Voice feminization is an important factor for many trans women, and there are multiple ways that this process can be approached. Some women may choose feminization surgery in combination with vocal training to achieve their desired voice. Others may choose to bypass surgery, and work on their voice solely with vocal training. Check out our blog post on “what to know about vocal feminization surgery” if you’d like to know more about that option. Today, we are going to discuss nonsurgical vocal feminization training and techniques for successful transformation of the voice.
Vocal feminization theory centers on the idea that the length of the vocal tract can determine the perceived gender of the voice. So what is the vocal tract? The vocal tract starts at the top of the vocal folds, and extends all the way to the lips. If you want to know where your vocal folds are, put your hand gently around your throat and yawn. You will feel something move, this is your larynx. The larynx (also called the voice box) is a cartilage box that holds the vocal folds. The larynx has the ability to move up and down as we speak and sing. And thus, its position will either lengthen or shorten the vocal tract. For feminization, the vocal tract will be shortened.
The vocal tract is made up of three chambers where the voice will resonate (vibrate). These chambers are called R1, R2, and R3. The pitch of the voice (how low or high it sounds) is created by the speed of the vocal folds, however the pitch will be altered by how the voice resonates. This is a little tricky to understand, but you can break it down like this: the same pitch, performed two times, could sound totally different depending on how it resonates. If it is performed with an elongated vocal tract, more low-frequency overtones will be created. These frequencies cause the pitch to sound low and dark to the human ear. If that same pitch is performed with a shortened vocal tract, it will actually sound higher and brighter, even though it is the exact same pitch. This is why the resonation chambers play such a vital role in vocal feminization.
R1 is the resonance chamber inside your neck. It is often called the “primary gender control knob” of the voice, because its position will have a great effect on the perceived gender of the voice. When R1 is expanded, the larynx will drop, and the voice will be perceived as more low, dark, and masculine. When R1 is constricted, the larynx will move up, and the voice will be perceived as more high, bright, and feminine. Individuals striving for feminization will train the R1 chamber to stay in a more constricted position, which will keep the larynx raised.
If you’d like to feel the larynx perform different positions, try this exercise: First, hold out the syllable “ahhh” for a few seconds. And as you do, try to “yawn” in the back of the throat. You may notice the voice sounds low, and round as you do this. Right now, the larynx is in a lowered position. Now, try to move your tongue forward, towards your two front teeth. Sustain this position and say “eeee” for a few seconds. You may notice that the sound of your voice has become higher, brighter, and sharper. The larynx is now in a raised position.
The R2 chamber is the area inside the mouth, and the R3 chamber is the area between the tip of your tongue and your lips. The way these resonance chambers are used can help support a raised larynx position in R1, as well as contribute additional feminine qualities to the voice.
Cultivating feminine qualities:
Bright tone is one of the hallmarks of the feminine voice, and one of the best ways to add brightness is through your vowels. The vowel sound “eeee” for instance, can be performed in a variety of different ways. Try this method: Hold out the syllable “eeee” for a few seconds, and while you do, try to yawn again. Allow your lips to relax, and your mouth to open. You may hear that your “eeee” sounds large, round, and maybe even a bit dull. Now, bring your mouth into a much more closed position, so that your top and bottom teeth are almost touching. Perform “eeee” again. You may hear that the “eeee” is now more sharp, clear, and bright. This is a good way to feel how much control we have over our brightness, however it is a very extreme example. Vowel manipulation for real life speech and singing will be subtler than this.
Another common element of the feminine voice is nasality. It’s part of what enables the female voice to be heard clearly over noise. Nasality is created by the position of the soft palate, and can also be aided by the position of the tongue. An overly nasal voice can sound quite annoying and harsh, so nasality is best added in small amounts, like the icing on a cake.
There are a few subtle elements in speech style that can contribute to an overall feminine or masculine vocal quality. Male voices tend to keep their tempo (speed) more even when speaking. They will also have less variation in pitch (more monotone), and will use volume to express emotion. By contrast, female voices will incorporate tempo changes (meaning they will speed up and slow down), and will have a wider variety of pitch change. When expressing emotion, they will often use pitch change rather than volume. In addition, the female voice will use more vowel elongation, and sharper syllable separation.
Don’t forget about reactionary sounds…
Reactionary sounds like coughing and laughing are an easy way to unconsciously slip into dead voice. In order to retain your feminine tone and pitch, you’ll want to keep your larynx in a high position while performing such sounds.
And finally…achieving tonal consistency
Tonal consistency refers to your ability to stay consistently in your new tone. Especially in the early stages of your training, your voice will want to revert back to dead voice. With persistent vocal practice, you will learn to stay in your chosen tone more easily, eventually reaching a point where your new voice feels natural and comfortable.