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Interview with Speech Language Pathologist Aaron Ziegler

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Hello Choirclusive family! We’ve got a special treat for you. Dom, our resident vocal officer, interviewed speech language pathologist Aaron Ziegler, PhD, CC-SLP (of Portland’s The Wellness Group for Voice, Speech, and Swallowing) last Friday. He’s one of the ONLY people in the field doing cutting edge research and outreach on trans voice issues, and over the next five posts, we are going to tell you what he had to say regarding gender diverse voices in choral contexts! For more information about The Wellness Group and all they are doing, check out their website and subscribe to their newsletter, Vocal Notes.

Vocalization is socialized! One of the biggest things that Dom and Dr. Ziegler talked about is how technique and vocal registration are learned in a social context. There is no default way to use your instrument, the vocal tract, and this gives speech language pathologists some important flexibility! You CAN relearn how to use your voice! Humans have access to around 4 octaves, and certain frequencies aren’t just for one gender or another. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t sing as low or high as you’d like. With the right care from qualified voice professionals, you can learn a sustainable new voice that’s right for you. 

Synergy Between Vocal Health Professionals, Voice Teachers and Choir Conductors. Hello voice teachers and conductors! One of the BEST things you can do if you want to support your trans and non-binary singers is to work with speech language pathologists and laryngologists (doctors of the voice). Navigating a changing voice can be tricky, especially when you’re singing in a choir pretty often. With better communication between vocal health professionals, voice teachers, and conductors, we can get the best voice outcomes by figuring out which techniques a singer should be working on, what range they might be singing in, what to expect from a changing voice, etc. Music and science can and should coexist, and an interdisciplinary approach to gender diversity in voice is the path toward desirable vocal outcomes. 

Fundamental Frequency - What It Is, and Why It Isn’t Everything. In research on trans voices, people pay a lot of attention to fundamental frequency, which is the average frequency at which someone speaks. But the thing is, a lot of cis men have high voices and a lot of cis women have low voices. For trans voices, it’s easy to see why someone might want their fundamental frequency to go up or down, higher or lower, but while fundamental frequency can be important for gendering a voice, it really is not the only thing. Dr. Ziegler preferred to think about the pitch of someone's voice, as a psychoacoustic phenomenon, a word that more accurately identifies our perception of a voice. It takes into account frequency as well as the different resonance techniques that make our voices unique to us. Changing pitch is about remapping the way we feel and use the vocal tract, and speech language pathologists spend a lot of time figuring out resonance techniques AND frequency ranges that make for each patient's most gender-affirmed voice!

We have got to write for all voices! ATTENTION COMPOSERS! One way to make choir more inclusive of gender diversity is to start writing for it!! Every singer deserves music that fits their voice and their story. Every voice is different, and for trans and non-binary singers, hormones and voice relearning might be a unique part of their singing experience. Composers, work with trans and non-binary singers to create music that tells those stories and fits those unique voices. Why stick to the same voicing that’s been around for hundreds of years in Western classical music when we could start writing exciting and subversive new material that works for all voices?!

Finding YOUR Voice. When it comes down to it, voice is identity, and changing your identity is hard. Relearning a voice takes time and effort, and it can be challenging learning to hear and produce voice differently! Letting out your most affirmed inner voice is possible, though, and there are vocal health professionals that want to help and know how to do it. Thank you so much for this enlightening series, Dr. Ziegler!

by Dominic Moog

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