Developing a Female Voice
by Melanie Anne Phillips
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Nothing gets you read faster than a voice that doesn't match your appearance. Many gender folk dress up to the nines and look like goddesses... until they open their mouths. Suddenly, in spite of the grace and curves they turn into truck drivers or lumberjacks right before your eyes. Clothes may make the man, but it is voice that makes the woman. Whether you are a crossdresser or transsexual, developing a truly FEMALE voice - not just a feminine one - is of paramount concern.
When I began my transition, there was electrolysis to worry about, mannerisms... but it was voice that seemed to me the greatest obtstacle. Like most, I tried simply feminizing my voice, softening the voice I had. I tried raising my pitch artificially, arriving at that bad falsetto that forms the stereotype of the transgendered marking them as parodies rather than the real thing. Evntually I even consider vocal chord surgery as a last resort. Voice surgery made me nervous though. I had a fairly decent singing voice, I like to do character voices, I liked to sound dramatic when I spoke. But the thought of being read every time I uttered a word was enough to tip the balance to consider voice surgery, even though all end-results I had heard were not very convincing AND I had heard horror stories of those who as a result of the surgery lost their voices completely!
I had just about resigned myself to that risk when, a few months into fulltime, I stumbled into something quite by accident that has made the difference in my career, my relationships, in my life as a whole: I learned to sound female. Notice I did not say "to talk like a woman", but rather "to sound female". This is because the secret I found is not in the way one speaks but the way one sounds. I had been trying out different voices that day (as I did most days), sometimes trying to sound like a squeaky teenager, other times like a mature matron. For weeks I had been struggling with no progress to speak of. And then, this one day, suddenly something happened. My voice "slipped gears" and came down in a different place than it had ever been.
All at once, in one broad stroke, the TIMBER of my voice had turned female. I couldn't believe it! I actually SOUNDED female! I tried saying this and that and EVERYTHING sounded female. This was incredible! After all my fears and yearnings... well, it was almost like magically being transformed into a woman! It was just about quitting time when this happened. At the time, I was working as Melanie, but still going home to my wife as Dave. The kids did not know about my transition yet. So each night, I would leave work, take off the nail polish and make-up, change my clothes and go home. So, I decided it was time to go back to my "drab" voice and do Dave again for the night. But when I tried to revert, I couldn't find my old voice. I tried again - nothing! Suddenly I felt that I really HAD been transformed! That somehow my whole voice box had been changed to a female form!
But this was terrible!!! My wife was going to kill me! After half an hour of unsuccessful attempts to get out of voice, there was nothing left to do but face the music. I drove home, stepped inside. Mary said, "How was your day?" I replied, "Fine", but it wasn't Dave's voice, it was Melanie's voice, and Mary threw a fit! "What's wrong with your voice?!", she demanded. I explained what had happened and how I got stuck. She told me I had darn well better figure out how to get my old voice back before the kids woke up in the morning. Try as I might, I met with no success. But then, over the course of an hour or so, my voice relaxed and the old voice came back. I was saved!!!
But then, I worried that I couldn't get the new voice back again. After all, it happened by accident, and I really didn't know what I had done. At first, I DID lose the new voice. But then, I found it again, and practiced and practiced going in and out all the rest of the night. The next morning, the first thing I did when I woke up was try to find the new voice again, and there it was, mine to command! Over the following months, I worked on the fine points of my voice, adding all the incidental elements that affected not only my sound, but the manner in which I spoke. And now, over four years later and two years after SRS, I can report that my new voice is fine. If I choose I can still slip in and out of it at will. This voice has been crucial in my career advancement, relationships and ,best of all, my female voice has helped developed my sense of self as Melanie.
In this article, I will share with you how I did it and provide all the steps you need to find your own female voice. To begin, as I looked back over the path I had taken, I discovered seven important tools for developing a feminine voice. Six of them work on the femininity but the seventh is the "secret" that actually makes one SOUND female. I'll describe each briefly, then cover them all in greater detail. By name, the seven tools are Pitch, Resonance, Dynamic Range, Annunciation, Vocabulary, Grammar, and Body English.
