Some transgender and nonbinary people may want to change their voices. Gender-affirming vocal coaches are there to help

CNN — Think about all the ways you show the world who you are. How you dress, how you look, what you prefer to be called, who you spend your time with, even how you sound — they all convey your specific identity.

When transgender people are exploring ways to share their true selves with the world, they often think about these things on a deeper level. Something as simple as the voice they were born with may not sound or feel right. It may not reflect the real them.

This is where gender-affirming vocal coaches come in. These professionals have backgrounds in speech therapy, vocal performance or other types of vocal practices, and use their expertise to help people change the quality of their voices in a safe and sustainable way.

For some transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming people, a new voice is a gateway to a new kind of self-expression.

What does a gender-affirming voice coach do?

Kevin Dorman is the owner of Prismatic Speech Services in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their path to the highly specialized world of gender-affirming vocal coaching began with a love of performance, and at the suggestion of their high school theater teacher, they took up speech language pathology in college.

After exploring their own gender identity, Dorman realized a few years later that they were trans. The pieces started falling into place for Dorman.

“At the same time, I was taking a voice disorders class, and there was just a single bullet point on there about gender-affirming voice work,” they told CNN. “But that was enough for me to look out on my own and seek further education.”

There are different approaches to gender-affirming vocal work. In the sphere of speech language pathology, it’s viewed similarly to the way one would treat voice disorders. Practitioners may also have backgrounds in areas like vocal performance.

“Transgender vocal training, as it’s sometimes called, sprung up from a marriage of speech pathologists, singing teachers, theater specialists and their techniques. So it’s this really fascinating blend of science and art,” Dorman explained.

Dorman begins by asking each client their goals, and how they want to sound, and then shows them how to use their voice differently by adjusting factors like pitch and tone.

In addition to helping to align voices and identities — possibly avoiding unpleasant questions or interactions — gender-affirming vocal coaching can also help people move more comfortably through the world, confident enough to do things that seemed too fraught to attempt before.

“We want to know what sounds best to you, what feels most empowering, what helps you participate in activities of daily life that other people take for granted, like being comfortable ordering at a drive-thru or calling a doctor’s office or talking to neighbors,” Dorman said.

What it means to change your voice

Voice actor Alexis Vandom always had fun with her voice, even as a child. When she began transitioning as an adult, she sought training from several specialized voice coaches to feminize the way she sounded. It was a years-long process with physical and emotional challenges.

“I first largely had to focus on getting out of my own way,” Vandom told CNN. “Like many trans femme folks out there, voice training sometimes in and of itself would generate additional dysphoria. I learned to give myself the grace and the space to develop the voice over time.”

Since Vandom had a natural ability and interest in voice work, she was able to combine things she learned about voice acting with things she learned specifically about vocal feminization.

However, despite her experience, the lingo of speech pathology and singing techniques sometimes went over her head. She hopes more accessible language around gender-affirming voice coaching will develop as the practice evolves.

Some vocal practices, she says, have fallen out of favor because they could be damaging to the voice long-term. Overtaxing the larynx, for instance, could cause vocal tension dystonia, a speech and swallowing disorder.

“Instead, many coaches these days may focus on developing muscle memory exercises, so the voice can come naturally and without strain,” she said.

In addition to receiving professional training, Vandom also sought out tutorials on YouTube and advice from others with an interest in voice skills. This is a route a lot of trans people go if they can’t afford or find a trained vocal coach. Other professionals CNN spoke with cautioned such tutorials could cause damage if used improperly, but for many, Vandom said, it’s the most accessible option.

“For me, changing my voice wasn’t just about my identity. It was a matter of safety. I lived in the South at the time, and I think trans folks who live in places that are especially hostile are moved to develop their voice so they can have interactions without feeling unsafe.”

Bryce Chambers, who has an acting and singing background, said he knows a lot of fellow trans people who do work on their own voice without the help of a professional. He was lucky to be connected to a voice coach after college who helped  him lower and darken his voice by encouraging diaphragmatic breathing and throat positioning, among other techniques. They weren’t specifically a gender-affirming voice coach, but knew the processes needed to accomplish Chambers’ specific goals.

