Voices Reclaimed: A GC Student Helps Transgender Singers Find a New Range
Three years ago, Kristofer Eckelhoff, who has worked most of his adult life as a professional singer, was able to sing notes that made him happy for the first time in months.
Three years ago, Ph.D. student Kristofer Eckelhoff (Music), who has worked most of his adult life as a professional singer, was able to sing notes that made him happy for the first time in months.
It was about six months after beginning his physical transition, and after enduring the effects of hormone therapy on his voice — he’d lost nearly all of his range, as well as his stamina and ability to project — he at last sounded more like a tenor than a soprano.
Now Eckelhoff’s voice has settled into a baritone, and he spends much of his time working as a teacher. He is the founding instructor of Trans Voice Studio, through which he offers voice lessons, on a sliding scale, to transgender people who are facing the question of how their transition will affect their ability to sing — which, for many of his students, is their passion, solace, and livelihood.
An Unsettled Childhood
From a young age, Eckelhoff has struggled with unusual hardships, somehow emerging more resilient. He grew up poor in rural Arkansas in a religious family that joined a Southern Baptist megachurch. The church was an integral part of his life, and at 21, after confiding to a church therapist that he was a lesbian, he was outed by the pastor on stage during a televised service. The pastor then barred Eckelhoff from the church until he changed his orientation, which led Eckelhoff to attempt conversion therapy.
“That was the worst time in my life,” he says now. “It destroyed me.” During his four years of conversion therapy, Eckelhoff, who is also a survivor of sexual trauma, began using drugs and alcohol. Yet he managed to do well in school, completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music performance at the University of Arkansas. During his undergraduate years, he discovered his ability to sing. (Previously he was an instrumentalist who played the trombone and euphonium.) He began performing at the university and traveled to Germany with an operetta company.
It was while he was completing a second master’s, in musicology, that an adviser told him about The Graduate Center’s doctoral program. Eckelhoff, who had long wanted to move to New York, was drawn to the program because unlike most research programs, it would allow him to perform while pursuing his degree. He packed a rental car with his belongings and drove north.
Coming Out, Again
Having come out as a lesbian in his early twenties, Eckelhoff, during the spring semester of his first year, came out a second time: as a transgender man. Though he found support at The Graduate Center and among new friends in the city, no one within the music community could predict how his transition would affect his ability to sing. “I didn’t do hormones that first year because I was scared of what would happen to my voice,” Eckelhoff says. “Then I reached a point where I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
As he began taking hormones, his voice went through a period of cracking as it deepened. “If I were assigned male at birth, my vocal folds would thicken and elongate at puberty,” he explains. “But since I’d already gone through puberty, the vocal chords didn’t elongate; they just thickened.” For a period of several months, he had to allow his voice to rest. “It was a change that I really wanted, but I wasn’t prepared for the mental strain,” Eckelhoff says. “Having performed professionally and sung for years, suddenly I wasn’t able to do that when I needed it the most.”
As a way to cope, he channeled his struggles into teaching. “That helped me quite a bit,” Eckelhoff says. He started his teaching practice by giving voice lessons to friends. Currently he has 15 students, but demand has been rising from the start, and he is planning to begin working with a partner and offering group and community lessons. “The number one question I get from transmasculine students is will I sing again? Will I lose my voice?” Eckelhoff says. “And the one I get from transfeminine students is do I have to sing tenor?” He tells them no, but that it will take patience and a lot of time. He has two transfeminine students who are singing soprano and hitting high Cs. A singer’s previous range is no indication of where they will wind up, post-transition, Eckelhoff notes. While Eckelhoff moved from soprano to baritone, he has a friend who was once a mezzo-soprano and now sings tenor.
The Only Constant
Even now, his life seems defined by change. He recently moved in with his partner, a decision preceded by coming out a third time, as gay. Though some of his relatives cut him off years ago, many remain supportive. (When Eckelhoff informed his mother that he was dating a man, she responded: “I had a lesbian daughter, and now I have a gay son.”) He is about to begin work on his dissertation, and hopes to publish his methods for teaching transgender singers. After presenting his work at last summer’s Philadelphia Trans Health conference, the biggest conference of its kind, he has received even more interest in his voice lessons. He now teaches students across the country via Skype.
And he plans to keep performing. On June 22, Eckelhoff will appear as part of the Trans Voices Cabaret at the Duplex in New York. “I’m at the point where I could probably do a full-length recital again,” he says. Reaching this stage took him almost three years of hard work during emotionally fraught times. “I’ve had a lot of turbulence my whole life,” he says. “But I try to use my experience as best I can to educate and help other people.”
Top photo credit: Alex Irklievski