‘Will I Lose My Singing Voice On HRT?’: A Brief Chronicle Of My Experience
My experience with my voice before hormone replacement therapy (pre-HRT) felt treacherous: although I liked its tonality, it was also my main source of misgendering. As I considered the effects of undertaking HRT, I was excited to smooth out the lows and complete my otherwise good passing.
'I hope you’re not a singer!' laughs one of the healthcare professionals I met when they saw my dosage for testosterone. They knew that when my voice would drop, it would break, and quite considerably. Because I only sing for my own enjoyment, I never felt the need to discuss that concern with my endocrinologist. I left my first testosterone shot a bit conflicted. Not only because I did not know how my body would react to this new therapy, but also because I knew that there was something I could perhaps never get back: my singing. And that scared me, just like I know it scares other transmasculine individuals considering taking testosterone to masculinize their bodies. That is why I would like to share my experience with my voice and singing after one year of hormone replacement therapy.
How HRT affects the voice
It is important to understand what is going on. To keep it simple, vocal cords are folded tissue in the throat that change with breathing and muscle contraction. Sound is emitted through the oscillation of the cords. This is how we talk in our everyday life. With a mix of diaphragmatic breathing, muscle control and placement, singing can be achieved.
In the case of masculinization hormone replacement therapy, the hormone that is prescribed is testosterone. It can be administered via injection, which is the fastest way of absorbing large amounts of the hormone, or via patches or topical gels. As most people want to see results quickly, injection tends to be the method of choice. This means that changes that would take place over several years of puberty get shortened to a few months.
Testosterone thickens the vocal cords. The impact is a permanent deepening of the pitch of the voice. Studies have shown that on average, it is a change of 6.4 semitones. It also enlarges the larynx, also called the voice box, and changes its placement. This process usually takes place during the first three to nine month range of hormone replacement therapy via injection, usually peaking around six months. Higher amounts of administered testosterone will cause more significant drops in pitch, while smaller amounts will lead to a more gradual change.
It is usually recommended for transgender singers who want to maintain their vocal ability to choose lower amounts of prescribed testosterone, as agreed with the healthcare professional. This will cause smaller breaks into the deepening process, and more time to accompany the change with technique.
Mourning your old voice
Personally, I had grown really comfortable singing with my pre-T voice. Although my tone was a bit airy and light, I could still comfortably mimic male tenor vocalists, which I emulated happily. But I was looking forward to expanding my deeper vocal range, and found myself appreciating baritone vocalists a lot more as my first shot consultation approached.
When my voice cracked, I realized that my preconceived idea of that process was false. I woke up every morning hoarse and raspy, and emitting noises that seemed uncontrollable. I always had to cough, my voice would feel strained after long bouts of talking… It was not enjoyable. I lost my high notes fairly quickly. I could not pinpoint my break (or the passage between chest and head voice) anymore so I stopped singing altogether. I was too discouraged. I told myself to wait a bit until my voice felt more relaxed, and my control on its pitching was more consistent.
That process lasted a bit longer than what my endocrinologist had originally predicted. My voice dropped drastically between my second and fifth month, then gradually until my eight month. We expected around the sixth month mark to be the final voice. The first phase had the more pronounced changes, particularly in regards to strain and hoarseness. After the peak at six months, it was more so noticing that my ability to hit a high note had become more limited, and that I felt most comfortable speaking deeper.
As it stabilized, I had grown into a resonant chest voice. My vocal tone sounded the same though; people described it as a transposition. Thankfully, it had maintained its original character.
Learning to use your new voice
As I had promised myself, I shyly began to sing again, after the first six months. I was walking into completely uncharted territory. At first, I had to take breaks at regular intervals, because my voice still got tired quickly. I made sure to drink lots of fluids before and after singing, to calm it down. I also used humming as an easier entry into vocalizing, and tried to grow familiar with different placements.
But I had lost all my higher range. I could sing at my speaking pitch, but my break had shifted so deep that I didn’t have many options before tapping into my weak, mousey head voice.
Without a doubt, the hardest part of this process was adjusting the voice I heard in my head to the one I spoke with. That little voice you use to read, or write, or practice what you will say to your crush reflected my old voice. That included singing as well; all my reference points were based on a voice I no longer had. I had to reunite both voices to be able to project what I imagined outwards. That took practice. It took actively learning my new voice.
That said, what started as discouragement eventually became fun. I could hear myself singing again and that was exciting. I could perform new songs, or bits I previously had to transpose to my comfort. I had little expectations about how my voice would ultimately change, besides its deepening. So there wasn’t any disappointment with its sound. All I had to do was learn how to use this heavier, slightly erratic new voice.
How to improve your singing capacities
Fast-forward to days away from a year on T, I have actually made decent progress with my current voice. I know the fear is of losing your voice, but I don’t believe that is the right wording. I discovered that my previous singing technique relied on shortcuts that ultimately never taught me proper vocal health. Rediscovering proper airflow and compression has allowed me to make adjustments to reach my head voice. I never thought consciously about breath control before; I just sang. I am far more intentional now on how I use my voice, in a way that I never was confronted to before. This has helped me shape my expression while singing, something that is invaluable when trying to connect with others.
Mindset played a big part in singing again, and being open-minded to having to learn it again is important. While visiting a few vocal coaches for singing lessons that were helpful in identifying weaknesses, I learned most on my own. There are many singing teachers putting out free content to (re)learn posture, breath support, resonance, diction, tone quality, etc… I used vocal warmups as often as possible to put those techniques into practice. To resolve the discrepancy between the voice in my head and the voice I physically emitted, playing the guitar as accompaniment as well as recording my singing helped. I could clearly hear problems, and remedy them. The most crucial part is to start singing. You have to practice singing to get over this hump.
I can now say: I did not really lose my voice. I lost my shortcuts. I have found that all the strengths I had in my old one are still present but I needed to find new ways to access them. And while it took some time to get to a safe place to practice on my voice without strain, it came eventually. You don’t have to trade gender euphoria with your passion for singing at your favorite karaoke bar. You can have both!
Some useful resources
Here are some free, online vocal lessons in video form that helped me practice regularly!
Saher Galt’s complete vocal exercise:
Specialized exercises for different techniques on Jacobs Vocal Academy's YouTube Channel
And these channels were helpful in better understanding my voice and growing more comfortable exploring it:
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Making Black Trans Femmes Visible In Art: BTFA’s Mission
Here With You: A Short Film Entirely Produced By Trans People, Yes Please!
Billy Slicks Is Saying Trans Rights With His Ink
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See you soon!
Header credits: Lucas Silveira, lead singer of The Cliks / British Columbia's Office of the Human Rights Commissioner