(used by permission)
Feminine Speech Seminar Notes
We're all concerned about "passing" when we go out. I prefer the term "blending in" because it's more about the comfort level of ourselves and others around us. One important giveaway is our natural voices. Some disguise them by becoming a "mute" when they go out in public. The Marcel Marceau approach to life as pantomime. Others opt for the other extreme of vocal surgery rather than take a vow of silence. There's a sensible compromise:
This is a demonstration of techniques and principles of speaking in a more feminine manner including range, projection, modulation, inflection and speech content.
Pitch and Timbre
The biggest concept I want you to take away from all this is: higher is not better! As a matter of fact, a lower voice in a woman is considered "sexy" and was actually cultivated by actresses like Lauren Bacall and Marlene Detreich. Women such as Bea Arthur and Tallulah Bankhead had a lower natural speaking range than most men yet they still sounded most feminine!
Why? Because of the quality or "Timbre" (pronounced tamber) of sound.
For example, a flute and a trumpet can play the exact same concert pitch but have distinctly different sounds. (The wave shapes would look different on an oscilloscope due to a difference in the overtone series.) So concentrate not so much on pitch as on the "timbre" of the sound. You can do this by softening your speech and "placing" your voice in the head rather than the chest. Vocal "cords" are actually vocal "folds" of skin and very sensitive to abuse.
Therefore, minimise shouting and smoking which will irritate the vocal cords and actually lower your pitch. If you feel you must raise your pitch, first find your median speaking voice by softly humming and raise "that" pitch three or four tones for a "new" midrange reference point. Any more than that will give an unnatural "Minnie Mouse" squeaky falsetto effect. The fact is that you have lived your life as male a long time. The objective is to learn how to speak a new language called "feminine." Don't mind that you do it with a masculine "accent" You'll still be understood.
A morning warm-up routine
Neck relaxing exercises will relieve tension in the neck and therefore the "voice box" or larynx. Slowly rotate your head in large circles one direction, then the other. You can also relax the vocal cords directly by singing up and down the scale in a kind of "Bronx cheer," that is letting the lips flutter (as if you were saying "brrrrr"). This is best done in a hot shower where the steam will have a beneficial effect on the vocal cords. This is a practice used by many professional singers and vocal coaches.
Feminine speech should be "musical" and lilting. Like music, melody and rhythm play a large part in "modulating" your voice to a "sing-song" approach. You can widen your range in speech to use three tones up and down from your "new" reference point. (Men, by contrast, often use only one or two tones up or down, almost closer to a monotone.) Like music, rhythm and cadences (or pauses) in speech are important to feminine speaking. Slow your speech down if you tend to speak rapidly and elongate the vowels.
Southern dialects naturally sound feminine because women elongate vowels, men tend to shorten them. (Remember the character Blanche Duboise in "Streetcar Named Desire" and how she has "always depended on the kindness of strangers.") (Say: How ya'll doin? in a breathy, feminine manner, or "where ya'll goin?")
Inflection and content
Also try ending sentences with an upwards inflection as if you turned a statement into a question. Women often hedge their bet in making a definitive statement as in "It's awfully cold, isn't it?" or "they have a very good team, don't they?" or "don't you think?"
Women also tend to use more qualifiers in speech to exaggerate a point. For example: "that's a very lovely dress she has on, or "it certainly is terribly hot today, isn't it?" In her book Speaking As A Woman, Alison Lang refers to a new vocabulary and choices of words. Speaking this new language of "feminine" requires a new or altered use of descriptive adjectives such as" charming, lovely, sweet, darling, in place of: pleasant, pretty, nice, great, etc. For example: "Isn't she just a sweet, precious child?" or "What a charming place you have." or "What a darling outfit!" Be aware of your diction and articulation.
Women, in general, tend to enunciate their words better, giving special attention to hard, ending consonants like P's, T's, and K's. (Try saying: Picking a chicken is certainly not to my liking.") Men tend to slur their words or mumble a bit more. Lowering your overall speaking volume and softening the voice always helps. It also never hurts to give just a bit of Marilyn Monroe type "breathiness" if you don't overdo it. Coughing or clearing your throat can sometimes be a give-away because this is a sound that clearly originates in the chest. Our objective is to have sounds originate in the head voice so try and minimise this by shorter coughs, covering your mouth or just excusing yourself and leaving the room if necessary.
Body language is all important to blending in as a woman and enhances the overall believability. In general, be more expressive in gesturing with your hands but keep the Body limbs (knees and elbows) pulled inward taking up less space. Men are much more "territorial" and tend to use up more physical space whereas women will usually present a less aggressive, non threatening posture, especially when sitting. Women tend to face each other and make more eye content whereas men tend to find direct eye contact much more threatening, especially in such a homophobic society as ours.
When sitting, women often tend to "lean into" the conversation when sharing something important. Leaning forward in men's conversations would tend to threaten their "space" more. Women are also less afraid to touch each other and make physical contact like touching a shoulder or elbow, especially when expressing sympathy or reassurance. A woman's overall posture is better, where sitting men are usually less aligned. A smile is always more feminine, be polite and courteous always!
