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Vocalized: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
More than 154 million treasures fill the Smithsonian's vaults, and each of them hides a story. In the podcast Sidedoor host, Lizzie Peabody sneaks you through the Smithsonian's side door to discover stories that can't be found anywhere else. You're going to hear about blood sucking worms that paved the way for modern medicine, how robots could learn to tell the stories of our ancestors and how to get away with murder in the arctic, maybe. You can listen to Sidedoor wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Sidedoor — all one word, or find it online at si.edu/Sidedoor.

Rafael Frumkin
Hi, my name is Rafael Frumkin and I am from Chicago, Illinois. I really just am a bit of a talker, so I'm constantly using my voice. I used to be mistaken — even when I was in my 20s, I was still mistaken for a very, very young girl. I would call my dad at work to ask him a question, and the operator would be like: Okay, sweetie, I'll get your daddy for you. I feel like okay: I'm like 18, but sure.

My relationship to my voice has changed over time, in large part due to the fact that I've started testosterone — and taking T has really deepened my voice a lot. So, I know what you're hearing right now might sound high pitched to some, but this is like quite deep for me — deep as it's ever been. My voice right now feels way more affirming, and true to who I am than any other version of my voice has.

Anita Rao
My name is Anita Rao, and you're listening to Embodied. And I, too, have a voice story to share.

I have a folder in my inbox called "Voice Feedback". It's where I put all the emails that have nothing to do with the content of what I talk about on the radio, but only the sound.

My favorite subject line in the folder is 'Other fish to fry.' Another email reads, "it sounds like the squeaky hinge on my old shed. Young women do this for reasons unknown. One would think these jobs are highly competitive."

I'm far from unique when it comes to this vocal critique phenomenon. Ask any millennial or woman identified person on a radio or podcast and you'll probably hear a similar story. It used to really get under my skin. For a short time I even tried to manipulate my own voice, but now after years of listening to myself, and investigating why people make comments, I've started to settle into my voice and close the gap between what sounds come out of the radio and what feels authentic.

They're both me.

The links between how we sound and who we are are complicated. I know it, and so does vocalist Tona Brown. Before we get into her story, I have got to let you hear her sing. To set the scene, it's 2015, she's on stage in New York City, illuminated and blue stage lights, wearing a black sparkly dress.

[music of vocalist Tona Brown]

The year before, at age 34, Tona became the first openly transgender Black performer to sing at Carnegie Hall.

Four years before that, she was the first Black trans vocalist to perform for a sitting US president when she sang for Barack Obama.

And years before that, Tona was a young kid learning about the power of her voice in the church choir.

Tona Brown
When I first started singing, I was singing church, and of course they had to figure out where to put different voices. And at that time, of course, being a kid I had not transitioned. So, I was identifying as male, but I had a very, very high soprano voice in singing and that was probably the first time I realized that gender was a part of the singing thing. This is really a big deal for other people.

Anita Rao
Getting all these complicated reactions to her voice, and also feeling like singers were a little pompous, pushed her away from choir and toward the violin. She became a skilled violinist, but in college, her friends convinced her that she had another amazing instrument she should train. Soon, singing became not only a vocation, but a way to connect back with herself.

Tona Brown
I went to sing for a vocal scientist at our school at Shenandoah Conservatory, and she actually was the first person to tell me that if I did not sing in my proper voice that will probably harm myself, because I was putting too much tension on my voice trying to sing as a tenor. And it just blew my mind, how could this be? What did this mean? And at that time, I was starting to transition anyway — just naturally — just all of a sudden, I was just feeling more open, and so my voice, literally, was the one thing that I could not deny.

Anita Rao
The vocal scientist recommended that Tona look into the long history of folks assigned male at birth, who had higher voices — in particular, the castrati.

Tona Brown
These were very talented young boys, who had soprano instruments, alto instruments, and they wanted to preserve their voices.

Anita Rao
The castrati, as made clear by the name, were young boys who were castrated before puberty to preserve their high singing voices — and the entity primarily doing the castrations was the church.

Tona Brown
So the Catholic Church, in particular, wanted to preserve the singers so that they could sing in church for sacred music, and the families would get a dowry or monies to do it. So it was the poorest of the poor, a lot of times, that were exploited in this way. And then the church would take over and take care of them, but what was weird was that they were ostracized as well in society. So all of these things I'm learning — but then I'm learning about their vocal range on top of it, sexuality, all kinds of things that are coming out from reading their diaries, so I'm going through that research and trying to figure out where do I land in all this?

Anita Rao
And where did you land in all of that? How did learning about them shape your process of coming into your own voice and thinking about your own relationship between voice and gender?

Tona Brown
I have to tell you, it was monumental, instrumental, transformative. For the first time, I didn't feel alone. I think when you are a soprano, who was born and assigned at birth as a male, it can be very disorienting.

