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Singer-songwriter teaches trans people how to sing again as their voices change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you've spent your whole life singing but suddenly have a different voice, how do you relearn how to use it? One musician in Sacramento has become a lighthouse for people with this experience, specifically transgender people who are learning how to sing after going on testosterone, or T. From CapRadio, Manola Secaira reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANOLA SECAIRA, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, Eli Conley sat in his Sacramento home playing a song he wrote called "All Right."

ELI CONLEY: (Singing) All that i can do is sing sad songs, try to carry on.

SECAIRA: Conley has played professionally for 14 years, and growing up, he was always singing.

CONLEY: Like, my parents had to make rules - no singing at the dinner table. No singing during tests at school, teachers would often tell me.

SECAIRA: Conley knew early that he wanted to sing professionally, but when he decided to go on T in 2006, at the age of 20, he worried about what would happen to his voice. Other trans people had told him that as their voices deepened, their range diminished, and their voices cracked. He remembers one particular conversation with the trans musician.

CONLEY: He basically was like, I used to be able to make people cry with my voice, and now I can't hardly sing a note. And that was really scary to me.

SECAIRA: Nowadays, Conley says more people begin transitioning with lower doses of testosterone, which can mitigate some of those impacts. But at the time, it made him hesitate.

CONLEY: And I decided to take the risk. I just said, OK, singing is important to me. I'm going to figure out how to keep singing.

SECAIRA: He says there weren't many resources for trans singers, so the experience involved a lot of exploration.

CONLEY: Sometimes I sounded like an old person. Sometimes I sounded like a teenage boy. And I really just tried to be like, well, ultimately, I have faith that, like, hopefully this will end. But I'm just going to keep singing as much as I can to, like, stay connected to this instrument of my voice as it's going through this big, weird journey.

SECAIRA: That journey helped him figure out some techniques that later he'd bring to students around the country. He'd been teaching singing lessons for years but started offering online sessions specifically about singing on T in 2023. A common piece of advice for students is to be gentle with their changing voice. Conley says pushing too hard to master the top and bottom of their new vocal range can cause strain. Instead, he tells them to be patient and come at it with a sense of humor.

CONLEY: I really encourage people to laugh at themselves because there can be a lot of grief of losing a voice you felt very identified with and suddenly having this voice that feels completely out of your control.

SECAIRA: One of his students who lives in another state is Myre (ph), who doesn't want to use his last name because of concerns about possible professional repercussions.

MYRE: (Vocalizing).

CONLEY: Yeah. It, like, has a moment, but then it goes there. What is that like for you? Yeah, it sounds, like, clear and strong.

MYRE: It doesn't feel weak and fluttery. It just feels like it just has a break in it.

SECAIRA: Myre had also heard stories of people whose vocal ranges had been dramatically restricted after going on T.

MYRE: And so it's something where I always was sort of, oh, if - I don't know - in a different life, maybe I would be able to sing.

SECAIRA: With Conley's help, Myre says he's been able to explore his range further than he'd thought possible. Myre also joined a couple of Conley's group lessons, where he sang in front of other students. That gave him the courage to later start performing publicly. He says that transformation is all thanks to Conley's lessons.

MYRE: It was a space of complete non-judgment. I mean, that's what has felt different to me doing this work with Eli, as opposed to just finding a random singing teacher. I can go to him with all of myself.

SECAIRA: Although Conley says resources for trans singers are still sorely lacking, he's seen the community grow a lot since he started. He says he tells younger self that the tricky parts are worth it.

CONLEY: You feel better in your body. You feel better moving through the world. And you still absolutely get to sing.

SECAIRA: For NPR News, I'm Manola Secaira in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Manola Secaira
[Copyright 2024 NPR]