Friday, 30 November 2012

Still working on my voice

There are several things that trans women have to pay attention to, if they are going to venture beyond a safe circuit of trans-friendly pubs and clubs, and 'safe houses' where they can dress to their heart's content. I think I'd get affirmative nods if I said these things include:

# Dressing in the right kind of female clothing, having regard to the season, the weather, the occasion, the company, and whatever style will play down your height and girth.
# Growing and restyling your hair (or wearing a wig or hair system) to achieve something decidedly feminine.
# Eliminating body hair, and especially facial hair - or at least disguising it with makeup after meticulous shaving.
# Developing the right body movements, especially a female walk, but not neglecting posture and gestures large and small.

So far, so good. You could do all these things without securing a course of feminising hormones, and still look great in public. And if you managed to get those hormones, you would soon look even better...until you have to speak with anyone. Then it may all unravel.

You need to get the voice right as well. Yep, I'm up on my high horse again, ranting on about getting some expert voice training - and building on it!

I really find it strange that so many trans women don't put 'voice' right at the top of their Action Plan. With only a good feminine voice, and nothing else, you could arrange and manage your life entirely over the phone, even if you never went outside your home. With a good voice, plus the rest of the things listed above, you could go full-time straight away with complete confidence. Getting a good female voice is the most liberating skill you can acquire during your transition.

You will be taken as a woman even if you are as ugly as sin - if you have a female voice.

Natal women will confide in you - if you have a female voice.

Nobody will bar your way to the ladies' loo - if you have a female voice.

Everywhere you go, you will get proper courtesy, consideration and respect, if you have a female voice. It eases away all difficulties, because it's the one thing that all women have, this voice. Any man can dress up, and wear wigs and padding, and pop on some makeup, and totter around in high heels. But it's the voice that matters. Convention has it that all men have deep, gruff, rather monotonous voices; and that women's speech is high-pitched, sweet and nuanced. Put it this way: if you hop down the street in a big sack with eye-holes, so that people can't see what you look like, you will be taken for a woman if you speak in a woman's voice as you go.

Most of my trans women friends have OK-ish voices, by which I mean that they get by quite well with them. Most of them agree that having a really good voice would be great. But I don't think many of them are trying hard to get one. One friend actually said to me when I last saw her that she 'couldn't be arsed', which I thought was astonishing. It's an essential. It's not a 'maybe when I get the time' female add-on, like learning to cook or knit.

This afternoon I had my annual voice checkup with the London voice specialist, Christella Antoni. When I first went to her, in December 2009, it was a full year after my public debut as Lucy Melford. I should really have begun my sessions with her more than twelve months before. Then I would have spared myself a lot of public anguish whenever it was necessary to open my mouth and ask for something, or answer a question put to me, or just engage in casual conversation with a stranger. But I didn't, not realising what a difference it would have made. And I had perfect conditions. I lived on my own at the Cottage from January 2009, and could have pacticed and practiced till hoarse. What a missed opportunity! However, once I began to see Christella, I was determined to plunge in and make progress.

But my first pitch measurements were dismal. In December 2009 my ordinary speech was pitched around 90Hz. That's very much in the male range. When carefully reading, I could get it up to 120Hz, still well below the 150Hz needed for even a deepish female voice. And my voice was shot through with 'croak' - miscellaneous buzzes and distortions that meant it was not clear and distinct.

I wasn't going to tolerate this, and with assiduous practice at home I rapidly improved. Soon after, in January 2010, I was able to walk into the Volvo dealership in Portslade, and get them to take me seriously. That resulted in a two-hour test drive on my own in a sports version of Fiona. Then I managed a long discussion on the precise specifications of my order. My look wasn't perfect at the time, but I had the voice, and it didn't let me down. In May 2010, Fiona arrived from the factory, and I had another session at the Volvo dealer going through all the paperwork and being taught the basics of how to start her up. (She was a complicated car, very different from my others!)

Roughly one year on, in October 2010, the average pitch for my speech was up to 180Hz, and it ranged up to 200Hz at times. And no 'croak'. My regular sessions with Christella ended there. I'd had 21 sessions, mostly one-to-one, a couple of them in groups, for a total session cost of £1,720. I felt it was money very well spent. (I'd also spent £113 on CDs produced by Andrea James in America - useless for British speech - and £190 on an Olympus digital voice recorder. I don't include these items in the 'well spent' category)

Forward another year or so to November 2011. I hadn't slacked off. The average pitch when speaking was now 187Hz, and Christella thought I'd made my voice sound strong and warm.