“Any singer or an actor needs to take care of their voice over many years,” he told CNN. “So concerns about trans or nonbinary people changing their voice in a healthy way are valid but not unique. Lots of people have a need to practice vocal hygiene, staying hydrated and taking vocal rest if they need it.”

The fact is, Chambers said, if a transgender person feels the need to change their voice — whether for personal, social or safety reasons, they’re going to do it.

“Trans folk have been altering their voices for as long as they’ve been around, I’m sure,” he said. “Maybe some of the processes aren’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing. I just hope we continue to see progress in the field.”

How someone changes their voice

Anna Freya began her career studying vocal performance, and now teaches both singing and gender-affirming vocal methods in the Seattle area.

When working with the voice, Freya stresses there are many ways to adjust how the throat, mouth, lips and tongue make different sounds.

“Pitch and pitch range, that is very important,” she said. “The quality of the voice; bright versus dark; that’s also important. The anatomy and physiology of the voice matters, and in different ways than conventional singing. It’s almost like reverse engineering, looking at the elements of how the voice sounds and which ones need to be swapped out or put together in a different configuration to get a different result.”

This work can get very technical, and it carries some of the challenges of other vocal training styles. For instance, to get a brighter, more feminine sound, Freya may encourage clients to reposition their voicebox, or larynx — something that, short of sticking a hand down one’s throat, is accomplished by communicating how certain things in the throat feel or sound when the client adjusts them, and what muscles are working.

“But so much of sounding feminine in that particular example, or sounding any certain way, is also about how you pronounce things and the cadence of the voice,” Freya said.

Dorman takes a similar approach.

“The way that I like to think about it is, we’re modifying the breath flow through the throat, through the larynx where pitch is produced, and then everything above that, like the size and shape of the access area between the mouth and the nose,” they said. “That’s resonance. And then through that work we can get to a darker, warmer resonance, or a brighter, buzzier, brassier resonance.”

Since this kind of coaching is meant to be for life, gender-affirming vocal coaches also place a huge importance on healthy vocal hygiene so clients don’t damage their vocal mechanisms over time or get into uncomfortable habits. This includes practical advice like staying hydrated and avoiding certain actions that tax the voice — like yelling.

Then, there is the larger question of what sounds are associated with gender.

“There’s not just one way to sound feminine. There’s not just one way to sound masculine. And there’s little guidelines on what androgynous even should sound like, so it’s our job to help our clients figure out what they feel empowered by,” Dorman said.

“Certainly there are many clients who come in with a specific goal of, say, getting gendered correctly in public. But the problem is, gender is a much more dynamic process. It’s not static, it’s an exchange of information, so everyone comes to conversations with different concepts of what is feminine and masculine.”

Why the work is important

When Dorman started working with gender-affirming vocal methods, it was 2016 — just a few years after they noticed conversations about gender identity really opening up in the US. There wasn’t a lot there in terms of specific research, networking or practice.

“Since then, it has grown so much as more trans people learn that it is an avenue of transition that’s possible, and thankfully the care and diversity of providers have increased over the years,” they said.

Both Dorman’s and Freya’s clients currently pay from $50 to $100 a session, which they know isn’t affordable for everyone. When looking toward the future, they said they hope the field of gender-affirming vocal work increases in both the academic sense, with more specific research and training, and in the visible sense, with more providers offering services and finding ways to lessen the financial burden.

Freya, who is a lesbian, says gender-affirming work is a skill she can offer to her wider LGBTQ community.

“It was a matter of, ‘I can help people that have greater disadvantage within the greater LGBT community.’ I feel very fiercely about that,” she said. “If I can further LGBTQ acceptance in society with my skills and my intelligence, why would I not do that? Especially if I can help others do the same, and then we’re all leveraging off of each other’s experience and expertise.”