Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Sandi Hammond of the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus

According to choral director and composer Sandi Hammond, when she was about three years old, her mother exclaimed, “What are we going to do with all that energy? She’s going to have to be an opera singer!” That wasn’t precisely Hammond’s future career path but it was the start of her lifelong love affair with choral singing. Having grown up singing with one of Boston’s premier children’s choirs, today Hammond directs the singular Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus. Though Hammond herself is cisgendered, she started the chorus as a way to meld her activism with her music degree. Just a few years old, Hammond described the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus as “part chorus, part community meeting, and part group voice lesson.” For Hammond, the chorus—which features members ranging in age from 18 to 65—is a safe place for transgender people to find their voices, figuratively as well as literally. In her own words, here’s Hammond on the unique needs of transgender singers and why the chorus is just as valuable to the larger community as it is to the transgender community.

The Origin Story of the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus

I had a deep need to use my music degree in a meaningful way. I like performing, but some people come off the stage—it's pure bliss. I come off stage thinking, "Well that was fun, but what else is there?" It felt too alone or just somehow [that] it didn't connect to people in the way that I wanted. So I had a need for something meaningful…. I had had a trans male singer about a decade ago, and it stayed with me. When someone who'd had a female voice for 35 years goes on testosterone, boom, new voice—new singing voice. What's the mechanism? How does it work? How do they reconnect to their sound? [That singer] came to me because they wanted to audition for a chorus, and get back into singing. I could see how terrifying it was on some level, and then how joyful it was when they moved through it and got into a choir.

I joined something called the Facebook Transgender Alliance, and I just fell down the rabbit hole. I was just so moved by the stories people shared. "My mom kicked me out of the house" or "I haven't spoken to my family in eight years" or "Since I transitioned my daughter won't speak to me." It's not all bad news, but there's a lot of pain. People think we're in this trans moment in our culture, and we are, but we have such a long way to go.

 [I posted a message] on the Transgender Facebook Alliance and said, “I'm thinking of starting an all-trans chorus in Boston, what do people think?” Within an hour, I had 123 comments in a discussion that went all around the world. I had people in Houston, Texas; Germany; Sydney, Australia; Boston, Massachusetts. I had two people sign up that day. I think I had six within the week. Our first rehearsal in November had 35 singers.

On the Importance of Having a Chorus just for Transgender Singers

If you look at the public health data…the incidents of physical violence and sexual trauma are statistically much higher for trans people. Loss of employment upon transition is a huge problem. The harassment numbers, just in terms of verbal harassment in the workplace, are something like 90 percent…. It's not rocket science to say this is a population that could use something positive and social because the isolation is there. I'm not a music therapist but you can see the therapeutic benefits of singing in a choir for anyone. There's all this data that came out this year [about how] singing in a chorus boosts your immune system and improves your mood and boosts serotonin. That literature's all there for the population at large. So you take a population with a lot of trauma and isolation, and it's just a recipe for social connection and a positive experience. I knew that, but of course I've never lived the experiences myself. I've had a lot of privilege as a white person and a cisgender person. One of the singers came up to me and said, "This is such a place of creativity and joy." I thought, “Well, I hope so, it's choir! <laughs> It's not a morose experience, right?” They said, "No, I don't think you get it. The only other time I'm in an all-trans space is either at a funeral or Trans Day of Remembrance when we grieve the members of the community we've lost." I think the average life span of a trans person is 42? It's really low. They said, "This is the first and only happy, all-trans space with a positive goal and a social goal that I've ever been in. Where we're not grieving or fighting." So, that was shocking to me, even though I could intellectually see it in the data. To hear that was an education.

On the Vocal Challenges of Being a Choral Singer when You're a Transgender Person

A trans man who goes on testosterone gains in the size of the vocal chords, but not the space around them, the resonator in the throat. A boy at puberty, their throat will gain about an inch-and-a-half in space around the chords… so that's part of what enables a lower pitch in a male sound. Trans men have a different instrument, and we haven't studied this as far as singing goes. We really don't have any data. I asked every single trans male singer [I worked with] who took testosterone, "What was said to you about voice?" And the answer I got, pretty much for everyone, was there's this checklist of 15 or 20 things when you take testosterone. This might happen or that might happen…. [There’s] no conversation, no suggestion that they get speech therapy, no warning that they might experience laryngitis in months three or four, no suggestion to get their vocal chords scoped before and after…. If you slow down the amount of the dose and the pace of the dosing of testosterone, what the little research we have out there shows is that it probably makes it more manageable to maintain your singing voice. However, if you are so unhappy female-identified that you are desperate to transition and present as male and be accepted as male, you don't want to go slow. Trans people are balancing so many complex aspects of their transition.

For trans women, most of them went through male puberty earlier in life and they transitioned later, and so they already have that big resonator, those big male vocal chords…. Basically you're trying to go from a cello to a violin, you're going the other direction. You can tighten and shorten the chords [surgically] but eventually they'll stretch out again like a muscle. That's one risk. You could also lose your voice completely. For trans women, they come in and they say, "I sing like a guy and I hate it. I miss singing. I need to be singing; it's who I am. So, can I achieve a falsetto?” Well, that depends on your unique anatomy…. Some of it's training and some of it's just anatomy. It's why some people run faster. Trans women have very few options for physically altering their vocal chords.