Anita Rao
Even as Tona sunk into the history of the castrati and learned to embrace her voice, others struggled to do the same. Teachers still judged her for how different her voice sounded. Others told her she would never be able to land certain roles. Tona's transition threw some of those judgments and prejudices into sharp relief.

Tona Brown
By accident, it showed all the discrimination and ignorance that people have about the voice. The first off is, even after transitioning, and you know, living my life and doing whatever I was doing, there was an issue as to whether I was a dramatic soprano, or mezzo, or whatever.

And then you had the women who actually helped me — it was mostly women who actually helped me not to focus on those things and they would just say: The voice is the voice is the voice, Tona, don't listen to all of that. What feels comfortable to you? When you're dealing with that, even as a cisgender person, people don't know how to train dramatic voices well in this country, anyway. And so if you happen to be transgender or any any sort of rare, unique-sounding voice, and it's larger, you're going to have issues and that's what I was going through. It wasn't necessarily just because I was trans. It was because you have a very unique sound, range, timbre, all of that.

Anita Rao
So what in our anatomy affects those things like range and timbre that make each of our voices unique? What even is a voice?

Kevin Dorman
It is the result of the interaction of several different subcomponents. The most primary and important of which for most people is respiration, the lungs, because we use that air that the lungs pull in on an inhaled breath to produce our voice when we exhale.

Anita Rao
That's Kevin Dorman. They're a vocal coach and speech-language pathologist. And strap in, because they're going to give us a great science lesson.

Kevin Dorman
So as we exhale, the lungs deflate. They return to the resting position and that air travels up the neck. And that air travels into the next subcomponent, the larynx.

So a couple of muscles come together in the larynx, and as that air comes up, they're pushed apart, and then they are sucked back together by the force of that air moving through the mechanism. And they are pushed apart again and sucked back together and pushed apart and sucked back together in this sort of rolling, waving, oscillating motion. And those waves, those oscillations are what produces our voice's pitch.

Now, that's a solid sound signal traveling up from the larynx, and then as it moves into the environment, it travels through the nose and the mouth, the nasal cavity and the oral cavity — and based on the size and shape of those different cavities, different parts of that sound signal are highlighted, different parts are dampened — and this is what gives each voice its unique resonance, or timbre.

So if that resonating chamber is smaller, the voice tends to have a little bit of a brighter tone to it. And if the resonating chamber is larger, it tends to have a darker, warmer, richer sound to it. All of these were produced at roughly the same pitch, but because of the changes in my mouth, it sounds radically different.

Anita Rao
Oh my gosh, you're so natural with that, I love it. It's so helpful — and I think, I mean, as a choir, I was choir nerd — and, you know, you learn a lot about kind of engaging the diaphragm and how to channel the breath properly and how to shape your mouth — but to understand kind of that resonating cavity really helps you make sense of kind of why your voice is distinct, and also why your voice sounds weird to you when you hear it played back on a recording or a video. Tell us about that, and kind of that significance of the oral nasal cavities in producing that vocal sound.

Kevin Dorman
Absolutely, so as we talked about before, the voice is vibrations that are generated in the throat. Most of those vibrations travel up and into that oral cavity, but some of those vibrations traveled directly up the bones in the musculature of the face and directly into the inner ear — and so when we are producing our voice, the mix that we are fed internally is often very different than what other people hear. Oftentimes, it's warmer, it's richer, it has this sort of bassier quality to it — so when we hear our voices back, I feel like a lot of people feel that they sound somewhat nasal, somewhat nerdy, somewhat, you know, up in the face, just because those lower tones that they're used to are absent.

Anita Rao
Kevin uses this knowledge daily in the operation of their business, Prismatic Speech Services, where they work with trans clients on vocal training. The need for this type of work coalesced for Kevin when they were in a college speech-language pathology class.

Kevin Dorman
We were learning about the treatments and assessment of voice disorders, by which we mean like voices that are too tense, or too nasal, or too hoarse. Basically anything that negatively impacts the voice user's quality of life. And at that point, in the class, they did mention transgender vocal training, but it was one bullet point on a PowerPoint with 50 slides, right? It was a very small introduction to this world of transgender vocal training, but it was enough to get me hooked and sort of launch me into my own research.

Anita Rao
So walk me through this coaching process when someone comes to you and says: I don't feel like the sound of my voice aligns with who I am. Where do you go from there?

Kevin Dorman
The first thing that we have to ask is why are you feeling this way? What is sort of influencing your feelings here? What specifically about your voice are you uncomfortable with or do you want to explore changing? Because that answer is going to change depending on the person on the other side of the table. So we do our best to not make any judgments or assumptions about why they're here.

