Transitioning gender is a complicated process, and even more so if you’re a professional singer. Kristofer Eckelhoff is a former soprano who has been undergoing testosterone hormone therapy for two years. He spoke to Line Hilton about his experiences.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Kristofer Eckelhoff: I come from a very poor family in the rural South of America. I had a very repressive childhood. I never felt female, but my only exposure to trans people was through watching the Jerry Springer Show, which was very stereotyped and very hostile. I struggled with being queer, and this lead to addiction for a while.
I was an instrumentalist initially – euphonium, trombone and the piano – but midway through college I switched my major to singing. I loved poetry and literature so for me singing was the perfect union of music and words. As a soprano my career took me to Germany and France.
Fours years ago I moved to New York to do a music history degree, I wasn’t sure I could make it as a performer. I didn’t know if that was the life I really wanted because I’m also rather introverted.
When you made the decision to transition what advice did you receive about your singing career?
KE: One trans singer who was ahead of me in the transition said: “It’s going to be scary and terrifying. It will feel awful for a while, but it’ll get better.”
I didn’t want to lose my soprano voice. I was told that trans people can’t sing opera and I just couldn’t deal with that. Eventually it just got too much so I started hormones about two years ago.
I found a great trans-friendly voice teacher who said: “Realistically this is going to knock you out professionally for about three years”. It’s frustrating, but I’m doing a PhD, which helps me and I really love teaching.
It’s very difficult sometimes because I still have transition issues. I’ve gone from soprano to baritone, though it might be shifting back up a little bit again now.
Can you talk about your transition from soprano to baritone?
KE: It was fast. After the first month, I noticed I had an extra octave on the bottom, but I hadn’t lost the top. Within three to four months, my range had shrunk to about one octave. I went from three octaves to one octave and stayed there for a while – it was so frustrating. It was at the six-month mark that I was able to sing again regularly.
I sing at the Metropolitan Community Church, a queer-friendly church in New York. The service I sing at is a mix of traditional and contemporary. At one point my voice was cracking a lot and I didn’t have much range so for one concert I sang Time to Change from the Brady Bunch. It’s the song Peter Brady sings when his voice is cracking all over.
From month six to 10, I noticed tenor sounds popping up, then it dropped around the 11-month mark to a more baritone range, and it was like that for almost a year. Now it’s going back up a bit.
I had this really strong disconnect. My teacher would play a note and I couldn’t find it. I’ve never experienced pitch problems before, it was really disorienting.
What other challenges have you experienced?
KE: Navigating the falsetto. That was the last thing to come. I used to be able sing soprano range to high F. Then I had a weird period of a few months where I could sing up to a Bb4-ish but from that to G5 was gone, and then I had an octave above that. I had this freaky, high coloratura range, but no soprano range. It was very strange. I also had no control over when that happened. Sometimes I would mess with the sopranos in my church choir and sing really high behind them, all the basses usually sit behind them. I had to stop doing that because once I did it and out came a very wrong note (laugh). I could sing high, but I had no control over my pitch
Can you please talk about the falsetto range further?
KE: A pure falsetto. I could produce that easier than a really nice head voice. It’s interesting because I’ve taught cisgender men before. They usually approach falsetto and head voice from the bottom up, and I come from the other direction. I worked with my teacher a lot on navigating this area. Neither of us had worked with a singer who did this before.
Stamina is also a problem. I still don’t have the stamina to sing like I did before, although my voice is getting stronger. Even though others had told me it would eventually be okay, it was still terrifying to only be able to sing for 20 or 30 minutes.
What really helped me was the year of Bel Canto training I’d done with my voice teacher before I started hormone treatment. It grounded me and set me up well to handle these changes.
Did you have speech therapy while going through the voice change?
KE: No. I have mixed feelings about that. The people I know who’ve had speech therapy have been trained to speak lower if they’re men or higher if they’re women. I want to smash the perception that women and men have to sound a certain way.
Some of the trans women I work with love their tenor/bass voices, and I love that. Several of them want to sing soprano, but their voices don’t transition like trans men’s do. That’s not to say they can’t sing in a higher register. Several of my students are learning to develop their falsetto. I’ve been working with one woman for about a year and a half, and she has a fully operatic sound and can solidly sing up to G5. Basically, I train her like I would a countertenor. But for those who want to stay tenor or bass, I fully support that, too. I don’t find anything inherently unfeminine about that, and we should make space for those voices.
What kind of vocal exercises have helped your voice through the change?
KE: A lot of portamento especially going through breaks. We’ve been doing major third slides, really slowly, to make sure I’m hitting every note in between those two pitches. I’ve noticed that when I go slowly, it helps me stay more aware of the position of my larynx, I tend to grip a little bit when I’m singing higher. If I’m moving through these exercises slowly, and it’s painstaking sometimes, it helps me stay aware of any tension in my face and my neck. It’s also helping me to undo some bad technique I had from before.
I do a lot of falsetto work, which is helpful for accessing the upper range. For me the falsetto came last, now I feel like my upper range is expanding again. I’ve been working on keeping a really open throat but bringing things down into the chest voice. That’s helped me maintain this really open throat with a falsetto sound, where I should be singing in the chest voice. This has allowed me to figure out how to sing with that open throat in a mixed voice in the upper range.
Two exercises that Kristofer uses to help with his lower range Chest Voice and Falsetto exercises
What else has helped you through this vocally challenging time?
KE: Feedback from my teacher has been helpful, as has talking to other trans singers who’ve gone through the same thing. In my head I know things will be okay, but sometimes my emotions take over.
I meditate and do a lot of positive self-talk. Teaching other trans singers has also helped me. I’ve really grown to love teaching. Voice lessons are expensive, especially in New York, and that’s a barrier for most trans people so I charge on a sliding scale, depending on what people can afford. I feel with teaching I can bridge my activism with my profession. I want to make sure that singing lessons are accessible, as not enough teachers are familiar enough with how to train us [trans people].
How has your transition impacted on your career and the decisions you make about performing?
KE: I’m stuck career-wise. I have a few recitals lined up and I’m part of a trans voices cabaret but I want to sing more. I really want to sing some opera stuff once my voice is ready, but at 34 and it feels like I’m starting over in that respect. What makes it difficult, especially in the United States, though I think it’s like this in most places, is you have to assign yourself to a specific voice type, and I’m not ready to do that because my voice is still changing. I don’t know if I’m going to be a baritone or a tenor, so I feel stuck on what repertoire to learn.
What would you want singing teachers to know about helping trans singers?
KE: Just treat us like everybody else but understand there are some unique things we have to deal with: hormones, surgeries, chest binding and tucking, stuff like that. There is a lot of personal stuff you have to discuss.
Kristofer singing pre transition and post transition and after testosterone treatment
What advice would you give someone considering this change?
KE: Don’t let anyone make the decision for you. Take your time with it, but you can do it. It is possible. Know that it’s going to knock you out for a while and be challenging and frustrating but having a teacher you trust is incredibly helpful. Some days, you will feel very depressed and want to scream and break things, but it’s okay because you will be able to sing again, just be patient.
What’s next for Kristofer Eckelhoff?
KE: I’m doing a few performances and writing my dissertation, which is on dismantling gender perceptions in singing and going after some of the problematic pedagogy – there are lots of cisgender women who sing tenor who are not in the music history books. I’m also trying to put together a history of trans performance and of gender-defined performance, making space for trans singers, especially trans women or voice types that are considered “unnatural”.