Dancing the Identity Jive

Our guest blogger is Naomi Lee Schulke, Musical Theatre and CCM singing teacher and vocal coach specialising in gender transitioning voices. Naomi was inspired to write this post on identity following a career coaching session with Jeremy:

Dancing the Identity Jive

I’ve been a singing teacher for a long time. In the last five years I have invested a lot of time and money into a deep dive of what this means exactly. I’ve studied with Estill International, Dr Kari Ragan, and most recently completed a twelve-month accreditation programme with Vocal Process. It is with Dr Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher at VP that I have begun to ask myself some crucial questions, the most basic of which is ‘who am I?’ How does who I am connect with what I do?

Let’s side-step for a moment. This piece is not the time for an existential crisis. I used to be a performer. Someone who found singing at thirteen and discovered the first thing that she was really good at. That thirteen-year-old winning competitions and praise in Cornwall, is a very different human to the one ten years later, making a life as an actor, singer and musician, with West End aspirations. I loved my time at Drama School, but from then until I stepped away from professional performance in 2015, I was met with an adrenalin fuelled pendulum of opinion swinging violently between judgement and praise. It was a life full of pretence.

It is this that has led me, as a teacher and coach, to be so obsessively committed to enabling my students to find and perform with authenticity. And from that, to working with transgender students.

I am a cis-gender teacher of colour. I’m not part of the trans community, and so the path I tread is of respect, research and care. But it is also of being within a minority. I know what it is to live with people making assumptions based on the way I look – and crucially feeling that they can ask me anything they like about my appearance and the judgements they’ve made.

My student base is predominantly aged between 15-25, and there is a much greater acceptance of gender fluidity with this generation. Approximately three years ago I began to teach a student who had recently come out as trans and was still working out what that meant for her as a performer. My job was to facilitate changes in her voice as she chose repertoire that felt right. A year later I began teaching another trans student, whose voice had changed in a way that felt alarming and uncontrollable. No one had discussed with him that this would happen and he was left feeling adrift and confused.

I am not an expert. Yet. I have read and listened to a lot, which has been informative, but doesn’t deal with one of the primary issues my students are having: which Musical Theatre roles can they sing that suit their visual as well as their vocal casting?

This was the beginning of my true education as we began to experiment: moving a key here, find nuance there, basically turn everything on its head. My question became ‘what happens in context?’ What happens in a real show in real time? Do these talented trans performers only perform in modern Musical Theatre OR do we start to consider bigger key shifts and vocal expectations within the industry? I suspect the latter will be a slow burn if it ever happens.

From a technical perspective, when working with students who are taking testosterone, I began working in the way I would with biological adolescent males: increasing laryngeal awareness and what is happening at vocal fold level in comparison to where it was previously. Encouraging greater awareness of sound and feel and celebrating everything in the process.

I now have four trans and several non-binary students, mostly focussing on Musical Theatre, who are all interested in finding material that suits both their identity and their voice. It’s a shame that those two factors are not part of the same breath. I’m in the process of writing my PhD application: Teaching Musical Theatre to Gender Transitioning Students. Developing a base-line methodology from the perspective of a cis-gender female singing and sung voice teacher. My aim here is to develop my practice with a greater understanding of the nuances within this area, while ensuring that my student-centred approach and the atmosphere of progression through person-centred vocal nurturing is maintained.

Through this process I am constantly reminded of my aspirational thirteen year old self and my own jive through the identity parade. There are no clear lines. We are all individuals, uniquely and wonderfully different. Isn’t it time for us to be celebrated for our talents and achievements based on those factors alone?

Naomi Lee Schulke