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Changing Keys

Changing Keys is a trans voice workshop offered by Speech Language Pathologist Shelagh Davies. Offered in Vancouver through Trans Health as a seven week course, Shelagh recently travelled to Victoria for an intensive three day workshop with seven Vancouver Island girls, all living full time, some pre-op, some post-op. I was fortunate enough to be one of those girls. What follows is my recollection of (yet another) transformative experience, one of many I’ve had along the way since finally deciding I had no choice but to honor the person I am within. I am Karen, and at last, I can say that in my own voice.

Stephanie, for all the grace and generosity you have shown me these past few months, I dedicate this, my first blog ever, to you.

Some time ago I received a phone call from my counsellor’s secretary telling me that he (Julian Young…I’ll tell you about him sometime,) had put my name forward for a voice feminization workshop being taught by a speech language pathologist from UBC. Her name was (is) Shelagh Davies, and a large part of her practice is devoted to helping trans people find their voices. It’s not so hard for trans men, since the testosterone physically changes the larynx and the vocal folds, but for trans women, there is a lot to learn, and a lot of practice to put in. She is one of only a handful of people in North America, who specializes in teaching trans voice, and much of her work is cutting edge.

When Lisa (Julian’s secretary)asked if I was interested, I blurted out, “I would KILL to get into that workshop.” (Oops)But she got the point. Yes, I was interested. (Ya think???)

She warned me that Shelagh would only be working with a very small number of girls. I was on quite a long waiting list,and “nowhere near the top.” (My heart sank, as only a heart on hormones can: rapidly and deep.) However, I was told, Ms. Davies may have other criteria that she would use to choose the participants, so there was a (remote) possibility that I might get in, after all. (My heart rose, slightly. Hope. Yes.)

I could expect an email, soon, detailing Ms. Davies’ expectations of the participants, asking about myself and where I was at, my committment to the process should I be chosen to participate, and so on.

Several weeks later, it arrived. I dutifully replied, and allowed myself (however faintly), to hope.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from Shelagh telling me that I was in! I had to remind myself to breathe. I don’t know how many times I reread the email, just to make it seem real, but it was. We were going to have a private, one hour assessment, two full days of class, six hours each day, plus three private follow up sessions by phone two, four, and six weeks after the workshop. Free. The workshop was being sponsored by Transgender Health. (Amazing!)

Now you have to get this before I go on: Shelagh Davies, though I didn’t know it at the time, is, as I said, the only one in western Canada, possibly western North America, who does this type of work. She literally wrote the book on trans voice. She wrote the protocol. When she started out, it didn’t exist. No one knew how to make adult male voices sound female. There was no literature to go to. She told us in the workshop that it’s only in the last five years that work of any significance has started to be published. She is right at the forefront of her field. I had no idea who she was, or if she was any good at what she did until I met her. I had been told by someone who did know about her that getting in to her workshop was an amazing gift. It was true, on more levels than I could have imagined.

I went there with no expectations at all. I’d looked at voice feminization programs online. I’d done a short workshop at Esprit. If you heard my voice, there would be no question. It’s male. My friend Stephanie told me, “You get the voice you get. Live with it,” and I believed her.

Well, I had my assessment on Friday afternoon. We talked about what my voice was like at present, and how it affected my ability to function in public. (Note to all: people see what they think they see. Despite the voice, in face to face conversations, I am seldom read. Take heart from this. I know from experience, it is true.) She did some simple testing. She recorded my voice as I read a passage into her computer. And we talked a little about what would happen over the next couple of days. She described it as short and intense, but that it seemed to work “pretty well.” (I confess, much as I liked her, I still had no expectations that this male voice would ever sound even remotely feminine. I would have been satisfied with something that sounded gender neutral. Not happy, but I would have been satisfied.)

Saturday morning, we went to work. Vocal warm ups, posture, body tension, vocal stretching exercises, voice placement (in the mask of the face), pitch placement, and so on. By about noon, we were ready to break out into out various stations, which we rotated through, changing every five minutes. At the first station I was at, I was given some sample phrases to speak into a microphone. My target pitch was 185 hz, well into the “female” range. I was surprised I could do it so easily, but I could. It turns out 185 hz is F# above middle C. Not that high, after all. The computer read out on my first reading was over 190, and when I played it back, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I did it again. And again. At times my fundamental frequency was over 200. And each time I listened, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a woman’s voice. At three different stations, with different words, phrases, scripts, I repeated the process. When I did it right, when I could place the voice properly in the mask, and pitch it where it should be…not all that hard, it turned out…I was hearing a woman’s voice come back. When I didn’t, I could hear the lower chest resonances that I know so well, as “Ken.”

