Pitch switch: Transsexuals get speech therapy

When you listen to Gracie Daniels speak, you would never know that she was once a man. Standing at a model’s height, her feminine, yet somewhat stern-sounding, voice matches a slender body that shows no trace of her former gender.

Daniels has been working on the feminization of her once-deep voice with GW professor Tish Moody, a clinician at the GW Speech and Hearing Center, since July 2006. A business analyst, Daniels said she recognized the importance of communication, and a voice that matched her gender, in the world of business. While she was initially willing to invest three years in private therapy with Moody, instead, Daniels has pretty much completed the transition in nine months.

Moody said about one-third of clients seeking voice therapy at the Speech and Hearing Center are transsexuals who wish to have their voice either feminized or masculinized. She said it was Joan Regnell, a former GW professor who died in October, who pioneered this type of treatment at the center years ago and the other clinicians have been evolving the practice ever since.

Clients interested in going from a deeper voice to a higher-pitched voice are more common at the center because it’s a harder transition, she said. Transsexuals looking to deepen their voice typically take testosterone hormones, which do that systematically.

While creating a more feminine-sounding voice is also more difficult because it strains the vocal folds, Daniels said much to her surprise, she’s a success story. She credits most of the progress she has made to her therapy but also to her experience as a music major in college, which made her train her ear to recognize and match specific sounds and use music theory to complement them.

“As a musician, you focus on the construct of what you’re being taught and you don’t worry about hearing it and it not sounding right, because you know if you practice it will come around,” she said.

The process of changing Daniels’ voice, however, was psychologically grueling, she said.

“It’s very tough, because when you hear a voice that’s not your own or that you don’t own yet, you feel like you’re faking and that makes you feel like you’re not you – so you’re more likely to go back to what’s comfortable,” she said.

Moody said the pitch for a male voice usually ranges around 90 and 140 Hz whereas the female voice generally averages somewhere between 190 to 240 Hz. The best-sounding voice for a male-to-female transsexual will heighten their original pitch to around 175 to 180 Hz.

The gendered difference in pitch can be attributed to multiple factors, including the size of both vocal folds and resonating cavities. Moody said males typically have bigger necks, which allow for larger resonating cavities and thicker vocal folds – qualities which tend to produce deeper voices.

“Way too often people will want a high-pitched voice, or have an unrealistic ability to monitor themselves or an unrealistic expectation of what the voice will sound like,” she said.

However, once Daniels reached the feminized pitch she was seeking, she had still only completed the first step in a long transition process. After reaching an appropriate pitch Moody said she incorporates other speech elements – both physical and emotional – into the patient’s training to polish the voice and make it sound more realistic.

Other important aspects in speech training are rate/duration and quality. For example, women tend to intone upwards. For men, learning that pattern of intonation can be hard, and Moody said it can sometime produce a “valley-girl” voice if they do so at the end of their sentences.

The challenge for Moody, then, is incorporating an initial upward intonation in the first one or two syllables, and then increasing overall melodic intonation throughout the sentences, which was the next thing Daniels’ had to focus on after reaching an appropriate pitch.

However, beyond the physical dimensions of voice, Moody also believes that men and women view communication differently.

“Females use communication as a means to an end, use communication to solidify relationships, to deepen individual relationships; they use it in a social context more than anything else. Males tend to use communication as an action in itself. It’s an end-point, whereas for a female it is only a means to an end,” Moody said.

Daniels agreed and said learning how to speak as a woman emotionally and coping with how that affects social interactions was perhaps more difficult then the physical changes.

“If you’re on the phone and are a white man, you can tell people exactly what you want and get it done without question. But when you’re a woman, you have to learn to negotiate,” noted Daniels, a business analyst. “Learning that lesson was difficult; the more feminine my voice became, the less control I had over the phone and I had to learn to negotiate differently.”

To address these differences, Moody says it’s important to focus on strategies which enhance the qualifying words and increase the use of adverbs and adjectives.

Ultimately, after working on pitch, vocal variety, intonation patterns and an array of other devices, Daniels reached her new voice.

“For people you’ve known your entire life to hear enough difference in your voice to know you’re a woman, that’s empowering,” she said.

However – not everybody is that successful. Johnna Fisher completed sessions at the GW Speech and Hearing Center several years ago, but left without much success. At 55, Fisher, who has spent $55,000 on her transition, is built – she works at a gym – but her body nevertheless resembles the painstaking effort that went into sculpting it.

Though she spent over half of her life as a man, she believes that she has quickly absorbed the new perceptions, experiences and lessons that influence the life of a woman. Despite her intimidating biceps, there is no mistaking Fisher for a male – until, that is, she speaks.

“A lot of times, the moment I open my mouth people will look at me and think ‘you’re a man,'” Fisher said.

Fisher’s transition to becoming a woman physically was neither short nor easy, but changing her voice was one of the more prolonged and ultimately fruitless processes of the transition.

“If you are going to transition your gender, you have to be patient with your voice,” she said. “The voice is one of the hardest things, and it may not be totally satisfactory. Sometimes it’s a compromise in your transition.”

In addition to the speech therapy she received at GW, Fisher also underwent surgery outside of GW to shorten her vocal cords by having them tied together, but the high-pitch she attained from the procedure was short-lived. Even after two semesters of sessions with the speech center, she was still dissatisfied with her progress.

By far, changing her voice was the most cumbersome part of becoming a woman – a task even harder than the excruciatingly painful electrolysis she underwent to remove facial hair.

“Imagine having your moustache alone removed – to stick a needle under one of the pores on your lip to zap it is to be stung by a bee – imagine that 90,000 times – that’s having your beard removed. The pain is unbelievable. For me, changing my voice is harder than that,” said Fisher.

But the process wasn’t entirely without reward; Fisher was convinced by her clinician to give up smoking.

She also learned something about the world around her.

“I’ve learned people are going to view you as one way or the other – and if you’re just yourself, and you’re comfortable with yourself, then they’re going to look at you for who you are,” Fisher said.

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