A Farewell to Altos (and Sopranos)

“The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis” (detail of heads), Jacques-Louis David, 1818. When I first saw this image I assumed that both figures were young women, but after finding a photo of the entire painting I realized that they are, in fact, a woman and a man. In addition to the exquisite facial expressions that so beautifully capture my own sense of loss, and the gorgeous colors, I’m very drawn to the blurred gender identities of these figures.

Dear Altos and Sopranos,

After singing with and among you for thirty-plus years of choral music making, the time has come for me to say “goodbye” to you. It’s also time for me to bid a final adieu to the idea of being physically able to sing the notes that you can sing so beautifully and with such ease. While I’ve sung alto for most of my adult life, when I was younger I moved between alto and soprano, and in the last few years have returned to the soprano section, on occasion. So this letter is for all of you, for all of us.

I need to say “goodbye” now because my voice is changing. I was assigned female at birth and started taking testosterone in order to physically transition in September of 2016. My singing voice first began to shift in February of 2017, five months after starting testosterone therapy, when I gained a half step at the bottom of my range. It’s now May and I’ve gained a few more notes at the bottom of my range, lost a few at the top, and my breaks have shifted down. More importantly, though, the quality of my voice is changing. In addition to some new-found power and resonance in my chest voice, my head voice is sounding a bit richer and more full, but at the same time it’s getting less and less comfortable to sing in that part of my range. I have to work harder to find that clear, shimmering head voice that I’ve come to love so much. These days, when I try to sing there, I get fatigued more quickly than before, especially if I try to sing with much volume. My voice is cracking and breaking much more often than it did even a few months ago. It looks like my time singing treble is coming to a close.

While a lower voice has always been one of the changes to which I was most looking forward, it’s also one that causes me a lot of worry (see this post for more about my decision to start T). I worry because there is very little systematic information about how T affects trans people’s singing voices and we know that some people do experience problems with their voices as a result of taking T. Aside from being unsure of whether the changes will happen in a way that allows me to continue singing, I’m also uncertain about what it will actually be like to have a lower voice. What will this voice sound like? What will it feel like to hear a totally different sound coming from my body? Will it come to be familiar and feel like mine, or will I be a stranger to myself? And then, of course, I have to contend with the fact that I will, eventually, lose my head voice, a notion that is totally alien to me. I just can’t imagine what singing will be if it’s not singing in my head voice. Yes, I’ll likely gain a falsetto range and my chest voice will expand and get more powerful, but I’m still losing something, and that uncertainty is frightening. I started to wonder about what it would be like to lose my head voice and how much longer I’d be singing alto before I even began testosterone therapy. I questioned whether every performance and every recording would be my last as an alto.

I spent the first several months of testosterone therapy mourning in anticipation of a loss I hadn’t even experienced yet. It’s not a practice I’d recommend. More recently I’ve been trying to focus, instead, on the beautiful musical moments that are happening all the time, to notice them, instead of agonizing about what my future voice might be like. To savor singing in that glorious, resonant space, feeling my mask buzzing and the sound pouring out of me. To wrap myself up in the sensations and sounds of singing with other treble voices, hearing my own voice reflected in theirs and singing with them to create harmonies. While I still do find myself sometimes getting caught up in fears about what it will be like when I no longer have my head voice, centering on the present has reduced that anxiety.

In the midst of re-focusing my attention on the present, though, and as I said at the start of this letter, it is getting more difficult for me to sing in the higher part of my range. I don’t expect to wake up tomorrow having forever lost the ability to sing anything above G4 or to immediately shift sections in all of my ensembles. It seems important, though, to acknowledge that my voice transition is beginning. I’m not anticipating a future loss, but am fully acknowledging and experiencing my present. That includes embracing the sadness that comes with a radical change in the voice I have known for decades.

For me, mourning this loss also means expressing my gratitude to my fellow treble singers. I’m grateful for all of the time I’ve spent making music as one of you. I’m grateful for having understood and experienced the power and strength of singing high. I’m grateful to have learned that singing high is not a sign of weakness or frailty or being “less-than”. I’m grateful to have worked with you to show choral directors that it’s not just the boys who can move risers. I’m grateful for the things that I learned how to do while singing with you. I learned a little bit of Latin, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Hebrew, Middle English, Swahili and Zulu. I learned to breathe deeply, stand tall, and always be grounded. I learned to enunciate. I learned to open my mouth and make my voice heard. I learned that dozens of girls and women opening our mouths and making people listen to our voices can be revolutionary. I learned how to listen, really listen. For all this and so much more, sopranos and altos, I thank you.

As I continue moving forward and trying to stay rooted in the present during a time of change, I imagine my feelings of loss and concern and fear will continue to surface. I expect that they will be mixed with curiosity and wonder as I begin to experience singing in the lower part of my range, and also quite a bit of uncertainty as this process unfolds. The trick will be learning not to get stuck in this uncertainty and all of the feelings that accompany it.

I’m reminded of a poem called “Guest House” that I’ve heard countless times in my mindfulness communities. It was written by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

Guest House

This being human is a guest house
 every morning a new arrival.
 A joy, a depression, a meanness,
 some momentary awareness comes
 as an unexpected visitor.
 Welcome and entertain them all!
 Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
 who violently sweep your house
 empty of its furniture,
 still treat each guest honorably.
 He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
 The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
 meet them at the door laughing,
 and invite them in.
 Be grateful for whoever comes,
 because each has been sent
 as a guide from beyond.

I’ve sung with you, my treble-voiced friends, and it’s truly been an honor. But I have to say goodbye now. When next we meet I won’t be singing quite as high, but rest assured that I will always carry with me the time we spent together.

Love,
Ari

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like: 
To T or Not to T? — Testosterone and the Transgender Singing Voice
My Gender Journey

Email me at: genderqueerme.blog@gmail.com