May Your Song Always Be Sung: Vocal Identity and John Corigliano’s “Mr. Tambourine Man: No. 7: Forever Young”

In which Daniel unravels much internalized misogyny and homophobia bound up in his singing.

Mr_Tambourine_Man

To my dear reader,

I’ve got a pretty big voice. It isn’t particularly weighty or dark, but is rather full and resonant. It carries well, and, with its ability to reach the back of an auditorium, is well-suited for musical theater. Being a voice teacher now, I see how much of my identity is tied to these traits. I’m often the sort of personality that fills up a room, and my voice is both a reflection and an extension of that. I walk through life with much needed whimsy and humor, and the melodic, sing-song nature of my voice reflects and extends that too. Working with my voice students is often a matter of helping them reimagine how they approach their own voice. By extension, they must reimagine parts of their own identity too. I’d never considered this, however, until a recent conversation about gender identity.

As I discussed in the conversation, I spent childhood rejecting much of what might be considered in the U.S. “typically masculine.” I didn’t like sports, I didn’t wear tank tops, and I didn’t use the gym. I resented the ways that traditional American masculinity was tied to misogyny and homophobia, and wanted to distance myself from it. At the same time, as I began to be more involved in singing and my high school choirs, I was heavily praised for my resonant voice. This praise bolstered me, and as a small, gay, somewhat feminine boy, it made me feel powerful and authoritative in a way that small, gay, somewhat feminine boys rarely get to feel. I sang in a progressively bigger, heavier, vocally damaging way, and although I didn’t realize it, I sang that way because I thought it made me sound more “masculine.”

Fast forward to my collegiate schools of music, and one of my audition pieces was a selection from Mr. Tambourine Man, a song cycle by American composer John Corgliano. Each song is a musical reimagination of a Bob Dylan song, and, unbeknownst to foolish young me, each has high demands for any vocalist, let alone a high school tenor. “Forever Young” not only requires smooth navigation of the different registers of the human voice, but also consistent tone over a range of almost two octaves, and to make enormous leaps from low to high and back again. There were many problems in the way I approached my college auditions, but in the context of “Forever Young,” one glaring problem was that, since my voice was so limited, I overcame most of the song’s challenges by vocally barreling my way through the song in this big, heavy, vocally damaging, and “masculine” way.

Fast forward to the end of college, and it’s taken me three voice teachers and a summer of speech therapy to unlearn how to sing in this powerful but painful manner, and instead to sing in a lighter, more efficient, and far heathier way. Doing so was tough – not only physically, due to the difficulty of unlearning the muscle memory of singing in this heavy way, but also emotionally. I resented traditional American masculinity, but wanted many of its privileges, and tied my identity to it by singing in a way I thought sounded “masculine.” Unlearning that way of singing meant overcoming the fear of sounding small and gay and somewhat feminine.

My voice now is far from what it was in high school. Alongside the vocal maturity that comes with age and the expertise that comes with formal musical education, it has become lighter, brighter, and more agile. It has also become what some might consider more “feminine,” and I’m okay with that. I’m concerned with keeping my voice healthy and efficient, and no longer with whether I sound powerful and authoritative. My voice now has a range and freedom it has never had before, and although I wouldn’t touch it for a long time, I’d like to think that I might, someday, be able to sing “Forever Young” as it was meant to be sung.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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