This episode with Nadine Manion covers how sensitive singing teachers need to be to help their clients with their voice. Our voices can very vulnerable as she found out after experiencing vocal trauma during her professional career as a singer. We also discussed her current work and research with transgender voices.
Nadine Manion is a highly accomplished and respected singing teacher, vocologist, presenter, and researcher based in Sydney, Australia. She is widely recognised for her expertise in voice training and transgender and gender diverse singing voice pedagogy. Nadine is an influential figure in the Australia music industry and continues to make an invaluable contribution to the field of singing voice pedagogy.
Connect with Nadine
00:02 Welcome. This is the Resonate podcast with Aideen. I’m Aideen Ni Riada and my guest today is Nadine Manion . How are you, Nadine? I’m good, how are you? Good, very good. It’s lovely to speak to you all the way from Australia. Yes, it’s a little bit of an early morning, but it’s worth getting up for this. I’m so excited that we’re able to have chats across the planet. It’s absolutely amazing what we can do these days in technology.
00:32 Yeah, it’s one of those nice things that’s come out of this awful pandemic is how much more connected we are across the globe. So down here in Australia, we’re very happy to be a part of the rest of the world again. I’m so glad. Yeah, it does feel like it’s the other end of the world and very far away. Yeah, feels like that being here too. Well, welcome into my world into the Resonate podcast. I’m excited to introduce you to our listeners that come from everywhere as well.
01:01 So let me just tell people a little bit about you and then we’ll get going. So Nadine Manion is a highly accomplished and respected singing teacher, presenter and researcher based in Sydney, Australia. She is widely recognized for her expertise in voice training and transgender and gender diverse singing voice pedagogy. Nadine is an influential figure in the Australian music industry.
01:28 and continues to make an invaluable contribution to the field of singing voice pedagogy. Of course, that word pedagogy is one I don’t use that often, but it simply means teaching. Am I right? Yep, that’s it. Good. We love using all the difficult words, don’t we? It makes it sound more cool. So
01:48 But you know, I know that you didn’t start off in teaching. So you didn’t, you know, decide, oh, I want to teach singing from an early age. You actually were a performer for quite a long time, right? Yes, I definitely was never somebody who thought teaching was going to be my path. And I, from a very young age, thought I was going to be a singer. That was all I wanted to do. And I went through a bit of a journey with that of doing a lot of things through school.
02:17 and then moving into a music theatre degree. And it was during that time that I really started to experience some vocal difficulties myself and just really didn’t know where to turn. So I think I maybe buried my head in the sand a little bit about the problems that I was having because I didn’t know that most singers go through that. I thought it was a poor reflection on my own singing voice, unfortunately. So once I graduated, I started doing a little bit of touring.
02:47 doing different kinds of music. And it was really while I was out on tour that that voice disorder or the difficulties with my voice really came to a head. And about maybe a year into touring, I ended up just having to completely stop because I couldn’t sing more than an octave, which is just not enough to be a professional singer, unfortunately, which really, yeah, kind of stopped all my plans in their tracks a little bit and was quite…
03:16 really soul destroying at the time, because I just didn’t know what to do with that situation. I can imagine. I mean, when you sing and you enjoy singing so much and then it’s almost like taken from you. Yeah. And I think a lot of singers go through these voice difficulties. It’s part of the job. You know, nobody blames a football player for tearing a hamstring and nobody says it’s because they played football wrong. But there is this stigma around voice use that…
03:46 if you were born to do it, it should come naturally. It should be something you don’t ever have to think about. And I just don’t think that’s a true thing when it comes to doing something at a professional level. So I think there was probably a lot of shame for me around that. And that really stopped me from actually reaching out to the people that could help me at the time. And when you studied voice musical theater in college, was there any talk of voice care or voice health?
04:15 Did you have any background at all that could have given you any context for what was happening? Look, definitely. We had some singing lessons there. We had a voice coach. And it’s an interesting question because I actually look back on that and I think while some of the information was there, it’s such a personal thing, your voice. It’s such an emotional thing. And being 19 years old and identifying as a singer.
