Changing Your Voice Part 6 – Cross-Gender Vocal Techniques

This is the sixth article in my series introducing ways you can develop and change the sound of your singing voice to get the sound you want, whatever style, setting or aim you have in mind. These articles are not intended as a replacement for singing lessons – on the contrary, I hope the techniques described here might inspire aspiring vocalists to build the confidence and enthusiasm to take vocal study as far as it will go. For this article I’m going to look at what for some is the ultimate in changing the sound of your voice; changing it to that of the opposite gender. How to sing like a girl (if you’re male) or like a guy (if you’re female).

There are various reasons why you might want to do this. The most obvious is theatrical impersonation – drag performance, pantomime roles and so forth, or as a way to build confidence and identity for those at whatever point on the transgender spectrum. Perhaps you wish to make a demo recording of song you’ve written for a voice of the opposite gender, or to create a range of ‘gendered’ voices to record in layered harmonies. Or the intention could be not to actually pass as the other gender so much as to adopt mannerisms and techniques inspired by other singers to give your own voice a unique edge.

Pitch and Resonance

The notes you can pitch is the first thing people think of when comparing male and female voices, but the actual difference isn’t quite as large as people think. Classical vocal ranges aside, I have worked with several women able to comfortably sing an octave below middle C, while a trained male falsetto range can get close to a mezzo-soprano range (Jimmy Somerville has made a trademark out of hitting high Cs). In general, the average difference in pitched notes between male and female voices is only about a 4th.

The difference is more noticeable in terms of resonance. On average female vocal tracts are smaller than males resulting in a higher fundamental frequency, though apart from size the basic anatomy remains similar (for instance, contrary to popular belief both men and women have Adam’s apples – they’re just (usually) more visible in men). This means that a male voice tends to have lower frequencies built in to the overall sound regardless of the actual note being pitched, while a female voice is generally brighter in the higher frequency range.

One option for male singers wishing to imitate a female voice is to work mostly in a low falsetto (thereby removing all those deep frequencies altogether) and using nasal twang (see my previous article here) to add brightness, shifting the voice from that of an altar boy to something more powerful. The result can be a bit panto dame though and will lack both subtlety and lower range (that said, if you happen to be reading this in preparation to play a panto dame then this may not be so much of a problem). What would be more useful would be to adjust resonance across your range, so males wishing to imitate females can eliminate lower ‘chest’ frequencies (so named due to where you feel the vibrations) and females wishing to emulate a males can put greater emphasis upon them.

With practice it is possible to adjust the fundamental frequency by ’tilting’ the larynx, effectively lengthening or shortening the vocal tract to bring in higher or lower frequencies. To do this properly you need to have good basic technique vocalising deep from the diaphragm (see here if you’re still breathing from the chest). You need to give your chest space to resonate, so do this exercise with your arms open by your sides and aim to sing through the mouth with little nasal twang (pinch your nose to see how much air, if any, is coming out nasally).

Imagine a paddle sitting on a pivot inside your neck so that it can tilt forwards and backwards on a vertical axis – this is not an accurate representation the anatomy actually in there, but it helps to conceptualise what follows. Sing and hold ‘la’ on a comfortable, neutral note somewhere around middle C, preferably one you can access in both head and chest voice. As you sustain the note, imagine the paddle tilting forwards, shifting the resonance up into your head and removing the lower ‘chest’ frequencies. Then imagine tilting the paddle backwards until it is sitting completely vertically, dropping the sound down into your deeper chest frequencies while keeping the pitched note the same. With practice you can shift the sound smoothly between the two extremes to get the tonal mix you want, combining with nasal twang, belt and throat distortion to shape the sound further.

Finally, use this voice to sing a verse of “Happy Birthday To You” to yourself. If you are singing as a named character, use the character’s name when you get to “Happy birthday dear ____”, or choose a men’s or women’s name depending on which you are aiming to sound like.

Between Mars and Venus

Resonance is still only part of the story though – in the tutorial files on their website, the Ohio-based National Centre for Voice and Speech (NCVS) provides the following equation:

Voice Quality = vocal tract configuration + laryngeal anatomy + learned component

( http://www.ncvs.org/ncvs/tutorials/voiceprod/tutorial/quality.html (my emphasis) )

That learned component includes a great deal of social conditioning – how girls, boys, women and men are expected to speak and conduct themselves in their respective cultures (and the level to which they actually conform), regional accents, language and dialects, how you carry yourself physically and much more affects how the various muscles affecting the voice are used and physically develop. Being aware of all this is a vital if you want to accurately imitate other gender voices, but beware of crass stereotypes and misogynistic assumptions here.  As with any character preparation, depth, respect and empathy is the key – as I mentioned in connection with accents, even if your aim is to parody or satirise cheap laughs are a poor excuse for laziness.

In the 2004 movie Stage Beauty, Billy Crudup portrays Ned Kynaston, a 17th century actor famed for playing Shakespearean women who is forced to adapt as women are allowed to enter the theatre, rendering his specialism obsolete. Clare Danes plays Maria, his former dresser who steps into his favourite part as Desdemona in Othello, while Ned himself is forced to act masculine in the title role, contrary to the flowery, flouncing acting style he had been trained in to act female parts. As the two rehearse the climactic scene in which Desdemona is murdered, Maria has this to say;

“Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman’s form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully*. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight!”

*this is in reference to an earlier scene in which Kynaston rather creepily declares that “women do everything beautifully, especially when they die”.

I mentioned earlier that the difference in pitch and vocal anatomy between the sexes is not as great as people think; if you set out to realistically emulate the voice of the opposite gender the surest way to fail is to overcompensate on voice and ignore personality, creating a fake, unrecognisable caricature that will neither fool nor impress anybody.

Examples

First up, New York drag queen Joey Arias performing the jazz standard “Why Don’t You Do Right”. Arias imitates the vocal stylings of female jazz singers with remarkable accuracy.

For his off-broadway musical and 2001 film Hedwig And The Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell created the complex character of an East German transexual punk rock singer left floundering for identity following a series of misfortunes including a badly botched sex change operation and the theft of her songs by a former lover.  The songs were recorded live for the performance scenes and the vocal characterisations are top notch.

Finally, to demonstrate that gender swapping isn’t just for male to female performers, here’s London based drag king Adam All crooning in style.

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