Most people assume that the primary difference bewteen men's and women's voices is Pitch. But we shall see that the actually difference in pitch between the sexes in minimal. In fact, the overlap of range between the sexes allows for almost ANY individual to fall well within accepted norms of pitch.
Resonance is the real secret of this method. Resonance is the modulation of whatever pitch you have. It puts the envelope on the voice that takes the pitch and assigns it Timbre. In the course of this article I will describe a simple exercise anyone can do to find that special place in their voice and develop a truly FEMALE resonance.
Dynamic Range describes the difference between the highest highs and the lowest lows that a person uses while speaking. Men use a very narrow dynamic range, even though they are quite capable of extending that range. It is simply a matter of training, not physiology. In contrast, women use a much WIDER dynamic range, which is what gives their voices more of a "sing/song" effect.
Enunciation is the way you pronounce your words. Just as one might do a dialect, there is a female dialect that transcends languages and cultures. I will describe a means for developing a fully feminine enunciation.
Yes there are masculine and feminine words. In our culture, certain words are almost exclusively reserved for males and others for females. I will cover some of these and show you how to be on the lookout for more.
Being masculine or feminine has a lot to do with brokering power. When one forms words into sentences, the ORDER of words as well as modifiers and parantheticals change the position of power of the speaker. We'll look into ways to adopt the "power level" appropriate to the many roles played by either sex.
Body English is they way you move while you talk. In fact, it has an actual impact of how the voice itself will sound. By using the proper Body English while you speak, you can improve the femininity of your voice - even on the phone! Now that we've seen the overview of what will be covered, let's move on to the first of these areas in depth.
What do Susanne Pleshette, Marline Detrich, Cher, and Bea Arthur have in common? They all have VERY low voices! In fact, they have voice LOWER in pitch than most of the male poplulation. However, we would never mistake them for men! In fact at least three of the four are generally considered rather sexy. When women have low voices they are not considered masculine. Rather, their voices are referred to as "husky". How can they get away with that? Because the difference between the average male voice and the average female voice is only about 1/2 octave. That's right! Just 1/2 octave!
It is not the pitch that makes them sound female, but the Resonance! Because each of us has at least a 1 1/2 octave range to their voice and most of us have two octaves or more, there is a lot of overlap between the pitches of the two sexes if there is only a 1/2 octave AVERAGE difference. That means there is just half an octave higher that some women can go that no men can and only a half an octave lower that some men can go that no women can. My voice now is only 2 or 3 notes higher on the scale than it was before I started. But the audible impact is quite difference. That is because it is not how HIGH you pitch your voice, but where you pitch it FROM that makes all the difference! Once you get your voice coming from the right place, it doesn't really matter what pitch it is at all. And the added bonus is, with the Resonance secret we will discover, you get 2 or 3 notes of increased pitch as well (which, though not crucial, doesn't hurt!) So let's move on to that area without further delay!
What is Resonance? Imagine an orchestra. Now imagine the same not being played by a violin, a trumpet, and an oboe. They all have different sounds, even though they are all playing the same note. This is because the tone they play is "modulated" differently. Each has its own unique Resonance. In a trumpet, that resonance is created in the coils. It is created in the body of the violin or in a cello. That body is a chamber in which the sound can vibrate, mixing and intermixing to create complex wave forms with many striking and identifying harmonics. That chamber is like our own voice box.
Men have a larger voice box. That's what makes their Adam's apple larger and their voices add more low-end resonance. Women have a smaller voice box and as a result have less low end resonance. So, in a sense, men have MORE harmonics than women. This is fortunate for those in the masculine gender who wish to be perceive in the feminine. The whole trick is to learn to us LESS of your voice. You've got it already, you are using it already. Its not something you have to add to sound female, but something you need to supress. The problem is, that when men go into a falsetto, they surpress ALL of the harmonics, resulting in that silly high-pitched voice that is surely a dead give-away.
Let's try an experiment to drive the point home. Put your finger of one hand on the top of your larynx, at the top of your Adam's apple. Place the fingers of your other hand at the very bottom of your larynx, below the Adam's apple. Now, speak aloud in your normal masculine voice. You will note that both the top AND bottom of the larynx vibrate almost equally as you speak. Keeping your fingers in place, go into a falsetto and speak. You will note that there is hardly ANY vibration in either the top OR bottom! The exercies we are going to learn will allow you to create a voice that vibrates ONLY at the bottom and NOT at the top. This effectely cuts the part of the voice box used in half and thereby loses the lowest of the harmonics, leaving almost EXACTLY the same range of harmonics as a genetic female voice.