Ultimately, it's not about how I feel about that person's voice. It's how they feel. So this work involves a lot of conversations and exploring sort of the psychological side of, you know, what are your motivations to be here? How can we best support you? How do you best learn a new skill, and from there, we start experimenting.

A lot of this work is trying out different things in a sort of structured hierarchical system. That many speech language pathologists are familiar with trying out different pitches and resonances and seeing what sounds good and what feels good at a much simpler scale of voice production — just modifying vowel sounds.

For example, just to start with, once a client gets more comfortable and aware of these different systems that come together to produce their voice and how to modify them in this simpler context, we look at moving up the difficulty to single words, and then phrases, and then sentences, and then paragraphs, and then conversation at the end of all of that work as the most complex application of voicing.

So, and through all of this process, we are continually asking: How did that feel? How does that sound? Are there any adjustments that you're interested in making to this voice as we continue building up the muscle memory and the stamina and the strength to produce this, while actually carrying on a free flowing conversation — which is a very cognitively difficult task.

So, ultimately, we turn our clients into sort of their own clinicians, and give them the tools to like monitor themselves. And so they can self select how often they want to use these qualities that we're looking for. And the more that they can use their voice and consciously make sure that everything is coming out the way they want, the more often they can use those qualities throughout their day to day life. The more automatic and subconscious it's going to become.

I try to encourage my clients to get sort of an internal locus of control and realize that, you know, they're primarily transitioning for themselves. This is all about a process of self discovery, and so the more we can turn that lens inward and say: Alright, well, we've heard what other people think about your voice, what do you think about your voice? Like, let's put their feelings down for a second and delve into how you feel your voice represents you.

So we try and encourage people to put other people's assumptions and whatnot to the side as much as we can. But ultimately, we do live in a world where people need to be safe as they walk around and want to be able to go through public spaces without feeling like there's a spotlight on them — and so for some people, simply just getting that voice that reads as female, or as male, or androgynous is exactly what they want.

Anita Rao
Tona also works with people who are trans and gender non-conforming through her music school, Aida Studios. She uses some similar teaching tools, encouraging students to build vocal support systems by strengthening their diaphragms and abdominal muscles, and then practice, practice, practice. But, that's not all.

Tona Brown
A lot of things are psychological. If a person has some kind of notion in their mind that they could never hit this particular note, they're not going to hit it, that they have these negative thoughts — if they, you know, have tried something and they cracked before and it just traumatized him, or something like that — then it becomes a problem. So that's what we start first.

This is the time for transgender people to accept their voices, to learn to love our unique timbres because now you're having conductors and more outside composers who are starting to realize that our stories are important, and that we need roles that will support transgender identities of all sorts.

But now we have to train the voices to be able to sing these roles, and that is where I want to work with other people to build these programs to do.

Anita Rao
When you stop to think about all the voices you hear in a day, you can't forget about this one.

Siri (Voice Narration)
Hi, I'm Siri, choose the voice you'd like me to use.

Anita Rao
I've always assumed that Siri was female, but then I asked.

Hey Siri, what gender are you?

Siri (Voice Narration)

I am genderless like cacti, and certain species of fish.

Anita Rao
Are you a woman or a man?

Siri (Voice Narration)
I don't have a gender.

Anita Rao
Why don't you have a gender?

Siri (Voice Narration)
I don't know what that means. If you like, I can search the web for: Why don't you have a gender?

Anita Rao
I didn't have Siri Google that, but I went down my own research rabbit hole about how AI technology like Siri gets created, and why we gender Siri the way that we do — and that led me to artist Andrea Oliver Roberts.

Andrea Oliver Roberts
For Siri to exists rests on kind of hundreds of years of history of technological invention. Going back to the late 1700s, when the first vocal synthesis mechanical machine was built in Habsburg Empire by an inventor named Wolfgang Von Kempelen, and it was kind of like the rage of the court — and he had toured around and it was a reed and bellows machine — and I think he managed to get it to say 'Mama' and 'Papa' and a few other words like that.

Anita Rao
A vocal synthesis machine that can say 'Mama' and 'Papa' may not seem that impressive today, but it laid the groundwork for a more significant machine. The voice operating demonstrator or Voder.

Clip: Unknown Man Speaking
The machine uses only two sounds, produced electrically. One of these represents the breath. The other the vibration of the vocal cords. There are no phonograph records, or anything of that sort. Only electrical circuits, such as are used in telephone practice. Let's see how you put expression into a sentence. Say: 'she saw me' with no expression.

Voder
She saw me.

Unknown Man
Now say in answer to these questions: Who saw you?

Voder
She saw me.

Andrea Oliver Roberts
That was in 1939, and it premiered at the World's Fair, and it was a woman who ran it and it was a heavily complicated machine with all these levers and you had to go through intense training to be able to understand how to simulate the voice — and a lot of people were quite afraid of it. At first, it was seen as kind of, at the time, you can look at it in the realm of emerging science fiction.

