Transgender Voice Therapy
Some trans people begin their new life by changing their clothing, their hair, or their name. Some ask others to call them “he” instead of “she” or even “zie.” Some use hormones or surgery to alter how they look and feel. But they may still feel that the transition is incomplete
Voice Is A Powerful Gender Cue at Any Age
Transgender voice therapy or voice training is a non-surgical technique used to modify the human voice, without use of hormones or other pharmaceuticals. Because voice is a powerful gender cue, trans people may frequently undertake voice therapy as part of gender transition in order to make their voices sound more like what is typical of their gender and increase their comfort level in society.
While people often think of the need for this kind of therapy in the teenage and young adult years, this unique voice therapy is often an extraordinary help to children, adolescents, and even the aging among us.
Very often, people who want to modify their voices tend to focus on raising (or lowering) pitch, and this is an important factor, but it’s only one of many that make up vocal identity. For example:
Pitch: perceived as relatively higher or lower, much like the notes on a piano. Changing the pitch of your voice is accomplished by the vocal cords. Minnie Mouse has a high pitch; James Earl Jones has a low pitch.
Resonance and timbre: As important as pitch is, this is the most important factor that differentiates one voice from another. Think of it as two different instruments (for example, a violin and a trumpet) playing the same note but sounding distinctively different. Resonance is the product of the shape of our vocal tract (“throat”) and body. How we shape our vocal tract can make us sound too nasal (think Fran Drescher character in TV show The Nanny), or like we have a cold (not enough nasality), a child vs an adult, an opera singer vs a country music singer, a young voice vs an old voice.
Vocal quality: is related to the structure and function of the vocal cords. Qualities include hoarse, breathy, normal, strained. Demi Moore is a good example of a breathy, whispered voice. A beautiful woman with a hoarse, husky voice (such as Scarlett Johansson) might be viewed as sexy. There are many actors and singers with deep, smoky voices. For an unfortunate person, a raspy voice can be really, annoying. Think again of Fran Drescher!
Vocal loudness level imparts a variety of emotions, stresses importance, etc.
Breathing: How well a person breathes impacts voice, speech, and can provide clues as to a person’s health or activity level. Breathing impacts vocal quality, rate of speech, length of utterance, ability to change pitch.
Inflection: The degree to which voice changes with rising and falling pitch. Statements typically move toward a lower intonation by the end of the sentence (“I am here.”) Questions often have rising pitch/intonation (“Where are you going?). Vocal loudness and stressing one word in a sentence over another (“How are YOU?” vs “How ARE you?”) can change the listener’s perception of the speaker’s gender.
Prolonging a vowel as in “y’aall” (Southern drawl) is typically a result of regional accent without regard to gender. However, pausing in between words for emphasis: “I. Had. No. Idea.” may appear to be an attempt to sound forceful aka masculine.
Rate of Speech: Rapid speech (“Whereareyougoing?”) vs slow (“Where are you going?”) can be a function of personality, regional accent or a predisposition to a perceived gender preference.
Even Nonverbal Communication Matters
Nonverbal communication such as body language also conveys meaning; for example, how a person stands, walks, moves their hands, tilts their head, and their facial expression. Their posture. Their eye contact with strangers. All of these can vary from person to person – but there are also some predictable variations by gender. One of the variations we see most often is that men typically cross their legs in one way and women another. And it’s not because women wear skirts – it’s because the habit has evolved from a time when women did wear skirts at all times.
Getting Help with Transgender Voice Therapy
If you – or someone you know – needs help aligning voice with identity, I hope this interview with a transgender woman will be informative. The interview was conducted following speech therapy for voice and communication modification, to bring pitch, resonance, intonation pattern, articulation, body language, laughing, and even coughing into alignment with identity.
My sincere thanks to the woman who shared her story with me. Don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help or if you have questions. Because privacy considerations are uniquely important, we are happy to refer you to the workshops we have given and our specific training on this subject.