Helping Transgender Women Find Their Voice
University of Rhode Island trans voice clinic aims to improve ease and confidence when speaking
KINGSTON, R.I., May 19, 2017 — From babbling infancy, our voices are uniquely ours — like oral fingerprints. But for those who are transgender, the voice one is born with may not authentically reflect that person’s identity.
That is where voice therapy can help, and this summer the University of Rhode Island’s Speech & Hearing Center is offering a free Trans Voice Clinic to all interested transgender women beginning June 5.
“Being gender accurate is not about one thing. We can focus on pitch, variation and intonation. Each person has unique needs, and we offer services to meet individual needs,” said Leslie Mahler, associate professor of communicative disorders and neuroscience in URI’s College of Health Sciences, part of the Academic Health Collaborative. Clients need not have a University affiliation to participate.
“There is an incredible need in Rhode Island for these types of services,” said speech-language pathology graduate student Kimberly Dahl, who is leading the therapy sessions with Mahler as part of a research project. The nearest such clinics are in Boston and at the University of Connecticut, said Dahl, who will investigate how much voice therapy is needed and at what intensity to be effective.
This clinic focuses on those assigned male at birth in part because they have physical traits, such as larger vocal folds, that make feminization of their voices more difficult, Dahl noted.
URI alumna Jessica Brand of Exeter worked with Mahler, Dahl and graduate students Alexandria Nash and Laura Crouse this spring to alter her voice. She completed her physical transition to female in 2015 with sex reassignment surgery but remained unsatisfied with the tone of her voice. “I tried to change it independently but without much success,” Brand said.
They worked with Brand on exercises to relax her vocal muscles and lengthen her vocal cords. Such exercises help the client learn to use muscles in the larynx to adjust pitch and avoid strain, Dahl explained.
Other techniques include exercises that move through pitch range from low to high — making the same sound throughout — and sometimes doing these exercises through a straw. Brand likened the practices to building muscle memory. “I would definitely recommend this clinic to other people. It was really individualized, and they truly want to help and support you,” she said.
“It’s a collaborative therapy because clients have to go outside the treatment room and practice to become confident,” Mahler said. “Clients choose the material they work on and the topics salient to them, and we select the strategies.”
That might mean practicing new techniques when ordering coffee on the way to work as part of a focus on “functional phrases,” or speech a person uses every day.
Voice therapy clients attend several sessions a week, individually and in a group to practice techniques in a safe setting, Dahl said. The therapy begins with a complete evaluation of the person’s speech and language, an interview to understand the perspective and goals of the client and quantitative analyses and acoustic measurements of voice and speech, Mahler said. The measures are taken again at the end of the sessions to evaluate progress and coupled with a survey of client satisfaction to determine success, Dahl said.
Brand plans to participate in the summer clinic to fine-tune her voice. “Hopefully, in the future I won’t have to think about my voice; right now it’s a conscious effort to sound like a woman,” said Brand, who chose actress Emma Watson as her celebrity voice role model. Mahler and Dahl ask each client to identify a well-known “ideal voice.”
Having recently auditioned for the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!,” Brand hopes to be at ease with her voice if she does get that casting call. “It is definitely important and part of being the person you want to be,” she said of the voice work.