04:45 when somebody would hint at something being done wrong, I think it was such an emotional thing for me to take on that I probably rejected some of that information and that help that now I would be able to receive a lot better. So it’s an interesting journey that it’s put me on of this idea that we actually have to put people in the right situation to receive information, particularly when it comes to their voice, because it feels like.
05:13 when someone criticized my voice, it felt like they were criticizing me because I was my voice, that’s who I am, you know? Yeah, we take it personally, completely. Yeah, and you know, I was 19 and naive and knew better than everyone around me. So I’d like to think I wouldn’t do that a second time around, but yeah, definitely at the time, I think it was, there was some information there, not as much as we know now, but maybe it just wasn’t.
05:42 it wasn’t in the way that I needed to receive it at the time. Yeah. And I think our voices are so connected to our emotions that that criticism can bring up a lot of emotion and that, which blocks us then from kind of going, hmm, should I try that out? And it can, it can be, um, yeah, it can be tough to take on new information about something that we feel, oh, that’s the one thing I’m good at. For instance, you might think,
06:12 don’t tell me I’m doing something wrong with it because then it rocks you internally as well. Yeah and often when there’s something, I’ll use the word dysfunctional for lack of a better term, dysfunctional with the voice, it’s usually not a surface level issue, it’s usually not a change this value will be fine, it’s often go back to the beginning and there’s something in your foundation that needs altering or improvement. So
06:40 in order to accept that information, I really had to accept that I needed to go back to the beginning and rebuild the voice that I’d already spent, even at 19, I’d spent eight years, pretty much every day building. So yeah, it’s really made me a lot better as a teacher now that I do teach because I think I really understand the emotional space that somebody can be in and that if people are resistant to the help that I’m trying to give or the information that I’m passing on.
07:09 that there’s probably really legitimate reasons for that resistance rather than that person not caring. Oh yeah, it’s highly unlikely that they don’t care, but it’s, yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. And so finally, when you had been touring, and I presume you had been enjoying that part of your life while you were doing it, and then you had to stop, what changed for you then? How did you get back on track? So,
07:39 It’s actually quite a sad story when I think back for myself. But so I took a year off singing where I didn’t sing a note for a whole year, which, as you can probably imagine, was a real, it was a really difficult time for me as a person and my identity, that this thing that I did that I was known for, I just didn’t have it in my life. And I eventually realised that there was this massive hole that was in my life at the time.
08:08 So I was able to find a great singing teacher. I spoke to a few people who were a little worried to work with me because they maybe didn’t have the information that they needed to work with a voice that was having difficulties. And I went to a few speech pathologists who had the information about working with disordered voice but maybe didn’t understand the demands of touring. So I really felt like I wasn’t getting the information I needed from those two avenues.
08:37 and I ended up finding a fantastic singing teacher who helped me get my voice back over a series of months and was able to go back into touring. But I think that moment really made me realise that maybe I can make more of a difference being a singing teacher that I wish I had been able to find at the beginning. Being that singing teacher would helped me and got my life back on track. Maybe I can make more of a difference in the world being that person than being a singer.
09:06 You know, it’s interesting because I had a similar experience when I started teaching singing where I suddenly felt deeply fulfilled and the my feeling of I want to be seen as a singer just went away. Now, when I sing and I do any recording or anything like that, it’s much more there’s no emotional weight to it. And it was an interesting
09:34 thing to recognise that being involved with helping others do what I loved was as fulfilling to me as doing the singing part. Absolutely. I was, I never wanted to be a teacher. It was always something I just thought, I’ll do this to make, make a bit of extra money on the side of my singing. And I was just surprised at how much I really took to it straight away. The, the combination of
10:04 the science, which I really loved, the musicality, which was something I’d been doing for years and felt confident with, and then bringing in the humanity of being empathetic and listening to where people were and helping them design something that was fulfilling for them, not what I thought they should sound like. That combination of those three things just really opened up something in me. And it’s probably made me a different person, I think, thinking about others.
