Voices Should Be Customizable — And They Can Be

Growing up, I hated my voice and my face. Dysphoria, though I didn’t know it then. The voice thing… I was told a person always thought their recorded voice sounds weird. (Which is mostly true because how sound transmits.) So I thought it was normal to cringe when I heard recordings of myself. (It isn’t, ‘sounds weird’ isn’t the same as ‘I hate it.’)

But it was my voice, and I was stuck with it, right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong. And it only took me three decades to realize it.

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There’s this thing called the ‘curb cut effect.’ It’s named for the way sidewalk curbs are cut and a rough patch added to the corner.

Curb cuts were started for blind and low vision people — the cuts to prevent stumbling and getting injured because they couldn’t know exactly where the sidewalk ended. The rough patches were added as a tactile warning — if you step on a patch, you know you’ve either just stepped onto the sidewalk or are about to step off it.

But once curb cuts were in, it turned out that they were helpful for just about everybody. Bike riders, folks with aides, parents with strollers, shoppers using wheeled grocery carts, people carrying too much shit so they couldn’t see ahead of them… all benefited from making sidewalks more accessible for blind and low vision folks.

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I started doing a bit of at-home voice training recently. I’d been putting it off because everything I’d read said that it was really challenging, should only be done with a professional voice coach, teaching yourself was sub-optimal, blah-blah. But I knew a few self-taught folks, so I figured it was worth trying.

It turns out there are shit ton more resources for trans folks looking to learn a different voice than 3 or 4 years ago.

It turns out that it is easy to make big changes in your voice.

Caveat: My linguistic shit means I’d already spent time learning to identify and control which part of the mouth I speak from — labial to palatal. That gave me an easier start than many folks will have.

But really, it’s all about muscle control.

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It isn’t only trans people who don’t like our voices. Lots of people have things they don’t like about their voices. And they’re basically told ‘there’s nothing you can do.’

Unless someone’s voice is considered socially inappropriate for some reason, in which case they might get sent for (expensive) speech therapy.

Voice training is generally considered only for people who already have a good (singing) voice and want to polish it enough to go professional.

Which is ridiculous when you think about it — apply that same attitude to appearance and see how it sounds. “Only people who want to be professional athletes should bother trying to build muscle.” “There’s no point learning to use makeup unless you are going into theater.” “If you don’t have the talent, don’t worry about learning how to style your own hair/shave your beard–. Only hairdressers and models need to know that stuff, anyway.”

But this is how we treat our voices. Only folks with talent can do anything to change their voice, and if you aren’t going to be a professional don’t bother. It’s too expensive anyway.

Trans folks, at least, are starting to realize en masse that this is wrong. Nost folks don’t need vocal surgery or expensive voice lessons to have a voice we can enjoy and be proud of.

And — curb cut effect — if we make knowledge of vocal control available to everyone, it will help not just trans folks (including trans eggs!) but everyone.

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I thought I would be the last person saying, ‘It’s easy to learn to change your voice!’ After all, I’m 40 years old and still can’t whistle (or roll my ‘r’s). The thing is, the people trying to teach me those things didn’t really /teach/. They just said variations on, ‘do what I’m doing!’ But they didn’t know how to explain what they were doing so I could copy them.

But it only took me half an hour begin raising and lowering my soft palate ‘on command.’

Here’s a few other things I’ve learned.

(Whoops! Got the date wrong. Yes, this really is only the third ‘full practice’, though I’ve been playing with my voice and vocal techniques frequently between formal practices.)

I’m a while from ready to to craft a full voice for everyday use, but 20 years ago I would have been ecstatic to be able to ‘just’ change my vocal quotient or adjust my palate.

If my mom had spent a fraction of the time on voice that she’d spent on makeup, I could have been more comfortable in my skin alot sooner. (If my mom had received a fraction of the training in voice that she’d received in makeup, she might not have hated her singing voice the entire time I knew her.)