Anita Rao
What came next for the Voder may sound familiar if you listen to our episodes on lingerie and make up — the influence of warfare.

Andrea Oliver Roberts
It was a part of the technology behind the SIGSALY technology that was used to encrypt voices during World War Two. The first really successful voice encryption that was used for telecommunications and they would cut up the voice and add noise to it. They made these special records to add noise to the voice and then reassemble it on the other side of the ocean.

Anita Rao
The next leaps and voice tech development fell in the realm of music. Artists like Kanye West and Cher experimented with voice manipulation, and a trans musician named Wendy Carlos played a role in creating the second generation of vocoders. All of that technology paired with emerging AI development to give rise to the Siris and Alexas of today — as modern designers tweaked the technology, the voice became less robotic and more human, and in particular, female.

Andrea Oliver Roberts
When designers are thinking about what people will accept in their homes, there's this idea of neutrality and that person is coded as neutral, but the home is also coded as like a female sphere — and, like people were afraid of the Voder at first because it had this robotic voice.

Scientists had a number of years to kind of figure out, well, what do people accept? There's been lots of research done around what people accept like, a voice with not a lot accent to it, an English speaking voice — unless it's a British accent, then people assume that that is somehow a person with more authority with an English accent people. Coders were coding intentionally with a non-accented English voice that was coded as female to have people feel more at ease with this presence in their home because it is in effect when Alexa and Echo, and now Google Home, and all the emerging home devices, came about. They're surveillance devices that we've said: Sure, come on in. It sounds a lot more, more innocuous, less threatening to have this kind of Mom, the warm — we have all these associations with a voice like that, or that's what coders are assuming that we do have.

Anita Rao
So we've talked about kind of these voices in this range that are coded to be more female, there's also this span of voices that are perceived to be a little bit more neutral — those voices appear in particular places. So tell me about that kind of, so called, neutral zone, and what kind of voices and characters are represented in that range?

Andrea Oliver Roberts
Yeah, it's interesting. If you look at a lot of speech pathologists, or scientists, or audio technicians, will identify a male range up to a certain hertz, and then a female range starting 10 hertz after that. So it's not like there's this crossover, which there naturally is with all people of all genders, to kind of exist along that continuum. And instead, there's like hard cut off lines that a lot of people who haven't, you know, really given us much consideration have put down.

So it's interesting to me that like this is a place where no one exists, and especially as a non-binary person, who has an ability to kind of move around on the range, that even within the science, it's considered that place where no one exists.

And I was made aware recently that I didn't ever hear of this genderless voice assistant named Q, who was apparently marketed for this exact reason and it never took off. And I think that has a lot to do with the assumptions that we have been trained, and in a society that does have a lot of still persistent transphobia of how we consider a voice that is either genderless or doesn't match up with what our judgments of the gender, we perceive them to be as coming from horror films — from a lot of cultural production that portrays a genderless or a gender, I guess, you could say mismatched voice in a negative way.

Anita Rao
There are clearly lots of lessons still to learn about the artificial voice, and how we relate to it. For Andrea, some of those lessons can be explored through art.

Andrea Oliver Roberts
I guess I've played a lot with the assumptions that we make about a speaker and how, maybe when things are harder to read — like I use language and sound both interchangeably — like the spoken word and the written word a lot, that don't have bodies presenting them in a sculptural environment.

So a lot of times, if it's challenging or difficult to read something, or to hear something, we have to spend more time questioning who we think the speaker is or where they're coming from, or what is the meaning that's being made.

Anita Rao
Getting comfortable with your own voice can be a journey, but I want to leave you with one last story that shows how so often it's a worthwhile one.

Kelly Baker
I'm Kelly Baker from Marianna, Florida, and I've always had a complicated relationship with my voice.

It started really in high school, when I had this teacher once tell me that my voice was too soft, it was too girly, and that I needed to change it to be taken seriously. Later, I tried to lose the southern accent when I was in college, and later in graduate school because I thought it didn't match with the identity that I was trying so desperately to fit into as a scholar, as someone who had it together.

And once I got rid of my southern accent, then I sounded like a valley girl, and folks still assumed that I was not smart and that I maybe didn't belong there. I didn't like how my voice sounded, and I was afraid that this was always going to be the case — and this pretty much lasted until I was in my 30s.

Till I finally came to terms with the fact that this is just how I sounded and it didn't mean I wasn't smart or capable or any of these sorts of things. It was just who I was, and I should be okay with that — and I'm really glad that now I'm okay with it. I'm a little sad it took so much time.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station.

If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Audrey Smith and Kaia Findlay. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup, weaverstreetmarket.coop.

And if you enjoyed the show, share about us on social media and tag us. It helps new folks find our show and it means so much.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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