10:32 as opposed to thinking about myself as a performer. It’s probably changed who I am long-term. Well, it can’t be a bad thing to think about others a bit more. Probably not, no. That’s really amazing. And I think when we, I mean, I know myself, when a student comes to me and they have an issue, it’s almost like I feel very much drawn to be present for that and to like…
11:00 expand my knowledge to be able to be of service to that person if I can, or direct them to someone else who maybe has more of the expertise they need. Tell me a bit about that journey of when you started teaching and the kinds of people and what kind of development you found once you were doing it. So I guess I started teaching like a lot of people do in a multi-teacher studio.
11:27 where I was being mentored by a more experienced teacher. And I did that for a couple of years before deciding to go out on my own. Obviously the voice disorder is a big theme in my life. So that was an area I was really drawn to. So I spent quite a bit of time working with people with voice difficulties or voice disorders and doing further training in that area. But I did…
11:54 I had a studio on the central coast of New South Wales here, and it was a multi-teacher studio that I had opened. And in my first week, my very first student that came in was a singer and we were working and she had a beautiful voice, but there were a few things that I just could not work out in her voice. And we would do a few lessons, we did maybe a month or two of lessons, and I just thought, the voice is just not responding how I would…
12:23 expected to. I was just very confused and after a little bit of a chat she actually let me know that she was transgender and immediately my brain went oh okay this this makes sense why the voice wasn’t responding how I thought. I was expecting it to respond. Wow. But then I realized I I had no idea what to do with that information. I didn’t know do I teach this person the same way I teach
12:53 how do I refer to the voice? It just opened up this huge gap in my knowledge that I actually couldn’t serve this student particularly well because I didn’t know what it was to be transgender. I don’t think I’d ever met somebody who was openly transgender that I was aware of before. And so that really started this next chapter in my life of working with trans and gender diverse singing voices. Because at the time there was just no.
13:21 real information on it in a singing world. And as you would know, Aideen, singing can be quite gendered, you know? We use lots of terms like boy soprano, falsetto, or head voice, depending on your gender. So there’s a lot of gender inherently caught up in the way that we teach singing. And so this really put me on a journey of having to break that down and actually question.
13:48 Was I teaching a certain way because it was the right way to teach? Or was I teaching a certain way because hundreds of years of singing teaching has told me that that’s the right way to teach? Yes. Oh, I can I can imagine that’s that was that’s so tricky. I mean, I know when I started teaching, I didn’t I didn’t come from a degree in singing. And I didn’t I was kind of more coming from.
14:14 I mean, I had singing lessons and everything, but I’d never learned how to teach singing. I like kind of reverse engineered how I sang in order to teach others, which is and I got very good at it. But there was a benefit to it in that I didn’t use the typical terminology. I didn’t I didn’t use baritone soprano. I didn’t need to because most of my students were adult singers who just wanted to sing a party piece, you know. Yeah.
14:42 Um, and it was, it was nice because it meant that I didn’t feel like I had to categorize anyone. Um, but most singing teaching is based on finding where that voice fits and finding the music that then fits that voice. Um, so there’s an interesting, there’s an interesting diversity between formal
15:06 singing teaching or classical singing teaching or, you know, even in the musical theatre, because of course, the character is a male or a female and, you know, needs to sing a certain note in order to get the part. There’s a little bit more of a judgment on what you’re capable and what you’re not capable of. So how did you end up working with this person? Like, what happened to them?
15:35 I basically had a look at all the information out there and realized at the time that there wasn’t a lot. So I was very open with them about that and just said, look, you know, I’ve not worked with a transgender female before. I’ve not read much about how the voice works differently. If it does work differently, I just didn’t know. And I’m willing to work through this with you and see what we can do together.
16:04 So we ended up spending a couple of years actually working together more in an experimental, exploratory way, which was really interesting as a teacher to completely take out the ego and say, I don’t really know anything about this, let’s find it together. And that’s actually very much changed the way I work with all students because I find it’s more about, they’re experts on their own experience. They know what they bring in the room. They know.
