How voice therapists are helping trans people sound like their true selves

LINK TO ARTICLE – click here to read an online news story that was posted on Fusion.net today (8/17/16):

http://fusion.net/story/327356/christie-block-transgender-speech-therapist/

Many thanks to Nidhi Prakash for a sensitive and nuanced story, and kudos to my client, Rebecca Oppenheimer, for her success in voice and in life! Thanks also to Laura Jacobs LCSW, for recognizing the importance of voice in transgender health.

 

Helping trans people find their voices

Caitlin Jenner and feminine voice training

In reaction to Caitlin Jenner’s recent comment about wanting her voice to be more feminine, Korin Miller of Yahoo Health asked me about the nature of feminine voice training.

LINK TO FULL ARTICLE:

Male Voice, Female Body: How Transgender Women like Caitlin Jenner Can Feminize Their Tone

 

Embrace your best possible self

Changing your voice and communication patterns to better conform to your gender expression can be challenging. You must learn to play your vocal instrument as well as you can with what you have, even if you have seen improvements from testosterone (transmasculine) or pitch-raising surgery (transfeminine). In addition to compensating for biological limitations, you must counter habitual ways of talking that your brain and speech mechanism are used to producing. BUT, with practice and mindfulness, these challenges can be met with new, useful, and more satisfying ways of talking.

In that process, you should celebrate your overall improvement and even your small successes along the way, rather than expecting perfection or expecting to sound exactly cisgender. Aiming for your best possible voice is not only realistic but it is chance for you to accept yourself and be more confident and happy with your new skills. And in that way, other people will be more likely to respond positively to you and be more open to gender diversity!

 

The road to authenticity

The process of developing voice and speech habits that are more congruent with your gender identity, both for internal comfort and external expression, can be mysterious and challenging. You start out by trying various ways of talking that can indeed feel foreign or silly, and because of that, some people avoid working on their voices for fear that they will sound not only incongruent but unnatural as well.

Many people don’t realize is that there is a neurological component that shapes how the process will go. Having that foreign feeling is actually a natural part of learning a new behavior. That higher pitch or that bigger voice must feel new and weird because it is different than what you are used to. The key is to check whether your feelings of weirdness are because you are trying something new or because you actually sound unnatural.

With good feedback from a professional or an informed, experienced supporter, you can identify if your voice/speech modifications sound natural or not. My clients usually go through an initial period of feeling fake even though they are sounding natural in their new speaking. If you allow yourself to practice and use new ways of talking, these ways will gradually feel more real, both emotionally and physically, as the brain retrains the muscles to produce the desired skills in a more automatic way.

So, the bottom line is that there is often a period of feeling weird and fake before a more authentic feeling settles in. Just stick with it!

 

NPR broadcast about Christie’s voice work: Link & impressions

LINK TO LISTEN – click here to listen to the radio news story that was broadcast on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered on 10/14/14:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/10/14/354858420/can-changing-how-you-sound-help-you-find-your-voice

MY IMPRESSIONS
:

I am pleased with Laura Starecheki’s story, and I particularly liked one of her main messages: even a small amount of voice change can result in significant life improvement. Indeed! Many clients want that perfect voice, but luckily, perfection isn’t even necessary. For most people, it just takes practice and a willingness to try new techniques in the moment. Interestingly, you must notice and adjust your voice in order for your voice to not be noticed!

As I help transgender people fit in and lead safer, more authentic lives, I also aim to help you embrace your beautiful individuality, in the hope that you can be confident, without perfection, and that we together can promote diversity and educate others about transphobia, stereotypes, sexism, and binary gender assumption. Because in the end, as Laura says, the world should pay attention to WHAT we say, not HOW we say it.

