Voice Changes and Singing: The trials and tribulations of transitioning from boy soprano

This gets a bit technical with music-related terms. Apologies for that but it’s hard to explain it any other way.

When I made the decision to start taking testosterone, I was excited about the prospect of my speaking voice changing. I’d always felt self conscious about it, and wanted a lower voice. But as someone who has always loved singing, and as the director of a choir, I was worried about what would happen to my singing voice.

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I knew my singing voice would inevitably change, but I didn’t know how much, and how difficult it would be for me to control my new voice as it dropped. I was warned that it might be hard to sing at all for a while. Given that I teach my choir by ear — so I sing every phrase to them for them to repeat back to me — I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.

The changes were slow and subtle at first. Initially I noticed that my lower range expanded and became stronger quite quickly. Within a couple of months I was able to sing tenor which had previously been the part I struggled to reach low enough for. At that stage I could still manage the soprano (the highest part), but the quality of the sound I made started to deteriorate. As my lower range strengthened and gained resonance, the higher notes became reedy and more like a falsetto than a true soprano. After about five or six months on T I could still get the high notes out, but I sounded like someone who’d been breathing in helium.

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At that point I experienced a more sudden and noticeable voice drop, and the top end of the soprano was more or less wiped out. I started to rely on playing a descant recorder, or singing an octave down when I was teaching. Soon it was not only difficult to sing the soprano part, but also the alto. And where previously I’d always sung the bass part an octave up when teaching, that was becoming a challenge too and I could just about manage to sing it in the correct register.

This is when I noticed a peculiar problem that’s pretty unique to someone teaching a choir with a voice that’s going through male puberty. Once I started to switch octaves, it totally threw my choir. I realised that this is because when you sing, you instinctively pitch your voice in the place where you can sing the tune. But this is different for the average male and female voices. Someone with an adult male voice trying to sing along with a female voice will automatically drop down an octave. Likewise a woman or child trying to sing along with an adult male voice will instinctively pitch an octave up.

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The problem for me, and my choir, is that at the moment my voice is stuck in a place that’s very much between male and female. I can sing almost as low as most cisgender men, but I don’t have the same resonance or sound quality that they do. So when I sing the bass line in the correct register, the basses in my choir still try and drop an octave below me — which puts their voices in the basement and is impossible for them to manage. Conversely when I sing the soprano part an octave down, the sopranos still try to match my pitch and usually end up singing too low. So it’s all fun and games as I have to try and sing higher, and then I squawk and make horrible noises. But as someone in my choir said to me this week when I came out with a sound like a dying donkey, “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.” I guess that’s the best I can ask for 🙂

 

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Six Months of Male Puberty: Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I passed an important milestone this week. Yesterday marked six months on testosterone for me. It seems like a good time to reflect how far I’ve come, while also being aware of how far I still have to go.

Puberty is a slow process, whether it’s the naturally occurring type or a second one induced by hormone therapy. Most of the advice and information tells trans people to expect to see changes for up to five years at least, although most of the most noticeable changes often happen in the first two years. So, six months is still relatively early days.

The changes are subtle (gradual voice drop, acquisition of facial hair, fat redistribution etc) but are gradually adding up to me being read as male by strangers more often. The weird part for me, is that I never know what assumptions other people are making about my gender. Unless they happen to use a pronoun in my presence, or an obviously gendered term like sir or the dreaded madam I have no way of telling how I’m being categorised. But given that I can wander into the men’s toilets without causing a stir — and was getting some very odd looks in the ladies the last couple of times I tried to use them — I think that on balance the world is mostly seeing me as a bloke now.

My voice is the main thing that still lets me down. It’s a lot lower than it used to be, and now technically measures in the male range.

From pre-T to now, courtesy of an iOS app called Speech Test (where do I sign up for those muscles?):

Unfortunately the lack of resonance and years of ingrained feminine speech pattern still makes me sound rather androgynous. I don’t get challenged when I give my name to banks/insurance companies etc on the phone anymore though, so that’s progress.