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I’ve been careful to say ‘most people’ can gain more control of our voices. Disability and accessibility are still things, and I want to acknowledge that. There are lots of reasons that some folks won’t be able to control their voices, or will have less than full vocal control, or whatever other limitation, even if learning vocal control becomes a normal part of what kids or teens learn.

And people shouldn’t be judged or bullied for our voice, whether or not we can control it. As with our bodies, what matters is how comfortable we are with our own voices and how we prefer to be heard. (Or not heard, because choosing not to speak and to use AAC or something should ALSO be normalized, but that’s another discussion.)

I feel like I shouldn’t need to say all this, but… experience has taught me I need to say this. Fucking hell world we live in.

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I’m not going to rewrite the book on voice control. Folks who know alot more than I do have already created some great resources.

But I am going to share some of what I learned from linguistics. The things that made it easier to understand the concepts and process of controlling my voice.

This is a linguistics-style image of the inside of the mouth and throat:

Cross section of the vocal tract (the nasal cavity, mouth, and throat) with numbers 1-18 at various points through the mouth and throat.
Might look a bit freaky if you aren’t used to these things. If it helps, points 1 & 2 are on the lips, 3 is the front upper teeth. 11-13 are in the throat, with the weird oval under 11 symbolizing the vocal cords.

Different sounds are made by constricting different parts of the mouth or throat. Linguists describe sounds based on what part of the mouth makes them. For instance ‘dental’ sounds (#3) are made by touching the tongue to the teeth. You can find the legend for the graphic here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Places_of_articulation.svg but most of it isn’t important

I want to talk about number 8 — what linguists call velar and vocalists call the soft palate. The soft palate is in the back of the mouth. It’s what the little dangle-y thing (the uvula) hangs off of.

I mentioned earlier that vocal control is really muscle control and how my linguistics background made the early vocal stuff easier?

Well you are using those muscles all the time. We just don’t realize it. As I realized that soft palate=velar, I got a lot less intimidated.

Because the muscles in the soft palate — the muscles you use to control your resonance (which is one of the key aspects of how masculine or feminine your voice sounds to native English speakers)…

Those are the exact same muscles most English dialects use when you make the ‘g’ sound in ‘get’ and the ‘ng’ sound in ‘thing’.

While I’m at it, number 11 on that chart is what linguists call ‘glottal’ (vocal folds to the vocalists). When you say ‘uh-oh’, that ‘-‘ in the middle is a ‘glottal stop’.

Controlling the ‘vocal folds’ is how you change vocal quotient.

If you say “Uh-oh, get the thing” in anything close to American Broadcast Standard (or a bunch of other English dialects) you are using many of the muscles you need to control your voice. You just need to learn to use them a bit differently

Have fun out there!

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I want to include some resources, but first I want to say a few things ABOUT these resources.

For simplicity, I’m sharing links to two voice guides written for binary trans folks (one trans masc and one trans fem). These guides have links to dozens of OTHER resources. Many of those other resources aren’t binary, or geared for a special type of voice

For instance, the trans fem guide links to this video on videos they link to on resonance don’t say, ‘here’s how to get a bright resonance.’ They say, ‘here’s how you control your resonance. Let’s do these exercises so you can learn how to use a full range of resonance from bright to dark.’

The trans fem guide especially is written to help someone have a very stereotypical feminine voice. But you don’t need to use the guide that way. As the author of the trans masc guide points out — anyone can take that guide, invert the instructions, and use that to develop a masc voice.

Or, of course, you can pick and choose to create your own voice that is a mix of fem and masc, or neither. (Several of the resources highlight things that make a voice sound ambiguous.)

If you read both guides, you’ll see that they have lessons in different orders. There is no one right order. You can pick the guide you prefer or mix them up.

Romeo’s Trans Masculine Voice Training Guide
L’s Voice Training Guide (Level 1) for MTF transgender vocal feminization

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Fiction Fertilizer — How I Grew Myself
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