Community Development and Trans-Centered Choral Pedagogy, Mikey Prince on his internship with Symphony Tacoma Voices 

Submitted by Whitney Miller on
Mikey Prince

Mikey Prince, a senior double majoring in GWSS and Music Education, interned during Winter 2022 with Symphony Tacoma Voices. This community choir meets once per week throughout the season to prepare numerous collaborations with Symphony Tacoma, their annual Messiah performance, and a yearly stand-alone concert. Mikey already had a connection to Seattle Tacoma Voices conductor Geoffrey Boers, who is also Director of Choral Activities in the UW School of Music. During his years as a student, Mikey sang in several choirs directed by Dr. Boers. 

For his internship, Mikey sang with the “Voices” and shadowed Dr. Boers. He was able to observe and talk with many involved with the group, from administrative staff to choir members. His duties included helping with the facilities and learning about community building and conducting by working together with section leaders of the choir. Dr. Boers also encouraged him to pursue a “side research quest,” one close to Mikey’s heart as he prepares for a career as a middle school choir director. As a trained singer who transitioned, Mikey is eager to contribute to the development of trans-centered choral pedagogy.  

In the following conversation with Dr. Amanda Lock Swarr, who teaches GWSS 374: Introduction to Transgender Studies, Mikey discusses his experience as a singer with a changing voice and how he integrates what he learned as a GWSS major with his major in Music Education. Dr. Swarr, a singer with past training in a classical context, sang for several years with Symphony Tacoma Voices, just not at the same time as Mikey! Edited excerpts of their conversation provide a window into their shared experiences with the choir, critiques of the gendered tradition of choral singing, and the support provided by trans-centered choral pedagogy. 

Singing, Embodiment & Changing Voices 

MP: I started T in 2019. I was well into my experiences with being a mezzo and then my voice…I decided to change my voice. I am a baritone now, and that process has been hard. Just having multiple places where I could sing was really, really important, and Dr. Boers was super supportive. 

ALS: I’m curious how you navigated even what part you were singing. It’s not all so linear. It’s not like, ok my voice was here, and now it’s here. It can go back and forth and be tricky. How did you manage the whole process? 

MP: When I first started out, I started essentially micro-dosing so that my vocal cords wouldn’t ossify. I was scared that they could, and so what certain studies said the length of time would be, mine was like double or maybe triple, that amount of wobbliness. It took six months maybe to not be a mezzo anymore. And then I had nothing. It really, really felt like I had zero notes. I could sing three notes, C3, G3, and E3. I worked really hard…I sang alto until I couldn’t. I was never really a tenor because I lost that middle part, so I was put into baritone.  

ALS: It sounds like you really had to do some negotiating. And you used some of your training, like setting up space, or singing certain notes that are out of your range, or certain vowels or syllables. I feel like you are describing some of those processes but in a different way. You were probably more able to do work with your voice than someone who’s not trained in music education.

MP: It took a lot of time. I didn’t really have the connection to my body previously. I previously always said that my body felt like a car I was driving. You can get out of a car, you can get into a car. You know, it’s a car. That distance wasn’t necessarily conducive for singing ultimately. 

ALS: Right, you want to be more in touch with your body, of course. 

Trans-Centered Choral Pedagogy – “a much broader way of thinking about the voice” 

MP: I do have very specific interests that I could connect to Symphony Tacoma Voices because of my experience with a changing voice, one that potentially will always be changing to some degree. I do have soprano notes still, so I kind of have a much wider range. When I get that middle part, I’ll have it all.  

I’m very interested in trans-centered choral pedagogy. My thought is that potentially one of its foundations is this fluidity, and that is helpful not just for trans people but for everyone. I think that in Symphony Tacoma Voices, it was cool to see that puberty, and second puberty, those aren’t not the only times that voices change. Voices change after college, I learned from people in Symphony Tacoma Voices. Voices definitely change when folks are getting older. And I think that fluidity and that flexibility is not something that is taken care of, or acknowledged within traditional structures. 