Content of speech
Content of speech is all-important! Women tend to reinforce what's being said in a conversation rather than always bringing the subject back to themselves! Good conversation is being a good listener! Women tend to be more empathetic, quality listeners. The term "active listening" requires more involvement on the part of the listener. Men tend to just tune out and use others' conversations time just to formulate what they are going to say next as if to discount what others are saying as less important.
Its been said that a man's idea of good conversation is "speaking monologues with witnesses." Rene Chevalier once said, "you can always tell a G.G. (Genetic Girl) at a crossdresser's meeting ... she's the only one listening!" In Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand (Morrow Press), she says the reason women are more "quality" listeners is that they learn at an early age to place a higher emphasis on quality conversation more than boys. Men's speech asserts independence and status in order to be on top of the pecking order.
In a mixed group of men and women, men tend to dominate and interrupt the conversation statistically 80% of the time more than women! As young girls, women tend to place more importance on intimate chats and sharing personal secrets with a "best friend" or confidant. Dr. Tannen points out in her studies that boys play in bigger, hierarchical groups with specific pecking orders, whereas girls develop closer friendships in smaller groups and use conversation to "connect" and bond through language.
Girls often show a stronger verbal ability than boys and recent studies on brain development reinforces this theory. Women usually want their men to be as good a listener as their "best girlfriends" and focus on the emotional intent of what they are saying. Even though wives desire this "best friend" kind of talk with their spouse, a study shows that they seldom think of their husbands as "best friends." Men often list their wives as their "best friend" while women usually refer to another woman that way.
Tannen also points out that women usually have a better developed verbal ability and like to use conversation to share problems and elicit sympathy whereas men prefer to use conversation to negotiate, solve problems or raise their status. It is a confrontational versus sympathetic approach. The "men in dresses" conversation syndrome is usually bragging about how rich or powerful one is. It is not a feminine approach. Men often talk about business and status with other men and women talk about people and relationships with other women. Conversation content changes in a "mixed" group.
As I mentioned, studies show that men interrupt, switch topics, and interrupt 80 percent more than women, who tend to have a more personal approach with more constant, reassuring listening noises or responses (like "uh-huh," "yeah," or "oh, I know just how you must feel"). These comments show more involvement and more empathy. The key thing to notice in men's and women's conversational approaches (outside of business) is that men are problem solvers and women are looking for or giving sympathy. Phrases like "Oh, that must be just awful," or "I understand this must be a difficult time for you" signal involvement and concern. The key for all of us is to become a better and more sympathetic listener! Mental Attitude It is not always easy to erase years of "Body language memory" but something you can try is to close your eyes and in a quiet moment visualise and "hear" yourself saying things in a graceful and melodic manner. You can approach this as "theatre of the mind" where you watch yourself interacting in a social situation with others in a feminine manner. In this way one can almost "mentally" raise your chest voice to the head resonance without really changing pitch. (In opera, this is known as projecting "into the mask.")
It stands to reason that if you are a "tall girl" as many genetic women are, your vocal cords quite probably are proportionately longer and perhaps a little thicker. Many taller women have naturally longer vocal cords and therefore a slightly lower pitch or vibration. You remember from high school physics that a longer string has a lower pitch and a shorter string has a higher pitch. A thicker string of equal length has the same pitch but a different quality or "timbre" of sound.
During puberty, male hormones cause the vocal cords to thicken and, like the thicker string on a guitar, sound "different" than a thin string of equal length (and tension). Role Models It is most helpful to have a feminine vocal role model to emulate. If you have a friend or a favourite actress or personality whose speech delights you, tape them and mimic or "track" along with them. My personal favourite is Sigourney Weaver (a tall girl with a lower, sultry voice). I tape segments of dialogue from video rentals and repeat dialogue along with them. (I love to use my practice tape in the car when I'm all-alone!)
The braver souls might try taping your own voice and listen to the comparison. (Try not to be too judgmental or hard on yourself).
Vocal surgery is not preferable and should only really be used as a last resort. The results are not always satisfactory nor are they guaranteed!
There are basically two different types of surgical practices:
- A surgeon can cut off part of the vocal fold to "shorten" it. Like the shorter string, this only "cuts off" the lower frequencies and does not add higher frequencies. In effect, this only "shortens" your overall vocal range by eliminating lower tones so that you can't accidentally "slip" into a lower voice.
- A few surgeons can actually "thin" the vocal fold using laser surgery. Like a a "thin" string, this changes the overall "quality" of sound. For the more serious "surgery junkies," a combination approach can be used. If you are already cross living full time, you don't tend to use your lower tones anyway and it forces your "Body memory" to simply get used to using the upper register. (They say if you don't use it, you lose it.)
Don't confuse a "tracheal shave" with "vocal surgery." A "trach" shave reduces the size of the "Adam's apple" only and is considered a cosmetic surgical practice for those with large Adam's apples. This is considered a safe and routine practice by cosmetic surgeons.
Finally, the whole secret is in a shift of mental attitude or "reassignment thinking." Try to have a positive outlook on life and cultivate good self-esteem. Be confident, non-defensive, open to life and interested in the other people around you. You might even try quietly singing by yourself around the house. Be happy with your lot in life and love yourself a bit. (Caution! This attitude is contagious and may rub off on those around you.) Enjoy life, and others will enjoy (and accept) you.
Love and good luck with your "new" voice!
N.B. Wendy Parker is the author of a popular vocal instruction book for professional singers.