The Hobart VoiceLab: Queer+Allies is a collaboration between Hugo Pieri, myself, Richard and the rest of the VoiceLab participants. The GOAL is to reveal our ‘authentic’ voices. During these weekly gatherings we listen to 'tune into' ourselves and each other. Each gathering is an adventure and a revelation.
I find myself referring to the 'Do I Sound Gay?' film whenever I try to explain the concept behind the VoiceLab: Queer+Allies because the aspirations are similar. The dilemma we face existing within a white, western, hetero, male dominant society is - there are rules or social norms about how our voices 'should' sound. Historically if you belonged to a marginalised group then you had to mask or hide who you were to survive or experience 'success' and inclusion. That was certainly the case with me and so, at 52 years of age I am discovering my authentic voice as a neurodivergent lesbian of colour through the VoiceLab. I am NOT learning how to sing to perform for the approval of an audience or society anymore. I am doing this to understand who I am and use a part of my body I haven't used before to better 'know' myself.
Do I Sound Gay? is a 2014 American documentary film by David Thorpe that explores the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one's degree of conformity to the stereotype can contribute to internalized homophobia. (wikipedia)
My curiosity about my voice in 2022 started because I had sustained painful injuries during the February/March Queensland floods and was curious about trying vibration or sound healing. I was first exposed to this type of treatment in the Amazon with the Shipibo people in 2016 and this experience inspired me to commission Māori Sonic Weaver Whaia Whaea to create a soundscape for my artwork 'Touching the Mauri' (2018) for the 'He kākano āhau' (I am a seed) project. These projects involved other people singing for me because I did not feel 'able' to sing because I was deaf until I was 7/8 years old.
A Hobart friend recommended the Queer Choir workshop during the 2022 Festival of Voices. The website said 'No singing experience required' but before I signed up I informed the organisers I had never sung before, had no choir experience and had no idea how to read sheet music etc but they said this wouldn't be a problem. But this was a big problem because traditional choirs are based on a rigid set of conventions and I didn't know if I was even in tune - so terms like soprano, alto, tenor or bass were a complete mystery to me. The conductor refused to help me decide where to sit or even tell me if I was in tune so I relied on the kindness of people in the choir to invite me to sit with them so I could copy what they did because I could not follow sheet music instructions etc. Different people took turns babysitting me and passed me around while the conductor made it clear her ears bled every time I opened my mouth. I was a puddle of tears every time I tried to sing 'This is Me' (Pasek and Paul, 2017) because the lyrics are so meaningful to me. Thankfully I had the Conscious Girlfriend Academy (CGA) exercises to fall back on and on that first day it took me all night of deep meditation and reflection but I was able to exorcise enough of the shame so I could continue to participate in the workshop and perform that song on stage as part of the Queer Choir. I am so grateful to the people wearing red and orange in the photo below - they were so patient and generous with me. Hugo was on the piano during the workshop and was very encouraging. He was also the only other person of colour in the room. It was such a healing process but if I didn't have the CGA to rely on I would have quit. These two photos are from the Festival of Voices website.
The AMAZING outcome of this experience was I got to meet Richard and Hugo.
We decided to run a workshop as part of the annual Artfully Queer festival and at that stage we were still calling it a 'choir' because we knew the power of the experience came from singing as a group. Local Queer support organisation 'Working it Out' had some money from the State Government for community projects which made it affordable for everyone who participated. Most of the brave Queer people who attended this workshop had been told their voices were 'unacceptable' when they were children and like me, they had grown curious about this part of their bodies and wanted to know more about their voices. The 'Do I Sound Gay?' (Thorpe, 2014) film has some interesting revelations about research into teachers in America from last century who referred boys with effeminate voices to speech pathologists so their voices could be trained to conform to an 'acceptable' heterosexual male stereotype.
After the workshop we knew we wanted to sing with a group of people on a regular basis. We consulted the local Queer community, found a venue and received further funding from the wonderful people behind the Bellendena Small Grants Scheme to ensure gatherings would be affordable to the Queer community. Our plan involved running 90 minute gatherings each Monday night during school terms.
During the Artfully Queer workshop we discovered that traditional colonial binary concepts around the sound of female and male voices and what sounded 'good' or 'bad' was complicated and could cause gender dysphoria. Therefore during the weekly gatherings we experimented with 'queering' the traditional western conventions of a choir or labels such as soprano, alto, tenor or bass, and increasingly focused on the body as a unique compass and instrument. After three weeks we decided we could no longer call what we were doing a 'choir' because the focus of our gatherings was about experiencing joy based on how our bodies sounded. 'Choirs' are typically focused on external validation from performing in front of an audience, with success judged by how voices conform to traditional 'acceptable' conventions or stereotypes. From then on we identified as a VoiceLab and had a wonderful couple of months intermingling our voices with so many lovely Queer and Ally people.
In 2023 the Hobart VoiceLab: Queer+Allies will be continuing with weekly gatherings during the first two school terms and going deeper to reveal and revel in our authenticity.
Hugo Pieri (VoiceLab conductor and singing teacher)