The female voice I've discovered feels like it sits "behind" your normal speaking voice. After I had used it for a while, I found there were two easy to get to this place - a place your voice does not usually go while you are speaking. The first way is with Falsetto, the second way is by gargling.
Start with your highest falsetto. If you sound like a cartoon character with big round ears that lives in Anaheim, you've got it! Now take that voice and bring the pitch down as low as you can WITHOUT BREAKING YOUR VOICE. You see, if you break your voice it will "come out front" again, and you'll be using the full voice box for modulation - just what you don't want. Take your voice down as low as you can go in falsetto. That's the spot. You will notice that neither the top nor bottom of your larynx is vibrating very much, if at all.
Now, before I explain what to do once you get to that spot, let's examine the other method of arriving there. If you try both methods, one will work best for you. Also, by trying both, you will have a better sense - a "cross reference" of where your voice needs to be.
Just go back in your throat the way you do when you gargle and make that standard gargling sound. When you do, you will automatically tighten up your throat. You will find that your voice is resonating from exactly the same place either with the lowest falsetto or the gargling. However, with the gargling, you can actually feel both the top and bottom of your larynx vibrating. The point you want to reach for this voice is the center between where you put your voice to gargle and the lowest falsetto you have. Some people like to do character voices for fun. If you can do a little old man or old woman, say "The Alludium Q38 Space Modulator, or do the Wicked Witch of the West, you are very near the spot.
As I mentioned before, the first time I found this voice I hit it by accident. Then I got stuck. So if you try this exercise and are not living full-time as a woman, make sure you have an hour or so to find your way back to male voice just in case. Now, what you are actually learning to do is develop one set of the muscles on your larynx while not using the others at all. This is a tough trick - kind of like wiggling your ears or patting your head while you rub your tummy. It takes practice - LOT'S of practice. But don't practice too much right at the start. Once you find the voice it is such a magical experience that you want never to come back. But you will find that using the lower set of muscles to do all the work leads to hoarseness at first. This is your body's way of telling you that you should knock off for a while.
I found that during the first week I used this voice, I could only go about half an hour or so before I got hoarse. Then, I had the good sense to rest my voice. Just like doing exercises for the body, you don't want to do too much too fast of you will injure yourself. For me, it took about six months to fully develop my voice to the point I could use it all day long. Then, it took another six months to fully develop loudness and dynamic range. But these things did come with practice and patience. I imagine that eventually, the other muscles at the top might atrophy if, like me, you just don't use them at all. However, for those of you switching back and forth, both will stay in tone and like me, even now after four years, I can still call up the old voice if I have to. For me, that's about once a year when I need to demonstrate to a friend that it is possible to do this. So, don't push it. I'm no medical doctor. I can't tell you exactly what's going on physically, nor can I guarantee you won't cause yourself problems. I can merely say that for me, I have been using this voice for over four years with no apparent ill effects.
When I first started using my new female voice, the muscles were only developed enough to create a very monotone sound. In fact, it took me six months to get a good Dynamic Range. As I mentioned earlier, Dynamic Range is the difference between the highest pitch and the lowest pitch used in conversation. Women use this range to put emphasis into their conversation. It brings extra meaning to the words beyond their normal definitions by putting a different "spin" on them. Men use a different technique for emphasis: they get louder or softer within a narrow range of tones.
So, in conversation, a man will "punch" some words and hold back others. In this manner they "make their point". In contrast, women will rise and lower in tone while keeping roughly the same amplitude or loudness. This is a striking difference in speech patterns and is a key identifier of a masculine or feminine personality. Keep in mind that masculine women will adopt the loudness approach in monotone, and the feminine man will rise and fall in tonality with even amplitude. You'll notice the difference in the way women speak when you call them on the phone. If you are a man and call a company getting the female receptionist, her voice will be up in the scale, high in note so as to be cheerful and non-threatening. If she hears a man calling her she will stay there at that range of pitch. But if you are a woman calling in and get the same receptionist, she will answer the phone the same way, but as soon as she hears that it is a woman calling her, she will lower her tonal range. This happens because men control the power in the world, especially in business.