Thanks go to Laura for creating a thoughtful and respectful piece, and particularly, for hitting upon the essential and extremely serious aspects of transgender experience without sensationalizing it. And kudos to Tina W., Monica H., and the anonymous people whose voices we hear from one of my recent workshops (you know who you are!) for sharing their stories and voices for the piece. These folks, and all of you out there who are working on your voices, should be proud of your courage and perseverance, voice-wise and otherwise!

 

Phone voice

Many transpeople have trouble being misgendered over the phone, even when being gendered correctly in face-to-face conversations. This is primarily because the listener doesn’t have the added benefit of seeing the person’s appearance. Below are some recommendations for strategically using your best voice/speech skills when talking on the phone to people unfamiliar to you.

a. Start by saying, or even spelling, your name very clearly whenever appropriate.

b. Nail the first sentence. Your listener will likely make any determination regarding your overall identity within the first few words they hear you speak. Aim your pitch slightly higher or lower than you usually do.

c. Speak slowly.

d. Hum or lip trill or practice the conversation beforehand or when you are on hold.

e. Practice your best phone voice by leaving messages for a friend or recording fake messages on your own phone.

 

Laughing in a more feminine or masculine way

Transpeople can have trouble laughing in a more feminine or masculine way even if they are happy with their speech. Believe it or not, we can modify the way we laugh, because laughing is a kind of behavior, just like speech is a behavior. Consider how you may laugh differently in different situations – at the library vs. at a party with friends vs. with your boss, and somehow you can adjust your laugh according to the situation. You can likely even make yourself laugh in those different types of ways, just by thinking about it. Similarly, you can PRACTICE laughing in a more feminine or masculine way, and as with talking, you can be MINDFUL of your technique whenever you have the urge to laugh. Here are some ways to sound more feminine or masculine when laughing:

Feminine laugh:

1. Higher pitch
2. Quieter
3. Smile wide to make the sound smaller
4. Cover your mouth with your hand or try keeping your mouth closed
5. Aim for a giggle or “hee hee” sound

Masculine laugh:

1. Lower pitch
2. Louder
3. Big open mouth, dropping your jaw very low
4. Aim for a bellow or “ha ha” sound

Use these techniques as a guide to have fun experimenting laughing in different ways. Avoid laughing no longer! Laughing is good for your soul! Practice, have fun, and be happy!

 

The magic of lip trills

Lip trills were introduced as part of a daily vocal warm-up in a previous blog post. That’s the “bbrrrrrrrrr” sound made by fluttering your lips during sustained voicing, like a voiced horse sound or a running-motor sound. This exercise is sometimes referred to as “raspberries” or “lip buzzes.”  This blog post addresses lip trills further, bringing in target pitch and pitch movement.

So what do lip trills actually do? They help to coordinate breathing and voicing for healthy sound production. This is done by producing back pressure at the lips so that more breath support is required from the diaphragm, the vocal energy is more focused in the mask of the face, and any pressure at the neck is reduced. They also help to loosen your lips.

How are they done?  Place your lips loosely together and release air in a steady stream – “bbrrrrrrrr.” Be sure your voice is on. Do them 10x at a comfortable pitch (transfeminine G3 or 196 Hz, transmasculine D3 146 Hz). Then do 10 more, gliding gently up and down within speaking range. Don’t push. If you have trouble, trying pushing your cheeks in slightly with your fingers, to loosen the upper lip so it can move more freely. A mirror can also help you see what you are doing.

When to do them?  Every morning as a warm-up, before making a phone call, before/after talking for a long period of time, when you want to check your pitch, or when your voice feels stuck or uncomfortable.

A daily vocal warm-up

Warming up your voice for the day can help to prevent vocal strain, vocal fatigue, or other voice problems. Here are three exercises to do together every morning for ~2 minutes:

  1. Loosen up with a few shoulder shrugs, shoulder rolls, and exaggerated chewing.
  2. Do lip trills (like making a horse sound with your voice on) in a comfortable pitch.
  3. Slide your pitch up a little and then down a little, 6x each: “hee,” “hoo,” “hoe,” “ha.”