Finding My Voice

When I was a child, I was fascinated by vocoders.  It was the early 1980s, and vocoders were far too expensive to be affordable, but I so wanted one, because of one thing they claimed to be able to do—a vocoder can turn a male voice into a female one, and that seemed like an amazingly wonderful thing to me at the time. I talked enough about wanting a vocoder that a family member who was into building electronics decided to build me a vocal effects box. He got a kit for a ring modulator and built it for me, but although it could do robot voices, it couldn’t do the one thing I really wanted—it offered no help on the gender front.

So I continued to wish for a vocoder and even dared mention how it could change someone’s vocal range. At that point, I got a lucky break; that same family member who had made me the ring modulator told me something that totally changed my perspective. He told me about a male acquaintance of his who could sing in the range usually considered female just because he had trained his voice—in other words, you didn’t need technology to enhance your vocal range, you just needed practice. Sadly, I no longer remember exactly when I got this revelation, but I do know that it was in my head by sometime in my early teens, and that it was a piece of knowledge that changed my life.

I had always been the kind of child who plays with their voice — from mimicking TV personalities, to beat box sounds to sci-fi effects — so it seemed crazy to me that I hadn’t thought of this approach. Immediately, I began to practice, mostly by singing. Kate Bush, A-ha, The Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, The Cranberries, and so on. Whenever I wouldn’t be overheard, I sang along trying to match their vocal tone and pitch. Over and over. I was building and maintaining my vocal range in my own informal voice training program. It’s so weird looking back, because at that time, for the most part, I couldn’t really believe that I would ever transition, it seemed like it would be impossible, yet I was planning for it, just in case (or maybe I was just escaping a little, who knows?).

I stole moments for singing whenever I could. Obviously, if I was alone at home, that was a great opportunity, but I found other ones too. In my second year at university, I lived off campus and had a half hour walk to and from campus along lightly traveled streets, and there I would sing knowing that there was no one around me to overhear (except for the occasional cyclist whose silent approach would catch me out and leave me cringing, but not enough to abandon singing while walking alone).

By some point in my early twenties I was willing to use my vocal range in public if the conditions were right. I would sometimes phone a close friend of mine at work and fool her into thinking she was talking to a female secretary from some other office. Officially, it was play, a game of “Can I fool you?”, but at some level for me it was very serious.

But those voices where the voices of characters I was playing. And my attempts to mimic particular singers were just that: singing where I tried to replicate exactly what I heard. Where was I in all this? None of these voices were mine, they were all sounds I could make, but were any of them me?

As I mentioned in my last post, if you read some people’s stories of transition, especially the kind of coverage you see in the media, you hear about their relearning various behaviors, walking, sitting, speaking, and so on. At almost every level, those stories didn’t and don’t resonate with me at all. I think part of it was that I felt that if something is truly part of who you really are, it shouldn’t be forced. In essence, then, although I put in a huge amount of vocal practice to maintain and improve my vocal range, that was all done in the hope that I might naturally come to whatever voice I ended up with—I had no idea what that voice would be.

Unfortunately for you the reader and me the story teller, although how I sound must have changed as I transitioned, I don’t remember clearly what happened, so I can only report the fragments that I do or don’t remember. I don’t ever remember making any dramatic effort to make a serious change in the way I sounded, although I do remember being nervous about how people would perceive me when I first went out presenting as overtly female. I think at some point I was a little surprised that I really didn’t have to try and that I just spoke and sounded, well, like me. I’m sure deep down there is some level of gender normativity policing going on, but it’s at a mostly subconscious level, and I’m pretty sure that whatever policing I have was applied as much (if not more so!) when I was presenting as male. In fact, one few of the things I do clearly recall about my voice around the time I transitioned is what I had to do on the occasions where I needed to return to “(feminine) boy mode” before I was full time; on those occasions I’d “downshift” my voice, pulling in chest resonance. I remember that I found that doing that was the effortful thing, and in fact the whole deal of trying to pretend to be a boy got very draining very quickly, so that period didn’t last long, just a few weeks at most.

I still like to play with my voice. I can do regional accents, different ages, etc. I can also do breathy bedroom voices, girl-trying-to-sound-like-a-boy voices, as well as stranger ones like Yoda, Chewy, and Dr. Claw. Possibly, I might still be capable of doing normal-sounding male voices too, but that is a skill of mine that I haven’t wanted or needed to test in quite a few years. Some part of me has closed the book on that one. But even if I did find and do a voice in that range, it would just be another character I’d be play acting, not me.

I still love singing. I may not win any awards, but it brings me a lot of pleasure. I think years ago, it was a comforting escape, and now, the escape may not be necessary, but some of the comfort remains.

There are a few hangovers from my strange past. It’s hard for me not to clam up if I’m singing and then realize that someone else can hear me, I think partially because of all those years where my singing always had to be secret, and partially because I’m afraid I’ll be told I sound like crap. I’m also fairly ambivalent about recordings of my voice. Sometimes I hate how I sound, and sometimes I’m okay with it or even like it.

In short, my voice, like my body, my attitude, my field of expertise, etc. may not be the most feminine in the world, but it works for me, for the kind of woman I am. I’m glad I have the voice I do, not least because it’s my expression of myself. I’m sure my voice wouldn’t have turned out quite the same way if it hadn’t been for that offhand remark by a family member, who told me, in essence, that my hormonal biology was not my destiny, that with some effort on my part, I could influence the outcome. That’s a mindset that applies to much more than voices, and something that has informed many other aspects of my life.

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