Singing Over the Storm: The Butterfly Transgender Chorus
“Music is the art to raise the soul above all earthly storms.” Composer Alan Hovhaness’ 1929 senior yearbook quote lives silently on a plaque in Arlington center. More than eighty years later, the Arlington-based Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus is a testament to this truth, proof that when chorus director Sandi Hammond tunes voices, she is also changing lives.
Before she could conceive of the transgender chorus, Hammond had to escape her own earthly storms. While the Sandi Hammond of today is the linchpin of a cause, two years ago- at the apex of her career in sales- she experienced the sad realization that she was expendable. This prompted the lifelong musician and businesswoman to do some soul searching. Inspired by Charles Davidson’s Holocaust compositions, she realized that what brought her life the most joy was leading a music group, crafting a repertoire with a message. She wanted to lead in a meaningful setting, but didn’t quite know where to focus her energy until she experienced her Eureka! moment.
The voice coach and activist stopped searching for her purpose when she discovered two things about how gender transition affected singers: many trans voices changed drastically during transition, and virtually no one was helping. With voices and lives in constant flux, transgender singers were suffering. Suspecting that there could be a demand for such a group, the concept of the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus was born.
The details of her epiphany are still vivid. She remembers the date she posted the question of an all-trans chorus to the Facebook Transgender Alliance group (September 1, 2014), and she remembers how many responses she received (123, in two hours.) When she heard stories of changing voices prompting doctors (and voice teachers) to dismiss dreams of singing, she felt the tug of a calling. The responses were immediate. “Houston, Germany, Australia… I had people from all over asking if I could do voice coaching over Skype. I knew it was big.”
Hammond began working with one transgender student who wanted to learn to sing again. “We were terrified,” she confessed. But they pushed on, and they researched. She gathered three transgender singers for their first group rehearsal; ten weeks later she had thirty-five. When singers started driving from all over New England, she knew that she was onto something. “There are so many choirs in Boston, but the trans thing was like- BOOM! People need this.”
On a professional level, their accomplishments have snowballed: non-profit status, a Board of Directors, a huge mailing list, a successful Kickstarter campaign, a deluge of good press, sold-out performances…
On a personal level, she and the chorus have come a long way. “We are making music as therapy.” I notice that whether Hammond is talking about highlights or rough patches, her voice has the perpetual lilt of a born optimist. “I knew I was going to get scars. There’s no way to do this and not get stretched and pressed, but nothing prepares you for how painful it can be.” She tells me about some of her students’ issues. How she can look out at class and can see who has had a tough day. The PTSD. The depression. Worse. Yet, despite their troubles, they keep coming back. For many of her singers, the chorus represents a sanctum of joy and creativity. It’s a chance to be around other transgender people outside of a support group, a remembrance, or a political rally. “Here everyone gets to be safe and open. It’s a refuge. For some, it’s the one place every week where they can be themselves.”
Perhaps out of respect for the gravity of her students’ struggles, she downplays her own. Still, I can tell that this labor of love was grueling. Boldly going into new vocal territory, she sometimes learned alongside her students. Also, because she isn’t transgender, some saw that as an obstacle. Shifting from outsider to leader, she worked hard to be inclusive in the chorus’ decision-making, often holding her leadership in check to see what emerged from group consensus. This was a wide open- and messy- experiment, “where everyone could make suggestions and steer the boat.” As confidante and conductor, she became a sounding board for feedback and concern; as a director and a leader, she became unable to detach herself at the end of the day. Sometimes she’d arrive home wrecked and crying.
Another obstacle was the quotidian strain of the dollar. Despite some very successful chorus performances, she found herself squeezed back into the trappings of a sales life she had shunned. She lined up a meeting with a job recruiter. She bought a suit. Just when it seemed she would have to steer her “day job” away from her calling, a timely windfall landed on her. “My biggest sponsor called me. We met for coffee, and she sent a mission statement, a business plan.” That sponsor was Connie Englert, the Principal and Managing Director of the True North Transit Group, the Commonwealth’s first 100% trans-owned certified company. Written into their mission statement is the creation of meaningful work in the trans community, and support for organizations that promote trans rights.
From this meeting springs the latest verse in Sandi Hammond’s story, an ode to joy. “My ‘thank you’ to her turned into her asking, ‘Wait, you’re looking for work?’” Hammond is now the True North Transit Group’s Director of Engagement and Alliances, the perfect complement to her continued work with the chorus. “It came back to me in a better package than I could have imagined. I’m in the private sector working for, and with, a trans person. I couldn’t have ordered it better in a restaurant!”
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About the Author: Dave Gentry is a fan of progress and recess. He believes in Olde English, new fortune cookies and he answers to #davertido.
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