And now today, yet another year forward and roughly three years from that first result. I'd now raised the average pitch for speaking to 193Hz. The range was in fact 134Hz to 243Hz. Christella had once told me that her own voice was pitched just under 200Hz. So this was a really good result. She also said my voice was well nuanced, meaning that I had mastered the right intonations and rhymns and rises and falls that characterised female speech. And furthermore, that I'd got an entirely natural high-pitched laugh. Wow!

My voice still wasn't perfect: there was a little breathiness in there, which made my delivery slightly lacking in strength and richness. But I will put this right in the year ahead. Depend upon it.

We had an interesting five minutes speculating on why some trans women find it really hard to get their female speaking pitch up to a decent level. Despite the 'male' anatomy, it's not normally an impossible feat. I went from 90Hz to 193Hz without laryngial surgery. Nor am I the only one to do this. The girls who are having problems sometimes say that attempting a really high pitch (say over 200Hz) makes them sound silly and unnatural, as if they were squeaking. But they don't sound like mice at all. They only think they do. So perhaps it's a psychological thing, a self-imposed barrier. Christella said that many women's voices were very high-pitched indeed, and really no ordinary trans woman was likely to reach or exceed these high pitches, and sound odd. So I may experiment with busting through the 200Hz barrier myself, so long as I can still control my voice properly, and still inject it with warmth and liveliness.  


  1. It's hard work isn't it Lucy? I taught myself by learning to speak using the upper airways rather than from deep down and with the diaphragm. After a while I found I couldn't revert to using a deep voice. I won't say my voice is perfect but one good measure I have found for gauging if I am getting it right is when my voice is recognised as female over the telephone. When once I was constantly referred to as Mr now it is Madam or 'love'. Don't forget that even women's voices vary considerably too.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. It's not so much the tone girls, or the pitch. It's the way you talk. I know many women with deeper voices than most men. But they still sound sexy and feminine. I know many gay men who if you close your eyes, they sound EXACTLY like women.

    It's a mindset, and all the voice training in the world can't duplicate it.

    And, I am completely serious here, but my own voice didn't come from that mindset until I had been to bed with a man a few times - you have to ring-out that last bit of masculinity that's hanging around in there. The part of you that demands respect and attention when you speak - women don't have that. Men do.

    You have to lose it. Or spend the rest of your life being a ventriloquist.

  3. I hope I haven't given the impression that pitch is all there is to worry about. I mentioned other things, didn't I, such as intonation and warmth. But lots more comes into it, for instance choice of vocabulary, the subject-matter, the tilt of the head, the look in the eyes, whether the woman is leaning forward as she speaks, seems animated or languid...the list goes on and on.

    I believe that all of it can be learned and consistently put into practice.

    I do agree about the psychological angle. It may take an entirely different learning process to overcome 'male' inhibitions that are standing in the way of perfection.


  4. I was helping a friend buy a used car. I called on an older Honda and spoke with a woman, (I thought), making arrangements to come see it.

    When we got there, we were met by a very tall, (6'6/210+), young man. Bespite his height and obvious masculine "presentation", his voice just SCREAMED female.

    It was not until we said goodbye and he told me his name was John, that I was able to confirm he was actually male.

    My question is: where did he get that girl's voice?

  5. Perhaps it developed naturally, and in fact it's a problem for him. Many men are missing one or more 'male characteristics' or possess one or more 'female characteristics'. Vice versa women.

    I had an unrugged face, no adam's apple to speak of, rather wide hips, and was distinctly unmuscular. Bad news in macho company in the old life. But great assets in the new.


  6. Small world. Just read this post in her waiting room

  7. The voice can simply be down to luck. Good or bad (depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on).

    Long before I transitioned anyone who didn't know me thought I was a girl / woman when I spoke to them on the phone. I never used to mind, except when I had to correct them.

    Since I transitioned I have still had maybe 20 sessions with a speech therapist once a week over the first half of 2012. Just to dot the i's and cross the t's. Thankfully that is covered by health care here so the cost was nothing. We ignored pitch and tone and purely concentrated on intonation and articulation (and, wow, is Dutch articulation difficult for an English woman!).


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