ALS: I totally agree with you. I think that’s such a smart insight. All of our voices are changing in different kinds of ways. The mainstream understanding is very simplistic, that puberty is the only time voices change. As you said, there are factors of age and different time-periods in people’s lives. But also other experiences that people go through really seem to change their voices. Or some people try to modify their voices intentionally. There are lots of ways that fluidity isn’t confined to either puberty or trans communities, it’s a much broader way of thinking about the voice.  

Well, you’ll be well prepared [for your future!] So many of the members of Symphony Voices Tacoma are music educators and professional musicians themselves. Many folks have these amazing vocal careers, at the same time that they’re teaching our youth. I was always really impressed by those multiple roles in the community. I didn’t realize that until I joined the group. How did you feel supported by the rest of the choral members?

MP: Oh my goodness! That feels like a pillar of the group—supporting each other. The leadership really went out of their way to make sure that everyone felt like they were really supposed to be there. 

ALS: I was also really impressed by that. And there was a huge age range within the group. There were folks who were retired and there were folks who were students, all working in community, all creating music together. You have to spend an incredible amount of time learning and working together, and being of one voice. That’s the thing about choral singing. I wonder if that was both challenging and exciting for you. You can drop out for a few notes here and there, and other folks are going to fill that in, but there are also points where everybody’s singing one note and the whole group has to sound as one, so that’s also a challenge of choral singing in particular. How was that for you? 

MP: I think that is one of Dr. Boers’s many specialties: blending not just as a concept, but making blending work because we’re all feeling similar ways in our bodies at the same time versus “do this with your vowels, and we’ll all sound the same.” It’s a deeply personal and communal experience at its core, which I think is a lot more meaningful and make things ultimately easier. It’s a very vulnerable experience to sing, with so many things that could go wrong. You really have to make sure that everyone does feel safe or else people might get hurt emotionally.  

ALS: I totally agree. There’s so much vulnerability. You have to trust your body, and your body doesn’t always cooperate. The body is not that controllable, ultimately. And then you also have to put in the work, so that you’re ready to go each time you are meeting. You have to ask other people, “I don’t understand this part, can we go over this together?” So you have that vulnerability of: “I don’t get it, help!” There’s nothing singular about choral singing, especially at that level, when you’re doing this really difficult work together.

MP: Even at that level, bodies do weird stuff sometimes, sometimes basses are flat. That is really hard because it’s not like I’m playing an instrument and my instrument’s flat. No, it’s the sound that I produce from my very body is flat. Like my body did something that is not as musical as I want it to be. I think that is very vulnerable. You have to trust people to be like, “No you’re ok, bodies do that and you’re going to do it better next time, you’re going to do it better right now actually.” 

De-gendering the Choral Classroom—“how do we push things further?” 

ALS: I find sometimes that choruses I have been in are very gendered. When I was in South Sound Classical Choir, all the folks who were considered women were expected to wear dresses, and everyone else wore tuxes. Or it’s like, ok sopranos and altos are women in this particular way, and basses and tenors are men in this particular way, with some little crossover of folks here and there.

MP: Totally! And I’m so lucky that our [UW] School of Music is having these conversations about de-gendering the choral classroom and choirs. I’m very grateful for that. I don’t have to fight those fights. I can think about what happens next. Now that we don’t use this vocabulary and we do different things for the dress code, how do we push things further? 

ALS: How do think about your two majors in relation to one another? 

MP: Well, issues of diversity within choral repertoire is a huge thing. Obviously, the choral world is built on white traditions and whiteness, and a lot of that is inherently destructive. There has been a lot of appropriation in really deeply, upsetting ways for people. That’s a reckoning that people are facing and are talking about. I like being able to think as critically as I can and be open to all of these conversations.  

For trans-centered choral pedagogy, it’s about music roots, but it’s also deeply related to what we’ve been talking about here. It addresses de-gendering choirs, but it also goes further to ask how do we break down systems that say these bodies do this, and these bodies don’t do this, when in fact these bodies do a whole bunch of stuff.