16:34 what emotion is caught up in their voice, they know what they are capable of in their shower at home when no one’s listening. And so that hierarchy of teacher versus student, I actually think really doesn’t serve the high level of expertise that the singer brings into the room on their own experience in history. And so try to put that to one side and actually come in a little bit more as equals and say, I have some expertise in…
17:02 singing training in certain areas, you have some expertise in your voice, what can we do when we combine that expertise together? I love that. And that’s definitely, it’s a lovely way to work with people more as a facilitator than someone who dictates what should or shouldn’t be. So just to kind of tease this out a little bit on the transgender stuff, because I know you have a lot of information on that, that in case someone is interested in finding out more.
17:31 So when someone is transgender, they’ve probably had hormone therapy of some kind. Am I right? That may happen. It’s not a necessary part of that. So when somebody’s transgender, it basically is just, it’s the opposite of cisgender. So cisgender means the gender of who you are, so who you feel inside, aligns with what doctors assigned you when you were born. So when you come out, they basically say,
18:00 this is a boy or this is a girl. So if that aligns, you would be cisgender. If it doesn’t align, so if a doctor said this is a boy and you grow up and thought, actually they’re wrong, I’m a girl that would be somebody who’s transgender. Or they might sit somewhere in between. So they might be both of those things. They might feel that they’re both male and female or they’re not either of those things.
18:27 It’s really anyone that sits outside that category of aligning exactly with what they were born assigned at birth. I do. I did have another guest who was not transgender, but just like a non-binary identity and didn’t like their voice, their feminine voice.
18:57 their voice and to get more depth and kind of resonance through the voice. Can you talk a little bit about how hormones affect our voices just to give it some context to that side of it? Yeah, so if somebody decides to take hormones, if somebody wants to make their voice more, I’ll say traditionally masculine or maybe androgynous, they want it to sit somewhere in the middle, they would usually undergo something called testosterone therapy.
19:27 And if somebody wanted to do something like take an, sorry, estrogen therapy, that’s usually somebody who’s either trans feminine or somebody who would like to create a little bit more of a feminine look. The estrogen therapy doesn’t influence someone’s voice. So, or doesn’t heavily influence someone’s voice. So it’s not going to make someone’s voice higher.
19:54 If somebody, once their larynx has grown to a certain size, that larynx doesn’t shrink down when you take a estrogen therapy. There is some experience that estrogen therapy can cause other changes. So it can cause a little bit more, what we call edema. So like swelling of the vocal folds. It can cause a little bit more edema. It can cause a little bit more mucus, which definitely would influence someone singing, but it doesn’t have a massive change of the voice.
20:23 Testosterone therapy, on the other hand, can have a really big influence on the voice. So often what it does is drop the pitch of somebody’s voice by making their vocal folds bigger. So their vocal folds will increase in weakness. Yeah, they don’t actually get any longer because the cartilage, the larynx that they’re housed in, cartilage doesn’t grow on testosterone therapy. So the muscles and tissue do, but the cartilage and the bone structures don’t.
20:53 So we often get a voice that is housed in a smaller larynx with slightly bigger vocal folds. And that can lead to some difficulties with the voice for some people, not always the case. But often you’ll find that people’s voice drops approximately an octave, but that’s a huge generalization. There’s about 30 or so percent, I think it’s 26% of people don’t experience a dramatic voice drop on testosterone, which was…
21:21 bit of a shock to me actually. I assumed it was pretty solid across the board. It’s so interesting and since I mean we’ve already mentioned how intrinsic our voice is to our identity and if somebody’s identity is you know transgender it’s not what they you know have been born with.
21:46 It could have a lot of emotional intensity for someone then who wants their voice to sound a certain way or would prefer things to sound a certain way. How do you usually try to handle something like that?
22:01 I think when I’m working with particularly people in the trans community, but really any singer, because I think these are principles that go across every single person rather than just people in the trans community. But I’m really trying to- True. Most people don’t like the sound of their own voice. Yeah. I think a lot of people, I do have a lot of trans people that come in and they say, no, I love the sound of my voice. I don’t want to sing any higher. I don’t want to sing any lower.
