As first years explored Yale’s a cappella scene this fall, they encountered something subtly different than all their predecessors had. Three of Yale’s singing groups identified themselves “all-gender TTBB” or “all-gender SSAA.” This terminology was new to campus. In the past, Yale a cappella broke down into single-gender and mixed groups. Mixed groups varied in arrangements but encompassed both high- and low-range singers of all genders. Of the single-gender groups, the all-male groups sang a repertoire written for lower voices, and the female groups for upper voices. Until now.
In July 2017, Doox of Yale, then known as the Duke’s Men, opened its membership to students of all genders. In doing so, the Doox stimulated a conversation on Yale’s campus about the role of gender in vocal music. They called on the Yale vocal music community to “examine the ways in which we include and exclude trans and non-binary people in our shared spaces.” Seven months later, Yale’s all-senior a cappella groups, The Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm, announced a joint decision to lift their gender restrictions.
Gender is cemented into the Western musical tradition and especially into vocal music. The ways in which a singer’s voice is described, categorized and utilized by ensembles are tied up with gender identity. Traditionally, basses, baritones and tenors are men. Altos, mezzos and sopranos are usually women. A number of physiological characteristics separate the lower bass, baritone and tenor voices from the higher altos, mezzos and sopranos. Hormones play the largest role in differentiating higher and lower voices.
Testosterone, for example, can alter the voice permanently during puberty, inducing thickening of the vocal folds. Thicker vocal folds create a lower, heavier voice with different transition points between vocal registers. These characteristics that describe the sound of the voice (vocal range, weight, timbre and transition points) have been, until recently, conceptually bound together with gender. Adult voices that are higher and less affected by testosterone are assumed by virtue of their classification as alto, mezzo or soprano to be female, and lower voices male.
This dichotomy has excluded transgender and gender nonbinary singers, especially from single-gender vocal groups. For example, some transgender women, unless they received puberty blockers, were exposed to high levels of testosterone during puberty and have singing voices that sound more similar to those of cisgender men than those of cisgender women. A woman with that kind of voice would not fit in any single-gender vocal group on Yale’s campus. Transgender men are similarly excluded. And a nonbinary singer might sing a “tenor” part comfortably but be excluded from an all-male group.
The conversation around gender identity in singing group has grown in recent years. “In the past, few questioned the musical or social value of single-gender choruses,” Jeffrey Duoma, professor of choral conducting at the Yale School of Music and director of the Yale Glee Club, wrote in an email to the News. But it is recently “becoming the norm, particularly in college settings, for choruses not to identify themselves by gender, but rather by vocal range.”
The Whiffenpoofs and Doox now refer to themselves as “TTBB” ensembles — containing tenor, baritone and bass voices — while Whim ’n Rhythm is “SSAA,” or made up of soprano and alto voices. Duoma believes these kinds of developments “will strengthen our choral communities; one of the best things about the choral art form is its inclusiveness — almost everyone has a voice.”
Two-time Grammy Award winner Ben Bram, who writes vocal arrangements for Pentatonix and teaches transgender and nonbinary high school students, agreed. In an email to the News, Bram said, “I think it’s fantastic that some [single-gender] groups are opening their membership to all genders, particularly in groups like the Whiffenpoofs that have special once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for its members.”
The Whiffenpoofs take advantage of their prestige as the country’s oldest collegiate a cappella group by embarking on far more extravagant world tours than their peer groups. Noticing that only men had access to this experience, women on campus had been agitating for the gender integration of the Whiffenpoofs years before they ultimately lifted their gender restriction.
The imperative to reassess the relationship between gender and vocal music has extended beyond the world of college a cappella. In March, the powerful lyric baritone Lucia Lucas landed the principal role in “Don Giovanni” at the Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma. Lucia Lucas is a transgender woman, the first to sing a principal role on an American operatic stage. Also this year, Liz Jackson Hearns and Brian Kremer co-authored “The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices,” an early entry into scholarship that thinks critically about gender’s role in voice pedagogy.