I think one of the things the media has missed most of the time is that there are many people in the trans community who are non-binary or gender-fluid or gender-queer and they might code switch, or they may not identify as male or female, they may be agender. So depending on their gender from first, their goals vary. I have someone who was identified as male at birth, mostly identifies as female, but not consistently, and they don't really have a desire to achieve a high range, they just want a safe and happy place to sing. I have another singer who was identified as female at birth, describes themselves as pretty butch, pretty masculine, has a very high voice that you would call soprano—we just call it high voice, we don't use gendered language. For that person, they don't want to be in a section of female sopranos, but they do sing high, so they want to be in a space where they can use the voice they have. This is someone who's not going to go on testosterone. So we have a lot of non-binary people whose needs vary greatly.

Why Traditional Choral Practices Can Be Challenging for Transgender Singers

The choral challenges [are things like]: What do you call a section? How do you arrange music for trans singers? You could have a women's chorus and have one trans woman join, and everyone but her is an alto or a soprano. What is that director going to do? Are they going to write a baritone part for one person and teach it to them? Are they going to quickly cram in lessons to help that person achieve a falsetto? How are they going to be inclusive? Not easy. Some people have asked me, well why don't you allow allies or cisgender singers or LGBT and across the board? Because the choral needs are unique. We don't use soprano, alto, tenor, bass; we've come up with our own paradigm: trans upper, trans middle, trans lower. We mapped it out on the piano together…. People also have permission to change sections between rehearsals. If we have a performance season, in the 12 weeks leading up to it, that's a little tricky, because I can't have people switching parts a week before the concert, so we've had the first two seasons with no performance goals. It was just more like a class. So you get to keep singing, you get to feel safe, you get to make new friends.

I offer every member an individual vocal evaluation. The onus is on the director, right? It's more work, it's labor intensive, but other option is that that person's just going to drop out and get discouraged. So there has to be a shift in the language around soprano and alto are female, tenor and bass are male. Teachers have to state out loud, repeatedly, "I am open to gender variation. If you're not happy in your section, come see me. It'll be just between us. I'll help you work it out." You have to proactively be inclusive; it's not enough to just wait and see what happens, because it's not going to happen.

On Choosing and Creating Repertoire

In the first six months especially, we found our way together [in deciding on repertoire] because I said, "Okay, look, SATB is out the window, any language available to us is gendered." It was a collaborative process of, let's figure out what ranges [are in the chorus]…. Then we couldn't find arrangements—everything was either too low or too high or too varied. I asked everybody to e-mail me a favorite poem and then in rehearsal, we composed together. Someone would come up and make something up, and I'd help translate it and they'd teach a few lines to people, then someone else would come up.

For some directors, the prerogative to choose repertoire is why they're paid to be artistic director. To a certain extent, I and the pianist every now and then pull rank, so to speak, to say, “Hey this piece doesn't translate well to choral. But we have an open repertoire process that goes on every season for three weeks. You can send in two songs, you can send in 30. It could be Brahms, it could be your favorite singer-songwriter, it could be punk rock, it can be whatever you want and we will consider each and every piece…. Our first program was really eclectic and wonderful, I think, and about three-fourths of the suggestions came from the chorus and not from myself and the pianist.

The Value of a Transgender Chorus to the Larger Community

If you think about when [the Gay Pride movement] was started, the word “pride” was a way of changing the stigma around being gay to something positive. "I'm proud of who I am. I have a right to take up space in society. We have created this just for us.” I think almost any social group that's oppressed and [then] emerges goes through a period of banging the pots and pans in the street….You have to have a flag to rally around where you can say, "We're here. We belong here. We take up space. We're valued members of society too." If you think about the stigma and the isolation [of being transgendered]—I mean, trans women of color are being murdered for being who they are—you think about the need for a positive message. It’s a way of cutting through the noise in society to say, "We're here, too. And we're done being marginalized. We're positive. We're an add-value segment of society." I think we're at a moment where people are more open to listening and accepting, and I think music is a pretty non-threatening way to [meet people who are different from you.]

One audience member came up to me after our debut and they said, "Well I've always thought this was wonderful but sitting here it gave me a chance to sort of take people in without feeling I was staring and ogling and objectifying." To see so many different faces of [transgender people] helped demystify it. It was humanizing. Here are people singing, which is a really vulnerable thing to do. Trans people are used to being closeted and marginalized. Well, they're doing all the talking, right? You're in the audience and you're not trans, and you have to listen to everything they say. That’s a power corrective of an imbalance where they're in charge. They're making a lot of noise, and the audience has to be respectful. I think it opens the door for conversations.

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Comments

Submitted by Jane (not verified) on

This is so fastinating and relevant!  I think that the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus should get a nice chunk of funding from NEA or another Arts Endoument. Excellent interview!! 

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