We Need to Make Space In Gender & Identity Affirming Voice Training for Tilt
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
For transfeminine people, changing your voice can be an emotional experience.
It's become an all too familiar story. A trans woman shows up on my screen, ready to work on her voice. But within seconds it's clear that she is speaking with her thyroid cartilage vertical. No matter what she's saying, she sounds disinterested, sometimes even irritated. Even when modeling the best version of her voice she can produce at the start of her voice journey she sounds really bored, which sounds to me like she's thinking, "Can't I just get on with it already?" I used to interpret that tone as a personal critique. But now, instead, once we've established it's a quality she wants to change, we might even start with learning tilt- that quivering, slidy sound caused by a complex, coordinated set of muscle movements that tilts the thyroid cartilage or entire larynx forward (see ESTILL). This sound quality is separate from pitch, and is one of the biggest ways we can shift our sound from tepid angst to bold, strong, assertive.
Sometimes, her lack of tilt is not so dramatic, at least in her habitual voice. We're tinkering away on voice recipes, learning new skills and fine tuning our voices, and then we get to tilt. Unexpectedly, when trying to intentionally produce any amount of tilt, she'll pull back, silent. Each attempt ends mid sentence. Or, when there is any discernable amount of tilt, she'll think she's speaking with an exaggerated hyper-feminine, or even childish voice recipe. But when we compare a recording of her voice with tilt to who she thinks she sounds like when speaking with that voice quality, their voice recipes are worlds apart. She's using a naturally feminine voice. And then, it's often not too long before she starts actually liking the sound of tilt in her voice. Liking the effect it has on her listeners when she adds some tilt for communication lubrication.
Discussing tilt and emotional expression with some of the trans women in my life who are gifted at adding tilt to their voices helps me understand how to better support clients exploring this potentially triggery area of voice work. Ally says she really empathizes a lot with this experience, because when she's trying to max out tilt, sobbing or cackling, she goes silent. She can't do those voice qualities because it feels ridiculous to her to emote in that way. She finds it just feels weird, and wrong. Fiona recalls well her experiences slowly becoming comfortable with expressing emotions. Working through the dude emotional expression exercises, she learned that it was ok to sound angry, or sad, or happy. She finds what she learned about how to be intentional with her emotional expression to be very freeing. She's empowered now knowing that how she feels doesn't have to be the same as what her voice emotes. It's also important to her to emphasize that it's a terrible idea to raise children differently based on your perception of a child's gender.
Some of my clients grew up pretending to be boys, actively discouraged from expressing their emotions. Some were never allowed to cry. Some were verbally or physically abused when they shared their feelings. People who react so strongly to the experience of speaking with tilt can flourish when they have safe spaces in which to become comfortable expressing emotions. Using your voice to share how you feel is something all of us should be able to do, and feel safe doing. But tilt is separate- tilting our thyroid cartilage is a mechanical movement, one we can accomplish entirely independent of the emotion we're experiencing. I'm sure right now I can quickly convince you I'm irritated, or interested, or so, so sad. Though if you hear me rapidly shifting between modeling different levels of tilt I might not be quite so convincing.
Often transfeminine women who speak without tilt are already aware that she doesn't like this quality in their voice, but she doesn't know what it is, or what to do to change it. When we're learning to control tilt, she thinks we're changing the pitch, the intonation. Many speech language pathologists haven't heard the term, much less learned to identify this variable when they hear it, manipulate it in their own voice, and be able to teach its modification. But where does that leave these women? If only she had someone to teach her how to express any emotion she wanted with her voice. To be able to experience sadness without everyone she speaks with inquiring if she's ok. To be able to ladle in a constant sticky rich soup of tilt so her voice is as non confrontational as can be, always interested, always happy. To convey authority without losing her feminine sound. This is the power of controlling tilt.
I could probably use a little more tilt in my voice. Sometimes I notice and add it. Sometimes I choose not to. I intentionally go vertical when I want to maintain a masculine voice recipe. That dark of resonance tilt stops sounding like I'm irritable and instead becomes a tool to maintain a pleasant masculine coded voice. Somedays, I wish I had learned to control tilt before I left the skilled nursing facilities, so in those feminine dominated workplaces I would have been able to glide my voice smoothly through any instruction I needed to give. But maybe I wouldn't have found my way to teaching gender voice training if I had. Tilt is powerful no matter what our voice goals are.
-Tallulah Breslin, MS, CCC/SLP
Gender & Identity Affirming Behavioral Voice Modification @Harmonic Speech Therapy