As World Voice Day approaches on April 16, I’ve been reflecting on voice as “who we are,” “identity,” “gender,” “emotion” and “vocation.”
As speech-language pathologists, we spend hours helping people find their voices. This could be with use of augmentative and and alternative communication (AAC), increased fluency, or behavioral voice rehabilitation. For this article, I want to focus on voice as a whole, especially as an SLP who specializes in treating voice and upper airway disorders.
We all, in some way or another, feel our voice reflects our identity. If you ever experienced a voice disorder, or even lost your voice due to illness for a few days, you understand how most of us take our vocal folds for granted. Vocal folds are not the only way we create a voice. Many AAC devices now offer different qualities and pitches the user can customize to create a voice that better matches their identity.
Many clients become upset and almost lost when they lose the ability to use their voices like they used to. They identify with a certain type of sound and often bring in audio recordings—which helps me immensely—of the voice they feel truly represents their identity.
Ingo Titze—a professor of speech science and voice—talks about the epilarynx, or the vocal tract, being a shape that is specific to you. This shape, in combination with the specific length and thickness of your vocal cords, makes you sound unique. This shape can also make your voice sound similar to your family members.
Our brains help us simplify our world by characterizing communication partners soon after they begin to speak. We listen, and soon identify characteristics we think the other person might possess—such as gender or age—based on how they sound. This presents a challenge for people whose voices don’t match their identity. This issue goes beyond people not identifying with the gender assigned at birth—perhaps a person’s voice changed over the course of life and no longer matches their original sound.
Voices can unearth strong emotions in us. Singers can bring us out of a funk or help us vent anger. Voices can soothe our weary state, or annoy and irritate us. The way we say something dictates our intent or meaning. A person can say the same sentence in multiple different voices and communicate various moods. We also use our voices to elicit emotion from others. We use a harsh tone of voice when we are upset and want others to feel our frustration. We use a slow and quiet tone of voice to calm others or get our way.
Do voices go hand in hand with our jobs? Do we wish to be a news reporter because we have good control over our vocal output? Do we yearn to be defense attorneys or politicians because we inherently speak with intent when we feel conviction? Do friends suggest we might be good at something because our voices sound a certain way? Does a radio announcer get pigeon-holed into a career because of their resonant voice, or are singers thrust into a career filled with unrealistic expectations because they can carry a tune?
Our voices reflect who we are, who we want to be, and sometimes who we wish we weren’t. We can convey our identity and create emotion with our voices. Perhaps our voices even cause certain vocations to be chosen, predicted, or fulfilled.
If we look in the mirror, we ponder if our voice is a choice we have, or if it was chosen for us to make into our own. As a singer and SLP treating people’s voices, I ponder these questions for myself and my clients.
Please share your insights on how our voices represent our identities in the comment section below.
Kristie Knickerbocker, MS, CCC-SLP, runs a private practice, a tempo Voice Center, in Fort Worth, Texas. She specializes in voice and swallowing disorders, and rehabilitates singing voice. She also lectures on voice science nationally. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Upper Airway Disorders, and a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and THE Pan-American Vocology Association. Knickerbocker blogs on her website at www.atempovoicecenter.com. Follow her on Pinterest, on Twitter and Instagram, or like her on Facebook.