Pitch Perfect

Speech language pathologist helps trans patients find their best vocal registers

By Marcello Di Cintio

March 18, 2022 •

Parker Pothier stands in front of their computer in a a virtual session with speech language pathologist Teresa Hardy, ’04 MScSLP, ’19 PhD. Following the doctor’s instructions, Pothier slowly repeats the words: “move,” “mauve,” mood” and “moon,” trying to develop a darker tone. “It sounds really goofy,” Pothier admits.

But Hardy’s face lights up. She hears something reverberating in Pothier’s voice that excites her. “That sounds like a bow going across a double bass,” Hardy says.

“Hell, yeah!” Pothier says.

Pothier had been on a wait list to see Hardy and had started testosterone as part of their hormone replacment therapy about a year before their first appointment. The testosterone lowered the pitch of Pothier’s voice, as they’d hoped, and they were happy with their voice overall. At least in private. “I wouldn’t necessarily have a hard time with my voice until someone else heard me speaking,” they say. “I felt that people were thinking that I was trying to be something that I’m not. I wasn’t able to embrace all of myself if I felt insecure about my voice.”

So Pothier sought a referral to see Hardy, an Edmonton-based speech language pathologist and researcher who works with transgender clientsUntil about a decade ago, this aspect of Hardy’s field was was limited. “There was only half a page in my voice textbook from my master’s program dedicated to the topic,” she says. “And I could only track down a handful of articles to guide me.” Hardy has been part of what she calls a “research explosion” in the last few years, and was the first practitioner and researcher of gender voice training at the University of Alberta.

As with all her gender voice clients, Hardy first assessed Pothier’s vocal health — measuring the frequency and intensity of their voice, for example. She then led Pothier through a questionnaire meant to determine how their voice impacts their life and what they wanted to change.

Few of Hardy’s gender clients can articulate what they want to achieve beyond notions of feminizing or masculinizing their voice. But Hardy’s work does not adhere to such a binary. There is not a single way to sound like a man or a woman. Hardy asks her clients what sounding feminine or masculine means to them. She encourages them to “explore the diversity in masculinity and femininity and everything in between.” Some of Hardy’s non-binary clients choose to develop a gender-neutral voice, or a voice that can shift from feminine to masculine depending on how the client feels in a particular moment. While others stick to the voice they came in with. Hardy’s training grants her clients the compassion and freedom to be themselves.

In subsequent sessions, Hardy’s clients focus on different aspects of voice. They might explore pitch or intensity during one session, and vocal tract resonance — or brightness — during another. Together, they try out a number of different sounds to determine what fits. This “vocal play” is an essential part of the training. “It’s like learning to play an instrument a different way,” Hardy says. “The instrument being the voice.”

Like any other new instrument, mastery takes practice and time. Typically, Hardy works with her gender training clients from six months to a year. “If you were learning to play piano, you wouldn’t be able to play Mozart on the first day,” Hardy says. Some of her research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Alberta Innovates.

Pothier wanted to improve their voice’s stability. “My voice was like a big Mr. Sketch marker, just going across the page, and all of a sudden running out of ink,” Pothier says. They work for the Canadian Mental Health Association, answering Alberta’s 211 information and referral phone line. They connect callers with supports for issues such as homelessness, domestic violence and suicidal thoughts. Pothier didn't like being misgendered on those calls or being called “ma’am,” but didn’t want to correct 211 callers who might be in crisis. Hardy has helped imbue Pothier’s speaking voice with greater steadiness and fewer breaks, whether on the phone or otherwise.

Now Pothier wants to sing. “I grew up singing all the time,” Pothier says. Now they enjoy testing the bounds of their new vocal register. “I started playing this game with myself called Singing ‘Driver’s Licence’ Until I Can’t Anymore,’” Pothier says, referring to the Olivia Rodrigo song with a wide-spanning vocal range. “I got to a point where I couldn’t hit the high notes, I had to start singing it an octave lower. ”

For Pothier, finding their voice was more than just affirming. It was exhilarating. Hardy encouraged them to relish in the sound of their new vocals. “I got excited about being allowed to enjoy my own voice, and that it just feels like it fits, Pothier says. “My voice sounds really badass.”

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