Kremer, who is a musical theater professor and voice teacher at Elon University, said he felt “inadequate as a teacher” when he was “unable to service every student who came through [his] door,” some of whom were transgender or nonbinary and for whom gendered vocal categorization was unsuitable.
So, he reached out to Hearns, who in 2014 founded The Voice Lab, a Chicago-based vocal coaching company that specializes in transgender voices. Hearns and Kremer told the News that in order to include transgender and nonbinary people in the singing community, there need to be “new ways of classifying voices that remove gender” as a consideration. According to Hearns and Kremer, focusing on a student’s vocal anatomy and hormonal history is a more inclusive way of classifying voices than focusing on their gender. Kremer said that realizing this has “completely reshaped the way” he “approach[es] students and look[s] at the voice.”
While the main criteria that classify a voice as a soprano, alto, tenor or bass are independent of gender, the terms themselves are heavily gendered. Hearns and Kremer said that to make voice classification truly inclusive, the gendered associations of classical voice types must be dealt with or new terminology must be invented.
But even people who advocate a more inclusive attitude toward gender in vocal music believe that the performer’s gender can be sometimes relevant. Morgan Baker ’21, who is nonbinary and the first nonmale member of Doox, argued that some “works that speak to the experiences of specific groups, especially those of marginalized groups, can demand consideration of their performer’s identity.” Kremer voiced a similar opinion: “Gender does not have to be a consideration when singing a song whose meaning is universal, like ‘My Funny Valentine’ — everyone can have a funny valentine,” but when performing a piece that gives voice to the specific experiences of a marginalized group, it is important to consider “who the narrator of that story is.”
The gender identity of the performer is one of many aspects of a singer’s identity that groups may consider when selecting their repertoire. The Doox, Baker noted, carefully consider the racial identity of the soloist when they sing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a 1970 hit that protested the Vietnam War and later became an anthem of solidarity for people of color.
Addressing the topic of all-female singing groups, Hearns noted that “trans women [can] often get excluded from those spaces. Having a cis-women-only space is problematic,” as would be having a group that is cisgender-men-only, so it is important for single-gender spaces to be inclusive toward all of those who share that gender identity.
Sofía Campoamor ’19 is a cisgender woman and the first nonmale Whiffenpoof. She is also probably the first singer in Whiffenpoofs history whose voice has not been heavily altered by testosterone. Throughout her singing career, she has sung soprano, alto, and occasionally tenor parts in choirs, musicals, and a cappella groups. In the Whiffenpoofs, she will sing the highest tenor part. Campoamor acknowledged that there is some difference between voices affected by testosterone and those mostly unaffected. But she has proven, as has Baker, that she can comfortably sing music written for testosterone-affected voices. She suggested that, rather than focusing on a black-and-white binary consisting of voices that were exposed to high levels of testosterone during puberty and those that were not, we might view testosterone-affected and -unaffected voices as “two spectra that may actually overlap.”
Even if all of Yale’s a cappella groups were to remove their gender requirements while retaining their repertoire — as Doox, Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm have done — there would remain 10 exclusively low- or high-voiced groups and six mixed groups in the Singing Group Council. Could the way Western music has labelled high voices female and low voices male have inflated Yale’s emphasis on the differences between them? Buzz Mauro ’84, an alumnus of Doox and a successful musical theater teacher and performer, seemed to think so. He suggested that “the practice of segregating social groups by gender” and Yale’s long history of only admitting men led to the sheer number of exclusively high- or low-voiced a cappella groups on campus today. Range-restricted groups may still serve a purpose. The limited range and homogeneous timbre of an exclusively low-voiced ensemble create a unique sound, just as a trombone trio offers a sonic experience that a brass quintet cannot. However, trombone trios are vastly outnumbered by brass quintets, which include the entire range of standard brass instruments, from the tuba to the trumpet. The future of vocal music might require a compromise between specialized, range-restricted groups and those committed to making room.
Alex DiMeglio ’20 is a member of the Doox of Yale.