Communication is a powerful tool. Voices can be instruments of empowerment as one makes their needs known. Using our voices and body language, we can advocate for ourselves, share joy and inspire others. But for many, particularly those in the transgender community, one’s voice and body can be sources of extreme discomfort or dysphoria. This unhappiness can lead to the loss of trans voices as they are silenced by a lack of comfort with their instruments and/or negative feedback from others. For those whose voices and body language negatively impact their quality of life, there is a method of exploring one’s voice in a healthy and efficient manner: transgender vocal training. This aspect of transition can be obtained from a number of professionals, most notably speech-language pathologists and vocal coaches.
Transgender vocal training can be either an alternative or a supplement to more common methods of transition, such as hormone therapy and various gender confirmation surgeries. In this work, clients are encouraged to examine the areas of their voice and communication with which they are unsatisfied, as well as identify aspects with which they are satisfied and want to further explore. The ultimate goals are to help the client gain comfort with their voice, to explore areas of their voice they are less confident in experimenting with independently and to retrain muscle memory so as to easily access this different area of their voice. This is accomplished through homework and regular guided practice sessions with the instructor to aid the client in finding a voice that represents them well. Additionally, where hormones can irreversibly alter one’s body, transgender vocal training is flexible in its permanency and is completely reversible. Thus, it can be an accessible alternative for exploring gender presentation and expression for those early on in their transition, as well as those who are in transition or post-transition and want to see what their voices are capable of.
Transgender vocal training is also completely customizable based on what the individual client wants. The only mandatory subdomain is vocal hygiene, as making sure one’s voice and lungs are in as healthy condition as possible at the beginning of the process ultimately eases this exploratory work. Optional areas of focus include pitch, or how high or low one’s voice is; intonation, or how pitch and intensity change throughout a sentence; resonance, which refers to how dark or light the tone of one’s voice is; articulation, meaning how percussively the consonants are produced and for how long the vowels are sustained; language, which refers to one’s word choice and sentence structure; and non-verbals, which refers to aspects of communication not expressed through speech and includes things like posture, movement, engagement and feedback given when communicating, and so much more. As previously mentioned, this is a custom-tailored experience; for instance, if a client isn’t interested in working on non-verbals, it is not targeted.
The duration and cost of this work can vary between differing specialists. Duration is also dependent upon a clients’ initial vocal flexibility, as well as the intensity of their voice dysphoria and their commitment to completing their homework assignments. The amount of time one can contribute to daily practice impacts outcomes: if a client can keep up with an average of 15 minutes a day of voice work, they will make much quicker progress than a client who practices one night in between sessions.
Those who are interested in learning more about transgender vocal training, should seek out a specialist who is familiar with this work. No one should feel resigned to go through life with a voice they are unsatisfied with when alternatives are possible.
Kevin Dorman (they/them), a non-binary speech-language pathologist who specializes in long-distance transgender vocal training, is the owner of Prismatic Speech Services, a private practice located in Greensboro, N.C.