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Mercy gives voice, literally, to transgender individuals

By Kris DiLorenzo
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Yonkers resident Angelique Piwinski

 

Mercy College has introduced a five-week program for transgender individuals who want to change their vocal and speech characteristics. The college’s Speech and Hearing Center is offering the one-hour weekly class under the direction of Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz, assistant professor of communication disorders. The program began on July 5 and continues through Aug. 2.

A half-dozen participants signed up, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, all of whom are transitioning or have fully transitioned from male to female.

Berkowitz explained the purpose of the class: “It focuses on voice disorders; transgender people often find they want their voices to match more closely the presentation they’re trying to give. They can hurt themselves if they’re using the voice incorrectly or getting bad advice. This is an underserved population that needs the care of speech-language pathologists with an interest in voice.”

The program is modeled after one developed by Jack Pickering, a professor of communication disorders at the College of St. Rose in Albany, and was proposed last December by Mercy College alumnae Ann Marie Rosa and Amanda Guarracina-Paolercio. Rosa, who has a graduate degree in communication disorders from Hofstra University, is the supervising speech pathologist at Green Chimneys, a Brewster-based nonprofit providing residential, educational, clinical, and recreational services for special-needs youth. Guarracina-Paolercio is a speech pathologist there, and holds a graduate degree in communication disorders from Mercy.

Along with Rosa and Guarracina-Paolercio, three Mercy graduate students who are in American Speech–Language–Hearing Association training teach the classes: Nicole Carpentieri, Jeanette Torres, and Peri Stopera.

The six participants have various aspects of their voices, such as pitch and volume, clinically measured in a lab. “We record the voice and measure whether it’s smooth, letting out a little or lot of air, whether the vocal folds are vibrating well,” Berkowitz said. “There is a mask for measuring air flow, and other equipment straps onto the neck to see how the vocal folds are moving.” After the individual speaks into a microphone, computer software calculates the measurements and provides a report.

The instruction is specific as to the differences between male and female voices, beginning with the fact that, generally, women’s voices have a higher pitch. Pitch is based on the size of the larynx and its length from there to the lips. “Those things are not easily changed,” Berkowitz stated. “Pitch is one of our biggest cues as to gender, though it is not the only cue. We work on altering pitch, but also on changing intonation.” Women use more changes in intonation, sometimes more breathiness, as Marilyn Monroe did, and often more nasality, which is more accepted in a female than a male voice.

“There are a lot of different angles we can use,” Berkowitz said, enumerating them: body language, arm movements, posture in a chair, and communication without sound. The instructors also work on vocabulary and language patterns. According to Berkowitz, “Women are more likely to pronounce vowels clearly. Men sometimes are not as precise. By making vowels more precise, a person can sound more female.”

Angelique Piwinski, a retired advertising executive and longtime Yonkers resident, is an enthusiastic member of the class, and at 61, the oldest. “I always wanted to do the speech thing,” Piwinski noted, “but I never knew where.” A Facebook friend sent her the notification from Mercy.

In the first class, Piwinski said, “They talked about how you express yourself — the difference between male and female. The voice is critical. Many of us don’t have a feminine-sounding voice.” She joked that she didn’t want to sound like Howard Stern. “I want my voice to sound more female, to match the rest of me. The only way I’m able to do it right now is to lower my voice in conversation, and then people think I’m a chain smoker or just have a deeper voice. The real test is the telephone.”

Piwinski, who has two adult children, 24 and 26, also has learned that women gesture mostly from the elbow down, while a man might use his whole arm. As for voice production, it is not just anatomy that determines sound, but also the use of the breath. Homework for the first class included breathing exercises as one of the tools to change the voice.

Piwinski will have ample opportunity to put the program to public-speaking use. She is involved in civic activities as a member of the Yonkers Landmarks Preservation Board and the LGBTQ Advisory Board for Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, and serves as president of the board of directors of the Friends of Philipse Manor Hall. She also is a member of the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Getty Square. Piwinski is pleased about the interchange with the five instructors. “We are teaching them a lot, and they’re teaching us a lot,” she said.


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JULY 22, 2016

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