As a result, as a woman, unless you are very assertive by nature, you don't want to appear threatening. Men in business compete with men and also with women who are threatening. However, since women have to stick together to get anything done in a male world, they must form a conspiracy. When men in business get toether its a competition, when women in business get together its a conspiracy. And this difference in approach and status is reflected in the higher or lower tonal range that a woman adopts depending upon the gender of the other party. Similarly, if a woman IS assertive and using amplitude to punch her emphasis, a non-assertive woman will keep her voice high to show she is not a threat. Now, this is easily seen in women because they naturally use a wider dynamic range. But have you ever noticed how a man's voice goes up a few notes whenever he fears a superior is angry with him?
Now another aspect of Dynamic range is "stair step tonalities". What I mean by this is that in every group of several words a woman will string together in a sentence, usually no two are spoken at the same pitch. This is what makes women's voices sound so "sing song". In fact, they ARE singing! Sometimes the stair steps go down to lower into that conspiratorial tone. Other times they go up to raise the emotional stakes. Often they rise and fall like sine waves to rush up under a phrase, then retreat like a wave on the sand. Speaking in stair step tonalities is best learned by listening to others, but it is learned, not intrinsic. Just like Dynamic Range, it is a function of conditioning rather than biology. So, Dynamic Range is largely a masculine/feminine issue rather than a male/female one. How to learn it, however, is best covered in our next area.
Enunciation describes the shape into which words are formed. Men lean toward denotation rather than connotation. In other words, men get the job done as quickly as possible with the most focus. When speaking they hit the edges of words like square waves, cutting each one like they were chopping carrots. In contrast, femininity more connotation oriented. Women are not as concerned with the meanig of a word so much as its context, and that context is epressed in a more flowing, graceful manner. Women will round the edges of their words to avoid cliffs and walls.
Believe it or not, the best source I've found as an example of this is with Valley Girls. Val Speak for girls puts an envelope on the words that sing songs with stair steps, rounds the words and flows the hidden agenda of meaning in the background context. I suggest that you rent either Whoopi Goldberg's stand up comedy routine on video tape or the movie "Valley Girls". Both of these have the feminine dialect down pat. It is MUCH easier to go overboard to an extreme and then tone it down than to try to build up from where you are now. There is so much initial embarrassment trying to speak female AND each step requires addition work and additional habits to be broken. You learn one level of success then have to unlearn that to get to the next. But if you jump all the way to the extreme and use that, it will begin to average out with the enunciation you are using now and will tone itself down until it is right on the mark for normal conversation as today's woman.
Now, I referred above to the "feminine dialect". But it is much more than that. In fact, the enunciation and dynamic range of femininity is applied to every language and every culture in the world. The words and grammar may change, but the connotation of the feminine meaning is a universal language that can be understood from woman to woman in times and worlds apart. Still, it is not stilted or defined. In fact, it is quite flexible. Women do not live a single role, but many, as mother, wife, career woman, friend. As such, she plays variations of the feminine dialect depending upon the role without ever losing the femininity. This can be accomplished by realizing that the feminine dialect is not one thing but several blended together. As a woman shifts from role to role, she uses the same tools, but with different emphasis depending upon the situation. The voice that I use with my girlfriends is different than the voice I use when lecturing at work to my interns. The voice I use with my boyfriend is different than the voice I use with my wife. Get away from the binary, free yourself from definition. Go with the flow, be flexible, and play with variations on a theme.
Think about the phrase, "I got a pain in my gut." Who would say that, a man or a woman? A woman might say, "I have a pain in my stomach.", or, if she really wanted to be obnoxious, "My tummy hurts..." (GAK!) The point is, that some words are more masculine or feminine than others. Part of this again derives from the brokering of power. For example, a man usually "wants" something while a woman "would like" something. "Want" means "lack" and implies "need" which further implies the right to have. This reflects the aggressive side of the power equation. On the other hand, "would like" states a preference, not an intent, and therefore runs the idea up the flagpole to see if anyone is against it before acting. This reflects the submissive side of the power equation.
