of The Sixteen, but are, I would argue, no less accomplished. In the Broadway/musical theater realm too, there are subgenres of vocal technique now circulating in New York City, relating to classic Broadway (Rodgers and Hammerstein), modern Broadway (Sondheim, Bernstein) and contemporary Broadway (Book of Mormon, Rent). Core repertoire for LGBTQ choruses in recent years is more likely to include songs like the 2011 Lady Gaga hit “Born This Way”, Pitch Perfect’s “Bella’s Finals” or Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Such a range of repertoire demands a range of approaches to vocal resonance.
(p. 377) There is not the space for an in-depth analysis of these issues. Even so, it is possible to observe two phenomena relating to “good” vocal technique. First, mainstream choral singing increasingly includes a wider range of musical styles, and new models of vocal resonance are necessarily taking root in mainstream choral pedagogy, to enable safe and enjoyable singing in these styles. This wider range is also being reflected in LGBTQ choral singing. In addition, some of the stylistic diversity evident in LGBTQ groups may be unique to the context, though more research is needed. Second, the LGBTQ community is increasingly campaigning for the visibility of transgender and other gender-nonconforming people. This new visibility for trans singers is forcing directors to rethink key areas of their work.
Towards a LGBTQ Choral Pedagogy
So far, our premise has been to identify two separate mainstream and LGBTQ social contexts. Of course, LGBTQ people live in the mainstream too, so it would be more accurate to see these two contexts as overlapping. I and my colleagues were mostly trained in mainstream choirs, and have lived out the tension between these overlapping contexts since our movement began over 40 years ago. Over time, our goal is surely to integrate them.
It is clear that the needs of singers from LGBTQ choruses are not always being met by current solutions. While the best mainstream choral pedagogy will meet many of their needs (and is itself being challenged from within), it is unlikely to meet them all. Directing an LGBTQ group definitely involves a specific and different set of skills and understandings, both of the inclusive and activist values that motivate and underpin the musical processes, and of how those values impact musical and educational decisions in practice.
As transgender singers become more visible, all choral directors need these specialist skills. Whatever choir she is in, gay or straight, Jennifer deserves the opportunity to “blend” without sounding like a tenor in the alto section. Her choral experience should be an accepting and happy one, and her director should have the analytical tools and teaching strategies to include her, and to help her to contribute and grow within the ensemble. It would be relatively simple, for example, to build a deeper understanding of the MtF and FtM transgender voice into all choral curricula, to establish it as an exciting area of current research and to gradually loosen the link between gender and voice part.
Further exciting research questions follow, some within choral pedagogy and some outside it. What would a truly inclusive and activist choral curriculum look like? What exactly is the balance of repertoire LGBTQ choirs use? How commonplace are the vocal issues identified here? How do we teach the leadership skills required? To what extent are these issues occurring in mainstream choral contexts too, and how are they dealt with currently? As many (but not all) countries have gradually become more accepting, (p. 378) how has this influenced the growth and artistic activity of LGBTQ ensembles? What were their goals when they began, and, as some enter their 40th season, how have they changed over time? What political impact have they really had, and what are the processes through which this has occurred? Above all, what can mainstream choruses learn from the their LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and vice versa?
Whether you are convinced that choral pedagogy is inflected by its social context or not, this research reveals some fundamental truths that all choral directors will recognize. Singing is a deep need within all of us, a force for the good that can transform the lives of singers, and lead to their personal growth and empowerment. In addition, singing is a means by which all of us, gay or straight, can articulate who we are and what we believe to the wider world. My insight is that the LGBTQ community understands these truths especially well. It is leading the way with an artistic vitality, a poised radicalism and a spiritual life force grounded in these truths, that I am convinced will help drive the whole choral singing movement forward in coming decades.
We sing not because we want to, but because we need to. This need, communicated through song, inspires our audiences to feel and think differently, and gives our performances purpose, relevance and joy. As Francis put it:
LGBT people live in a world that is filled with dissonance, right? … And to come together and sing, and to hear … the complete lack of that [dissonance] … where everything just totally fits, and it sounds so beautiful … I bet there is something in that. We are the outliers, we are the ones that don’t fit in … and to be in a place where you fit in, and is very harmonious is, I think, probably, interesting.
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