What I didn’t know was Karen’s voice. It was fun kind of (accidentally) going back and forth, learning how to sense when the voice was right, and when it was not. By the end of the day, I was able to hold my new voice for minutes at a time, even in conversation, just by paying attention to the physical sensations in my throat and my face.

Sunday, we went over the same routine again, just to reinforce it. We also talked about the practice routine we were all going to have to establish for ourselves: two 15 minute sessions a day. (“When are you going to do them? They are going to have to be burned into your daily routine, from now on, until this new voice just becomes habitual, and it could take several years for that to happen. It probably will. I’m expecting you to practice, practice, practice. Can you get together as a group? Maybe you can just read aloud to each other. That’s great way to get used to using your voice. You don’t have to worry about the words. You have a script right in front of you. All you have to do is concentrate on the voice.”)

There were other things, too, but by that time, we were all getting tired. She had been right: it was intense. But what an amazing weekend. One of the girls and I went down to a local drugstore at lunch break and found a thank you card for her, which we all signed. I wanted to give her flowers, too, but I knew she was flying home to Vancouver on Harbour Air, with all her luggage and the equipment she had brought. She didn’t need something else to carry along, so we had to content ourselves with offering our heartfelt thanks on the card.

The title of the workshop was “Changing Keys.” When I gave her the card, I told her that she wasn’t just changing keys here, she was changing lives. I knew that what I had been given was a precious gift, and I told her that. I told her that I was leaving this workshop…changed, and my voice broke as I was saying it.

A precious gift, yes, but what made it so? That, I couldn’t say. Back home late Monday evening, as I was doing my second practice session on my own, it finally came to me. No wonder it was so precious. She had given me a piece of my “self,” a piece that I had never thought, or expected, or even dared to hope ever to own. Now, next time I speak to her, in Karen’s own voice, a voice I never thought could be mine, I will be able to tell her that.

About Karen McLaughlin

Hi, I’m Karen, and welcome to my Cornbury blog. This blogging thing is a new adventure for me, but several of my friends have been urging me to keep one for awhile now. I’ll do my best. I hope you will be patient with me when I stumble, but mostly, I hope that this blog will help make this business of being trans a little less weird, maybe a little less scary. If you’re here, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, is dealing with the same issues that I have been. (Please note the past tense. I'm very proud of that.) I want to tell you that it’s going to be alright. You hear that? It’s going to be alright. I’m speaking from experience. So who am I to talk? Well, when I started all this, I was a pre-op trans woman in the middle of her RLE, her so-called “real life experience.” While I had lived (almost) full time for several years, in 2010 I finally decided to seek gender reassignment surgery. (Note: the accepted term for this among medical professionals is now gender confirmation surgery–an improvement, to my mind on all kinds of levels.) Whatever we call it, to qualify, one of the hoops that must be jumped is this RLE. That means living full time in female mode; no going back. Before I could apply for surgery, I was required to have lived as a woman for at least 12 months. The reasoning behind this is that by doing so, the applicant, me, in this case, would have a better idea what life would be like, should she decide to press forward. This meant finally coming out to my son and my elderly father, both of whom have been reluctantly supportive. I have been very blessed in this. Others have not been so lucky. Coming out is risky. Living full time is even riskier. A trans friend of mine once remarked, “Being out as trans means laying everything on the table. And you have no idea what you’re going to be allowed to keep.” You can literally lose everything: family, home, friends, colleagues, job, career, savings, pension, everything. I know people who have. But I have not, though I would be lying to say that this has been easy, or that there have not been strains, and deep, deep pain. Still, I have been blessed with an understanding, if not always totally supportive spouse, and with a family that has tried mightily to accept and come to terms with (in their eyes) the loss of a father and the emergence of this new person, Karen, who in her new hormonal adolescence, seems at times a stranger. (A nice one, though, I hope; one they can eventually come to love.) What I have discovered through all this, is that while the journey into Mordor is long and fraught with danger, it is filled with unexpected beauty and joy as well. Since coming out, (to everyone, family included,) I have been accepted, even loved, by people I never expected would be on my side, and in places I never expected (or thought) to go. In the past few months I have joined an all women’s Latin dance class, sung female tenor in a wonderful choir, learned basic silversmithing, (I make my own jewelry! How cool is that?), and surrounded myself with wonderful friends. I was supported by an amazing counsellor, (alas, recently retired), who connected me with a speech therapist who specializes in teaching feminine voice. (It has taken time, but it’s coming! I can hardly believe it!) And I have discovered that the future is not a road to be travelled, but a landscape to be constructed. The world I live in is one that I am building for myself, and you can do it, too. This one is a world filled with color, with love, and with joy, and for the first time in my life, I feel whole and totally alive. And the voice in my heart tells me, “This is soooo right! And about time, too!”

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