You can notice the difference in the way men and women will order at the speaker of a drive-through fast food restaurant. A man will say, "I want a Big Mac.", whereas a woman will say, "I'd like a salad, please." This point was driven home to me when I was working on a movie as a Director of Photography. When I worked this position as a man, I would just tell the crew exactly what I wanted and they would hop to! But on the first day of this two day shoot I was working with a crew I had not met before. AND it was my first D P job as a woman. So, I went to work as usual, telling everyone exactly what I wanted: "I want a 1K mini in that corner as a set light and a half K kicker with a yellow filter as a hair light." Nobody moved. I looked around wondering why nothing was happening. Finally I just said, "Okay, let's go to work", and they did. But they went ever so slowly. And the more I told them what I wanted, the slower and less precise they became. At the end of the day, we had only accomplished half of what I had wanted to. We were WAY behind schedule. These guys had moved five times slower than I was used to.
So I went home and thought about it and then it hit me... What if they didn't like being told what a woman "wanted"? So, the next day, I brought the crew together and said, "Today I'd like to put a little light back there to light up the set and could you rig something to get some yellow light on her hair?" They looked at each other wondering if this was the same person, then the crew captain said, "Okay, let's get to work", and they moved twice as fast as the previous day. By the time we were finished we had made up all the lost time. Somehow by my telling them what I "wanted" I had emasculated the crew, because I was putting myself above them in skill. But by telling them what I'd like, they worked to give it to me. Of course, they still worked only half as fast as they would have when I was a male DP, but at least it was twice as fast as the day before.
So, as a woman, you're going to have make workers not give you the same effort you would get as a man, but at least you can limit the damage by telling them what you'd like, even though you know exactly what you want! Now another thing men do is slur. They might say, "I hafta gota the store". "Hafta" is not a word! "Gota" is not a word! A woman might say, "I have to go to the store." Or even more, she might say, "I ought to." "Have to" is driven by need." "Ought to" is driven by should". Its really a question of Instigation vs. Obligation and is yet another example of the Power Equation in our society. Look for those power words and if you want to be feminine, avoid them like the plague.
Grammar deals with sentence structure and parentheticals. Keeping on the Power Equation concept, men are supposed to be assertive in our society, women submissive. Women can have moods, but not opinions. Men might say they were "going to do" something, but women would say "I'm thinking of doing" something. Now, I use the terms "men" and "women" because those are the standards for our society by sex. But it is really (like all of these points) a matter of masculine vs. feminine. It is the issue of cooperation vs. conflict. This article is not about breaking stereotypes, but becoming a stereotype. Once you have arrived, BELIEVE ME, you will find LOT'S of reasons to break them!! But first you must go to the extreme and then tone it back. Keep in mind that there is hardly a woman alive who does all these things. But by using most of them regularly in different combinations, you can have your overall speech pattern fall more within the feminine range than it does now.
They last area we will explore is Body English. This is simply the way you move when you speak. Body English supports voice and voice supports Body English. If a feminine voice is like a song, feminine Body English is like a dance. When you put the song and the dance together, they create harmonies between them that underscore and counterpoint, making the entire process a symphony. The most intersting part is that voice and Body English actually change each other. Try saying something while standing absolutely still. Then try speaking with broad gestures. You will hear a difference in your voice just because you are moving. Many gender folk using the phone get so nervous they freeze up physically and it can be heard loud and clear in their voice. But if you move in rythm to your thoughts, your voice will follow. Even on the phone you will sound more feminine AND more human!
Conclusion [= Plug - ed.]
So, this is what I have to offer from my personal experiences. I hope you find it of interest and use.
Now, trying to describe a voice in a text article is a bit difficult. I understand this. That is why I've created a VHS video tape called "Melanie Speaks!" where I demonstrate these techniques so you can hear them, copy them, and learn to do them on your own. The tape runs 49 minutes long and is available for only $20 in cash, check or money order, post paid, by writing to me at: Melanie Anne Phillips P.O. Box 295 Burbank, CA 91503 And, if you want to hear a sample of my voice, you can dial my business phone which is always on an answering machine at (818) 840-0381.
Now that we've had this word from our sponsor, we return to our regularly scheduled program.