22:31 So it’s actually, a lot of people are fine with where their voice is. They don’t feel like their voice has to sit in a traditionally masculine or feminine or androgynous box. But the people that do feel that way, I’m very aware that in Australia, at least, a lot of trans people don’t get to exercise autonomy over a lot of things in their life. So things like their bodies, if somebody wants to have surgery or hormones, they have to go through a whole…
23:00 process to do that, where often cisgender people are saying, you can do this because I believe that you need these hormones, or you can’t take those hormones, et cetera. So there’s a lot of not being able to exercise autonomy. And I think we know from teaching practices that giving autonomy to students, empowering them to make their own decisions, and being that facilitator.
23:25 is actually a better way to take them to where they want to go and create a voice that’s authentic to them rather than being really prescriptive. So I really try to give them that autonomy. I try to ask them, check in a lot with how they’re feeling. If they make a sound, I ask, what did you think about that? Did you like it? What did you like about it? What would you like to improve? Really to give them the power or as much power as I can in that relationship and that I’m just
23:53 helping them along the way with the little bits of information they don’t know. So it’s a real change in dynamic. Yes, for sure. And it’s, yeah, I really, I agree with that so much. What would you say you would, what do you say to students on that journey of discovering their own voice and finding something that hopefully they’re going to like? What do you say to encourage them on that journey? Because it isn’t always,
24:20 Things don’t change instantaneously with the voice, as we know, they can take a bit of time and practice. So how do you encourage people on the journey? I heard this great thing a while ago and I wish I could remember where I’d heard it. So this is definitely me paraphrasing someone else, but they spoke about this idea of your voice being like a bank account, where you can’t take any money out for a while, but you’re putting small investments. Maybe you’re super fund.
24:49 You’re putting small investments into the bank account over a period of time, knowing that one day everything’s always all going to come together. One day your voice will just go, Oh, I understand what we’ve been trying to do. And it’s going to actually get a refund on all that investment it’s been putting in. And I really like this idea of talking to students about, this is this exercise is a bit of an investment exercise. So letting them know you’re probably not going to get something right now.
25:19 but let’s invest in this, knowing that one day this is gonna make sense, one day this is gonna give you that return on what the effort that you’re putting in. So I love that kind of way of thinking about it.
25:34 That’s good. Yeah, really good. And do you find people underestimate the value of taking singing lessons and that journey with their voice? Oh, absolutely. I’m obviously, I’m already converted. So there might be a bit of bias in my opinion.
26:00 But I definitely, I actually saw a student yesterday who said to me that her experience in singing lessons was life-changing for her because of the emotional way of expressing who she is, because of actually, there were a lot of things that in her voice we were able to unpack emotional reasons why her voice was behaving a certain way. And I really feel like singing lessons has been life-changing for me.
26:29 having a clear way of doing things and having somebody to go on that journey with rather than doing it at home alone in my house and maybe not going on such a journey. But that being said, I definitely do believe that there are lots of ways to do the same thing. And I think there are some people for whom formal singing lessons is not the thing that works for them. And they might want to do things via YouTube and get help every now and then.
26:58 And I think that they’re also really legitimate ways to learn things. I think there’s a lot of different ways of learning. The good thing of singing lessons is it tends to be a little bit more structured. So we know where we’re taking a student and it tends to take a student there a little bit quicker than maybe doing it on their own. But there’s a lot of legitimate ways of learning as well. Definitely. And I definitely feel that when, because we don’t actually hear our voices,
27:29 accurately, you know, because of the fact that it’s resonating through our own heads and sometimes having someone else hear us, it’s like that mirror, it can be really, really useful. And if you can’t afford a singing lesson, even recording yourself and listening back can be really useful too. Absolutely. And I think one of the great things of a singing teacher or somebody very
27:57 I feel like I can often hear when a student is 95% of the way there, whereas they hear that as wrong. They think, oh, I didn’t quite get that note, therefore everything was wrong with it. And I think as an experienced singer and teacher, I can actually hear, you’re 95% of the way there, let’s keep working at that, whereas the student might give up on it. So there’s a little bit more nuance to how our ears are probably trained over however many years we’ve been doing this.
