Musician and choral conductor/director Nicky Manlove on how to build positive and affirming relationships through ensemble music making.
As told to Louise Godwin, 8 minute read = 1,750 words
Nicky Manlove (they/she) is the founding artistic director of THEM Youth Ensemble, an LGBTQ+ and allied youth chorus, and is the director of music at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ. In their work with THEM Youth Ensemble, Nicky organized the inaugural THEMposium, an annual performing arts festival for LGBTQ+ youth, and co-produced “ROSES: The Past, Present, and Future of Trans Resilience,” a collaborative virtual concert in observance of Trans Day of Resilience 2020.
Nicky is a committed advocate of equity-centered and liberatory choral practice, and supports a number of justice-focused choral initiatives nationally. She is on the leadership team of The Choral Commons, a media platform that provides a space for singing communities to realize the liberatory potential of the ensemble as a site of radical imagining. They also serve on ACDA Western Division’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce and are the Chair of Student Repertoire and Resources for the Arizona ACDA chapter.
Nicky holds a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts, emphasis in Music from Seattle University, and a Master of Music in Choral Conducting degree from the University of Arizona, where they studied with Alyssa Cossey and Elizabeth Schauer and served as Assistant Conductor for the University Community Chorus.
What was your motivation to establish THEM Youth Ensemble – the LGBTQ+ and allied youth chorus – in 2018?
In my undergraduate study, I was really captured by the idea that young people have material and developmental needs. They need to feel like they can set a goal and achieve it, and they need positive and affirming relationships with their peers and people who are older. So, I became really interested in what it would look like to have a music program that combines all these needs. This sounds simple. It sounds really obvious. But the way that most music education is in the United States, it’s so closely connected to education systems, that the logic is we teach music and other people deal with the other things.
Then the other factor is that, in the United States, three quarters of homeless young people are queer and a quarter of those are trans. And so, the people who need material resources the most are the queer young people.
So, THEM Youth Ensemble started as a partnership with an LGBT youth center in Tucson. Young people can go to the center, and they have a food pantry, a gender affirming clothing pantry, they have safe sex resources, they have all these great workshops. And THEM Youth Ensemble has become an important piece of their regular educational programming that is offered every week.
How has your work with THEM Youth Ensemble been influenced by your own experiences in higher music education?
I moved to Arizona in 2018 to start my Master’s degree in choral conducting and founded THEM Youth Ensemble in the fall of my first semester. This was a great graduate program with faculty members who were extremely supportive of me, even when they didn’t know how to be. But right away, I started having really intense experiences where what I was learning in the classroom, pedagogy and literature courses was often in direct conflict with what I was practicing in the field. What I was learning in graduate school did not work for my singers.
It was like my experience was totally siloed. I was doing my coursework, and then I would leave the university and go to work with THEM and switch my practices, switch my language. And it was really frustrating for me, because I’m also trans.
So, what I wanted from my professors and the university was the experience that I was trying to give to my singers.
Can you describe some of the key approaches and social informed practices you use with the young singers in THEM Youth Ensemble?
It’s hard. It’s often about “Who is the work for?” And it’s often not the people who pay my small salary.
We did the first THEMposium festival last September and LGBTQ+ young people from all over the state came to Tucson. We had a day of rehearsals and two workshops. They got a free lunch. We learned three really simple pieces of music and then there was a very small performance at the end. And I was super proud. I was so excited.
I had put this giant poster on the wall at the beginning of the day that said, “What do we need to hear from young people in order to change the world?” The text came from one of the songs that we would learn. The kids wrote some really incredible things. But the thing I was proudest of was that by lunchtime I could leave the room and the kids would talk. Like, the most successful thing is when you can get a group of strangers to have fun together! That was great, it was awesome. And some of them are still in touch.
After the concert, while everyone was being congratulated, a supporter came up to me and said, “Are they going to sound better next time?” I think he intended it as a joke, but this was that moment of “Who is it for?”
I just wanted to say to him “these young singers have accomplished something incredible. We’re here to celebrate that. And in three years’ time they will be singing better, and that’s great. But some of the singers had never sung before they came in the room this morning, and not only did they sing but they made friends, and they learnt to associate singing with making friends.”
I do still care about singing in tune, but I will never let the singers know that I care about them singing in tune. I think that’s the mark of a good educator – we can get people to sing in tune without telling them that we want them to sing in tune.
Given your passionate efforts toward equity and justice, how do you work for social change when you find yourself within institutions that can be resistant to change?
After graduation, I started to be invited to work on projects about trans wisdom and what trans people do differently in trans led ensembles? This was really, really hard because I realised that what cisgender people wanted to learn from me is not the thing that I really wanted to teach.
People wanted me to talk about dysphoria and bodies and trauma, and I wanted to talk about what makes trans choirs excellent? And what is the wisdom about change and fluidity and evolution that trans people have to offer that other people haven’t picked up yet? But people just wanted to ask, “How do I coach a person who just started testosterone? How do I coach that person vocally?” And that’s not an area of expertise for me. And I just don’t think that it matters that much. Because every conductor knows that every voice is different. And so why are we treating trans voices differently?
So, in some ways I think this has failed because me giving a lecture about supporting trans singers invites people into a posture of thinking that they have arrived and that they have done the work. “I went to the talk, and I took my notes. And now I’m done.” But then two years from now, the language will have changed, and we’ll be using different words than the ones I used in the talk. And those people who went to my talk will think that they knew what to do, and then they will make a mistake, and then someone younger than me will give them some feedback, and they will get upset and… This is a challenge. It’s something that I do, but it’s hard.
So, the idea of how we make change within institutions? For me, it’s this conflict. I want to care for my people and create an experience that is for trans people to be healed. And to do that, there’s an element of compromise, which makes me really uncomfortable – teaching the observer – and it takes an amount of vulnerability on both sides of the power equation that is really, really challenging to get right.
So, what are the next steps for you in your career?
It’s this constant struggle between, “How do I stay whole and take care of myself, and also make a place for myself in this field that is, frankly, not ready to have trans conductors?” That’s a challenge. And often it feels like these two things are at odds: caring for myself and making sure that I can pay my bills. And also, really working to transform the field so that I can have a future here.
I have decided to invest more of my time with trans people and less of my time with cisgender people. I just made a jump and said, “I’m not going to seek other musical work. I’m going to put my eggs with THEM Youth Ensemble, and I’m going to give my energy to them. And I believe in youth leadership, so we’re going to create youth leadership roles.” That’s my way of teaching and getting around this thing of, you know, I can’t be the only voice. So, my response to that will be to make more voices. And that’s been really life giving for me.