My family and friends are getting used to talking about me using he/him pronouns, and it makes me happy when I hear them do it. I know it’s been really weird for people who have known me for a long time, so I appreciate how hard everyone is trying with this. The closer people are to me, the harder it is, but my ex/coparent/partner-in-crime and my kids are managing to get it right 90% of the time now, so if they can manage it then I figure anyone can.

The last six months have been a rollercoaster for a variety of reasons, and being on testosterone is the least of them.

  • I’ve been busy with work, friends, and family, and dealing with the fallout of my transition. This has affected relationships in unexpected ways as well as predictable ones.
  • I’ve been getting used to being free and single (although still cohabiting incredibly amicably), and have launched myself into the insanity of online dating as a gay man.
  • I had chest surgery six weeks ago, so was busy preparing for that, and then dealing with recovery.

The most important part of this post — I feel good. I’m happy and at peace with myself in a way that is new. I’m finally starting to feel like I know who I am after years of being lost in a post female puberty wilderness of feeling fundamentally wrong. Being authentic and honest about who I am is a wonderful feeling, and I have no regrets about making that leap of faith.

So to sum up, life is crazy, and difficult at times, but it’s also pretty damn good being me.

Here’s to the next six months!

Self-image, Dysphoria and Seeing the Whole Person

Navel gazing ahoy…

I’m now three months into hormone therapy, and the changes are subtle – almost imperceptible. Yet things must be changing, because before I started on T nobody ever gendered me correctly. I’d get called ‘madam’ in shops, and have polite elderly gentlemen insisting on holding doors open for me (usually when I was trying to hold doors open for them) and saying “Ladies first.” Now, people are starting to read me as male, or to at least be unsure enough that they hesitate before calling me madam. Thank God.

Even so, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve knowingly been read as male” the guard on the train; another guy on a train; a bloke serving me in a pub; a group of Mean Girls in a womens’ toilet in a pub in Cornwall (who triggered a wave of transgender-related toilet anxiety. Thanks for that ladies).

The weird thing is: whatever these people are seeing, is not what I see when I look in the mirror. But when I started pondering on this, I realised that don’t see myself as a whole at all. I see myself in pieces. This may well not be a trans-specific issue,  I’m sure some cisgender people might experience a similar disconnect for different reasons, but in my case it’s related to gender dysphoria.

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I spent years thinking I was female and hating my body (also not a trans specific issue), but not understanding exactly why I hated it. I suffered with disordered eating for a long time, and it’s only now that I realise I wasn’t trying to diet/exercise to make the most of my feminine assets. Rather, I was trying to lose my curves and change my body into a more androgynous shape. Without the help of testosterone, I could never do enough, so I was constantly dissatisfied.

During those unhappy times, I learned to dissociate from my body as a coping strategy. I got remarkably good at ignoring the bits I disliked: hips, chest, stomach – anything soft and squishy basically; and focusing on the parts I was happier with: my shoulders, my relatively square waist/torso, the muscle I gained in the gym.

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This dissociation has continued since I’ve started to transition. Most of the time I can filter out the things that cause me dysphoria even when I look in the mirror. But as a result, I have no idea how I look to others. I’m so focused on individual features (sorted into a mental checklist of like/hate/indifferent) that I don’t see the whole. The only times I can see how I appear to others is in a photograph, and then I’m usually disappointed. I think I have the opposite of body dysmorphic disorder, because in my head I’m at least 5’10” and have Channing Tatum’s butt. Reality sucks.

Yet my self-consciousness is such that I don’t expect that magic invisibility shield to work for anyone else. On the contrary, I always expect other people to immediately zero in on the feminine characteristics that I usually avoid seeing in myself. So, when someone calls me sir, or interacts with me in any other way that makes me think they’ve read me correctly as male, I’m still terribly surprised about it.