28:28 that mean that we can maybe give a little bit more insight into whether there’s 10% of that note that’s falling apart or whether there’s 90% of that note that’s falling apart. And in most cases, it tends to be just 10% that can be fixed rather than the whole thing is really not working. Absolutely. And I think a lot of students need that encouragement and not to be hard on themselves when…
28:56 notes come out a little differently than we expect, because to me, singing is very much it’s a muscle memory thing. Like we have to try to make the sound, guess almost how to do it until we start to feel into what it is that works. It’s a really interesting thing. The human voice is just so fascinating. Absolutely. I’ve been so, it’s so nice to have you on the podcast today,
29:26 add to our listeners.
29:31 I guess the main thing that I’ve taken away from a lot of the work I’ve done with the trans community is that really we’re in this new stage of singing teaching, which is actually about breaking down old structures and recognising where a lot of our influences have come from. And that’s a really hard thing to do as somebody who’s been teaching for a long time and singing for a long time.
29:57 to actually really examine the way that I’m doing things and ask, should I be changing things specifically for the trans community or for people of color or anybody in an underrepresented community? Or should I be going back and actually questioning why am I teaching in a way that needs to be so adjusted for anybody that is not cisgender, white, middle-class, heterosexual?
30:25 You know, I think that’s something that’s been a real journey for me. And I really encourage people to go on that journey and to be brave, to actually question why you do things and question whether if you’re working with a trans student or if you’re not, what can you actually change to create a space that encourages everybody, that is gender affirming, that works for people of colour, that works for people with disabilities.
30:54 even if you don’t have those people in your studio. It’s a long journey and it’s a hard one, but it’s definitely worth it. And I think that’s the future of singing teaching. So we’re all going to get there one day. So I really encourage people to start that journey as soon as you can and allow a lot of these people to find spaces and solace in something that’s given us so much in our lives as well. Absolutely, I love that because I think singing does give back.
31:23 But on that point, a lot of us will be challenged in the way that we speak, you know, even using they instead of he or she. And whether you work with singing or whether you work with people in other ways, it can be challenging that first few times that you talk to someone who identifies as transgender or identifies in a different way. But it’s…
31:51 You know, so interesting as well. And, you know, I love what you said about what I like to do is give my students choices. And I feel and you wanted to give people from every background choices. And we need to be more aware of where we’re restricting choices because of gender. Like even if our kid is female and she says, oh, I want to play soccer and then.
32:16 The mom goes, Oh, how about dance and how about painting? You know, sometimes we can be unconsciously pushing someone who like a person, like just people really into ways of being that are gender kind of, you know, they’re because of gender rather than absolutely anything else. So we all need to be a bit more careful. I think I definitely Mike and I, my husband and I am.
32:45 We joke that we both very balanced, you know, he’s quite a sensitive, feminine, you know, energy. And I can be more, you know, direct and, you know, a little bit more bossy sometimes. And so it’s funny, I think we all get to choose who we are and what we become. So let’s make sure that we make we give that to everyone and that we see it that way. And I think we’ll all benefit from this. I think.
33:14 uncoupling bossiness and strength from masculinity because I’m a bossy strong woman, you know, and I think that’s a very feminine quality that I have. But I think uncoupling all these things from each other and recognising that these people in underrepresented communities, rather than problematising them, we actually need to look at why the structures are set up.
33:42 to only work for people, for certain kinds of people and really break that down. So it’s a hard journey, but it’s definitely worth it. And it’s changed who I am as a person and I’m a much better person having gone through it. So I encourage everyone to start. I love it. Thank you so much Nadine for joining us on the podcast today. It’s been an absolute pleasure. It’s such an interesting conversation to have and I’m really pleased that you were able to take the time to meet with me.
34:12 And so thank you everyone who’s listening. And if you have any questions and or you’d like to contact Nadine for advice about your voice or myself, I’m going to have contact details in the show notes. And please continue whatever your journey is to finding your best self-expression, because there are so many options and so many ways that we can express ourselves. So wherever you are on that journey, keep going. Thank you so much, Nadine.
34:42 Thanks, Aideen. Bye. Bye, everyone.