Coming out to family and friends as transgender can be one of the most emotionally fraught things a person does in their life. Molly Powers chose to do it through song — specifically, Carole King’s chart-topping ode to unconditional love, “You’ve Got A Friend.”
The occasion? Her 70th birthday party.
"I came up with this idea of doing a cabaret and inviting all of my friends, sort of as a birthday present to myself," says Powers, now 71. A career attorney who lives in Humboldt Park, she used to sing in choirs growing up, but she hadn't performed in decades — and never as a woman. Since beginning her transition from male to female at the age of 68, Powers wavered over how to come out to her colleagues, and she faced pushback from her family.
“They still saw me as Phil,” she says.
Powers envisioned the one-woman cabaret-style show as a chance for her loved ones to really see her and celebrate her newfound identity. But she faced a challenge: re-learning how to sing as a woman who has a traditionally masculine, baritone voice.
Powers’s therapist suggested she talk to vocal coaches — common advice given to transgender people during their transitions, particularly those seeking guidance on how to sound more apparently masculine or feminine — and referred her to Chicago’s Voice Lab.
The Voice Lab, founded by Alexandra Plattos Sulack and Liz Jackson Hearns in 2014, offers vocal coaching and singing lessons for people across the gender spectrum, including those catered specifically to trans individuals. The duo met studying music at North Park University and in just five years has developed a staff of 11 teachers who now work in a North Center storefront. In recent years, it’s become known around the country for using research-driven methods to help its growing number of trans clients regain confidence in their singing voices and pursue their craft, whether as a hobby or a profession.
“The singing voice is so vulnerable,” Plattos Sulack says. “The luxury that people have with other instruments is that they can go to the store and trade them out for a different model. We can’t do that. Our slogan for the studio is ‘Love your voice,’ and that’s really what we want everyone to find out how to do.”
It is common for trans men who begin taking testosterone to feel their voices change dramatically. For trans women, estrogen hormone therapy is more likely to change their appearance, and many trans women seek guidance from professionals to make their vocal patterns more feminine. The ability to “pass” in public — to move through the world without being perceived by strangers as trans — is often the goal (although there are many trans and non-binary people who do not make an effort to “pass” and reject the assumption that they might want to).
For trans singers, relearning how to sing, and feeling good about how they sound, can be an important part of that process. But it can also be a source of trauma, emotional pain, and fear — not sounding “enough” like a man or a woman can leave a trans person exposed to bigotry and violence.
Asher Brown, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter who began taking testosterone in 2015, feared that his effort to take on more masculine physical traits could come with a serious tradeoff: The hormones, meant to help him feel more like himself in his body, also threatened to change the shape of his vocal cords to the extent that he might never be able to sing again.
“The choice to transition, knowing I was trans, that was all crystal clear to me,” he says. “But the one thing that held me up was what it would do to my voice. Your voice is how you communicate with the world. It’s how people understand you, and, especially as a musician, that’s such a huge part of your identity, and that’s what I’ve been building my entire career on.”
Brown’s therapist referred him to the Voice Lab, where he enrolled in weekly one-on-one lessons with Jackson Hearns. His voice initially stayed the same. Then, about a month into his hormone therapy, his range temporarily collapsed.
“I was freaking out. I couldn’t really sing, I could barely talk,” he says. “My voice sounded like I was 15 and going through puberty. And that was when we really dug in deeper.”
He pushed through, strengthening his vocal cords by singing in different pitches and at different volumes, as well as singing while switching between head voice (the higher section of a person's vocal range) and chest voice (a deeper singing or speaking voice). He also practiced a technique called “straw phonation,” which involves singing into a straw in a way that makes one's vocal cord tissue vibrate, thereby strengthening and, in some cases, repairing them.
After about six months of weekly practice, Brown finally regained confidence in his singing voice. He’s since been able to fully dedicate himself to his career: Last fall, he wrapped up a tour performing in hundreds of shows on celebrity cruises, and in January, he released a new single.
The Voice Lab did not originally intend to focus on trans clients (more than half of its clients are not trans), and its founders are among a small cohort of well-known voice coaches who specialize in helping people reach a vocal range formerly unfamiliar to them. But some in the performing arts community who work closely with trans singers believe the demand will only increase as their industry increasingly recognizes the importance of representing trans and gender-nonconforming voices. In fact, Voice Lab has gained national attention, thanks to word of mouth among therapists and performers in Chicago and beyond.
Its founders themselves have worked on projects beyond their classrooms. Last year, Jackson Hearns published a guide she co-authored for singing teachers who have trans students. Plattos Sulack was recently enlisted to work on Stu for Silverton, a new, Broadway-destined musical that has cast a trans woman in its lead role — a character based on the first openly trans mayor of an American city. She worked with producers and coached each of the three trans people cast as Stu early on in the show’s production.
Will Reynolds, the show’s arranger and music supervisor, notes that Plattos Sulack has been indispensable in making sure the musical numbers match the trans singers’ vocal ranges. “To have somebody alongside them on their vocal journeys who has worked with many, many people in transition was such a huge godsend to me,” he says.
Molly Powers — the 71-year-old attorney — does not sing professionally. But once she started working with the Voice Lab, she wanted to share her rediscovered joy of singing with her loved ones. So her lessons culminated in a birthday performance at Stage 773 in Lake View, where she rented out part of the venue and invited 60-some friends and family members to attend.
On the night of the show in June 2016, Powers initially stepped on stage wearing a sports coat and pants and began to sing “You’ve Got a Friend.” Then, during a break, she went backstage to change into a dress and heels and redo her hair and makeup. She returned to reprise the song.
“I wanted to give people the sense that I didn’t really change. How I looked changed, but I was the same person,” she says. “It’s just that I’m happier this way.”