I guess when we look at other people, we see the whole. When assessing someone’s gender, which we do unconsciously in a split second, we weigh up the visible evidence so the balance tips one way or the other (because as a society, most of us like to put people in binary boxes – not saying it’s right, just saying it’s a fact). As I keep taking T, the tiny physical changes are gradually starting to tip the scales towards Male, which feels good, even if I can’t see it myself yet.

I’m looking forward to the day when being gendered correctly isn’t something to get excited about any more. I wonder how long it will take? And I wonder how long my brain will take to catch up with that reality?

Glass Walls: Two Months on T Update

This morning I did my third testosterone shot — all on my own with no supervision, yay me — and I figured I should do an update on how it’s going. I was intending to write a brief update, but it turned out really wordy so you might want to get a cup of tea or a glass of wine or something before you settle in to read.

The physical changes are slow but definitely happening, which is reassuring. I always knew it would take time, so the tiny changes that are only noticeable to me are still good. So far there isn’t much that would be obvious to anyone else, but here are the things I’ve noticed (that I’m prepared to share here, because there is such a thing as TMI).

Vocal changes

I had a small but noticeable (to me) voice drop very early on, within a week of my first T shot. It’s more obvious in my singing voice than my speaking voice, but I gained a few new notes at the bottom of my range, and have also gained power and resonance where previously my voice was very weak. I used to be a soprano, now I’m a solid alto.

My speaking voice is very slightly different too I think, but mostly you might just assume I had a cold so it’s not very impressive yet.

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In my dreams…

Facial hair

Around week five I noticed that my single lonely pre-T chin hair had some company. Since then they’re coming in… well, not exactly thick and fast, but there are new additions whenever I look closely. They’re currently very uneven and mostly showing up on the right side of my face so I’ll be shaving/trimming until they get to a point where I can grow it out without looking ridiculous, which may take months or even years.

Body shape/weight

I’ve gained about 2-3 lbs and I’m pretty sure it’s all muscle. I feel leaner/firmer and have gained an inch on my waist and chest, but lost half an inch on my hips so I’m happy with that. I have been working out regularly and watching what I eat.

Appetite

My body thinks I’m a teenage boy, and although I might be gaining muscle I’m not growing upwards so I need to be careful not to trust my appetite. The hunger has mostly been manageable so far, but occasionally I find myself raiding the fridge in a food frenzy. Tracking calories via My Fitness Pal is helping!

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Energy levels

In some ways I have more energy and stamina when I’m actually doing things, but in the afternoon/evening I sometimes feel wiped out. That was more noticeable in the first month, maybe while my body was adapting to the new hormones? I’m sleeping pretty well, although I had some serious night sweats in month one — presumably hormonal as I’m fast-tracking the menopause now.

Skin

Yuck. Remember greasy puberty skin and hair? Yeah. I have that now. It comes and goes a bit during the month (it’s at its worst between shots when my T levels peak), but when it’s bad it’s really bad. Of course that also means I’m more prone to spots. But so far the spots from T are less evil than the oestrogen spots I used to get. They’re superficial and tend to clear up more quickly whereas the oestrogen spots hung around so long I felt like I should charge them rent. The acne situation may well get worse before it gets better though, and I’m resigned to that.

Mood/emotions

Obviously it’s really hard to tell what’s down to the hormones, and what’s down to me being happy about the fact that I’m taking the hormones. Plus, just to muddy the waters further I also started on ADHD meds about 3 weeks after I started T so that could be a factor too.

So with that disclaimer…. Generally my mental health has been really good since starting T. I’ve felt less anxious, more positive, more stable, more confident, and more able to cope with things. I had a slight blip around week 3-4 when I felt horrible for a couple of days, but I think that was when my T levels dropped before my 2nd shot. In month two my levels felt more stable (based on the physical symptoms), and I didn’t get the mood drop.

I think that’s everything… It’s been a busy week in blog land. I’m terrible with consistency so they all came at once this week. I might be quiet for a while now, but will be back with another update at some point when I have something new to say.

Thanks for reading and taking an interest.