Saturday, February 4, 2023

A Semester of Song: How MTSU’s choirs changed with their students

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Because of America’s evolving perception of gender, the approach to naming some of Middle Tennessee State University’s choirs changed to fit the identities of the students singing in them. What used to be the Women’s and Men’s Chorale are now the SOAL and TEBA Chorale respectively. SOAL for the sopranos and altos and TEBA for tenors and basses.

Originally, the choirs were separated based on sex. Women would sing in the Women’s Chorale and men would sing in the Men’s Chorale because of the vocal parts in choirs. Typically, people assigned female at birth sing in the soprano and alto range while people assigned male at birth sing in the tenor and bass range.  

However, this isn’t always the case. There are some cisgender females that can sing in the tenor range, and there are some cisgender males that can sing in the alto range. In fact, last semester cisgender female student Sydnei Humphrey-Davis sang in both choirs.

Additionally, because of hormone therapy, transgender people’s vocal ranges change, which means they can no longer sing in the choir they used to since it would change the choir’s sound. A low-singing bass voice in a choir full of high-singing sopranos wouldn’t sound quite how it should. 

While some transgender people undergo hormone therapy, not all of them do and they stay in the same vocal range. Some singers neither identify as male nor female. This being so, it creates a dissonance between their gender identity and their love of singing.

Angela Tipps is the current director of both choirs, and renaming is not the first step she has taken in order to become more gender inclusive. 

Up to 2018, the SOAL Chorale wore long, black dresses that were “quite unflattering,” she said. After a recorded concert, she decided that she had to make a change to their clothing. Instead, the singers started to dress in long-sleeved black blouses and black palazzo pants, but this still wasn’t enough. 

Tipps’s non-binary child, Virginia Tipps, sang in the choir at that time, and they helped her see that the outfit still wasn’t satisfactory. On the day of their last concert, they asked Tipps if some of the students could wear black trousers and button-downs instead of the new outfit. To their surprise, Tipps agreed. 

“I saw the glee and the joy on their face after years of me telling them they had to wear those stupid little plaid skirts in elementary school with their little bow ties that gave them anxiety about singing in a choir,” Tipps said. “They had such a great time, and I went, ‘I wish I had done that years ago.’”

From then on, she offered those two options for the SOAL Chorale. 

However, she didn’t think about changing the names of the choir until a student came to Tipps after taking a semester off. The student said that they loved both her and the class, but they just didn’t know where they belonged. They felt as if they didn’t fit in the Women’s Chorale because they weren’t a woman, and they didn’t belong in the Men’s Chorale because they weren’t a man.

On another occasion, there was a transgender male student who came to her expressing how uncomfortable he was in the Women’s Chorale. After expressing his concerns about singing in the Women’s Chorale, Tipps suggested that he could sing in the Men’s Chorale. 

“He said, ‘I can do that?’ And, I would say, ‘Yeah, you can do that,’” Tipps said. “And, just in tears he told me that he would have panic attacks because that just wasn’t who he was. He would have to leave rehearsal.”

Between both conversations, she knew they had to change the name, and they had to do it quickly.

She asked two students — Jasmine January and Cameron Roberts — to lead the process of changing the names. Together, they gathered a group of students and discussed possible name changes for both choirs. The group of students listed everything down from MTSU Young University Singers, Bella Voce, and even Glee Club. In the end, two names stuck out.

“I’ll never forget that moment because it was like, yeah, that fits,” Tipps said.

January and Roberts are both cisgender students in both choirs, but this cause was very important to both. 

“Even though I am cisgender, I have a lot of friends who are not,” January said. “I have family who are not, and who have been disowned for those reasons.”

Additionally, they both were very mindful of their position as well. Roberts recounted a time when a transgender person asked him why he was doing this, especially because he was cisgender. 

“I do not want to take someone’s voice away, but we asked our friends and everyone else involved if they would rather be in charge,” Roberts said. “They felt that as long as we were doing what they wanted, they felt like we could accurately represent them. That’s all we ever wanted.”

Roberts was the one who came up with the names SOAL and TEBA Chorale, and he gained inspiration from the University of Central Florida. UCF changed its choirs’ names back in 2020.

“It’s something people haven’t heard before,” Roberts said. “People around here are not accustomed to that. If we are able to be the first university in Tennessee to change our names, to start a new trend, to stop gendering the choirs, we wanted to make sure that we were the first people to do that.” 

After the group decided on a name, Tipps filed a lot of paperwork and went through many meetings. First, Roberts, January and Tipps checked with Dr. Raphael Bundage, who is the Director of Choral Activities, the College of Liberal Arts Faculty Curriculum Committee, Dr. Chris Dye who is the chair of the School of Music’s Educational Programs Committee, the University Curriculum Committee and the MTSU School of Music Faculty.

Out of all these meetings, there was only pushback during the faculty meeting where one faculty member didn’t think people would understand what the new names meant.

Beyond that, there was no negative feedback from any of the parents or the students in these choirs. In fact, both choirs had started using the names long before the paperwork was passed in order to get used to the name. Everyone was excited about the change, including the older generation.

Nancy Boone-Allsbrook is a retired faculty member of MTSU who started working there in 1979, and she is the founding chorale director for what used to be the Women’s Chorale. Beyond that, she is also a lifelong friend of Tipps. On top of all the paperwork, Tipps also asked her if she would be comfortable with the name change, and she agreed enthusiastically.

“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Boone said. “I was just so thrilled with the idea of doing that. I just think that the more we can open our arms, our doors, and our classrooms the better.”

Newer possible members as well also grasped onto the name quickly, to Tipps’s surprise.

“I had two potential students come to observe TEBA,” Tipps said. “Both of them are members of the Church of Christ actively. When I asked the female student to come to see the other choir, she said, ‘Is that the Women’s — oh — SOAL Chorale?’”

She is very proud of how the name has caught on, and she hasn’t experienced any backlash during their first semester for the name change. 

The name change is also very supported by transgender students in both choirs. 

“There’s queer, trans, non-binary friends all over the place, and some of them are good at singing. Some of them may want to join, but they don’t want to join Women’s or Men’s Chorale,” Wren Miller, a non-binary student in SOAL, said. “When I found out about the name change, it made me feel included more because I don’t feel like a woman. I’m not a woman, and the fact that I was in the Women’s Chorale was kind of triggering.”

A student in TEBA Chorale shared a similar sentiment.

“Choir should be a place no one is left out of. It’s for everyone. The names may seem like a small obstacle to most people, but to trans adults like myself, it was big,” a trans man, who preferred to remain unnamed, said, “The name change was necessary, whether everyone sees that or not.” 

The students and Tipps both hope that this change will lead to a more inclusive environment, not only in liberal arts but across campus. 

“Music is universal, and the last thing we would want to do is take away someone’s voice,” Tipps said. “Choir is a place where we are supposed to come together, not create a divide.”

Alyssa Williams is the assistant news editor for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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