A Musical Approach to the Gender Affirming Voice : Finding Your Voice Inside
Updated: Jan 26
In this blog I will discuss the biological feminine and masculine development of the vocal tract and how it influences transgender voice practice. About 20 to 25% of my students are LGBTQ+ non-binary or trans gender affirming speech and singing voice students. Some are singers changing vocal roles while others are trying to feel comfortable in who they are. These students seek help because what they have been doing isn't working or are seeking a different and fun approach. Some individuals don't want to make a drastic change and prefer to sound non-binary. Many students are afraid of undergoing gender affirming surgery of which I don't blame them. For these individuals vocal modification is the answer. Before I explain how I work let's go over a few things that make working with trans students a professional challenge.
First I would like to explain why I call the individuals I work with students and not clients. A student is a person who continues to learn and work on their own. I'll give you the tools to help develop and change your voice and you have to practice those skills and develop your musical ear to be able to distinguish the difference. I am there as a coach, to guide you in the process. Sometimes the process is hilarious and we all have a good laugh. The teacher-student relationship is one of give and take; it is a shared experience. I believe that this relationship is beneficial for both the learner and the teacher and creates a strong bond. Because voice is such a personal experience we need to feel comfortable and confident with our relationship because Gender Affirming Voice Training has its challenges and frustrations and we both need to feel comfortable, and non-judged.
The challenges with FTM voice is that testosterone therapy alone will not create a masculine enough sound because of the structure, shape, and resonance of the vocal tract even when pitch descends it usually isn't enough to be perceived as as an adult sound. Because one cannot increase the biological size of the vocal tract to create or lower resonance factor. My experience has found that most, if not all FTM students sound more like pubescent boys rather than grown adult cis men. That has nothing to do with the pitch that has been lowered by the testosterone but rather that the size of the mechanism that cannot not increase. A trans FTM will not grow very much as opposed to a pubescent bio male. I find that FTM voice work leaves the individual frustrated with their options. The only thing that can be done is to practice lowering the larynx, opening the throat, placing the voice in a more resonant spot, and making use of lower overtones. The science is still out on how to improve performance.
The MTF voice has too large a vocal tract and resonates much lower even when one raises the pitch. Thus we need to minimize the shape of the vocal tract and create a lighter pitch yet not too high. since the biological male has already undergone puberty that are usually taller, have a wider profile and bigger chest, face, throat and vocal tract than bio females. Of course there are surgeries but the people I work with do not want to go that far in their search for their identity.
Gender Affirming voice is a balancing act and is very tricky requiring a defined musical ear and a deep understanding of vocal anatomy and physiology. That is what a Vocologist, such as myself, does.
What to know before you begin working with a transgender student is what their gender transition is, hormone use and dosages, if any, and the length of time on the meds. I ask questions about gender reassignment surgery and if laryngeal surgery has been performed. When I meet for the first time I make sure to clarify the students choice of pronouns so we both feel comfortable.
Let us now look at the anatomy and physiology of the biological male and female voice:
In male and female bio children the vocal tract is exactly the same. It isn't until puberty when the voices begin to change. At female puberty and the hormone estrogen and progesterone produce characteristics of an adult voice with the fundamental frequency a major or minor third lower than that of a child. Of course growth of all body parts including the vocal tract will apply.
At male puberty with the increase of testosterone the vocal tract enlarges including the vocal folds and the thyroid cartilage, which holds the vocal folds tilt creating the "Adam's apple." As the biological male grows the facial bones grow larger which increases the resonance. These are just some the processes that adults transgender students have to take into account when changing their vocal roles.
My approach to training transgender individuals is to find their individual or "optimal" pitch. I use the piano and have the student sing, chant and speak on certain pitches. Once I find that optimal pitch we work on raising or lowering the larynx, the tongue root, the shape or the vocal tract, the position of the tongue in the mouth, the resonance of each of the voice resonators - the chest, throat, nasal cavity and lips. This requires a fine tuning of the individual's ear and they have to be able to "hear themselves.'
One trick I use is to have these students sing and chant to find not only their optimal pitch but to get the individuals to hear the rise and fall of the human voice. We listen to a few biologicall feminine and masculine voices and compare and contrast these difference. We employ methods to incorporate these methods into each individual's speech and voice. We utilize many tools including spectrographic analysis, recording devices and other visual display programs . I also utilize mirrors and anatomical devices to give the student insight into teaching themselves when I am not with them. What we do is create new muscle memories to practice.
In this blog I don't have enough space to discuss other issues such as range, resonance, intonation, voice quality, articulation, and nonverbal communication strategies that I use with each individual student. These concepts will be addressed in another blog.