Finding Our Own Voices: Renée Yoxon and Gender-Affirming Vocal Therapy
The voice; an extremely powerful yet everyday tool many of us use without thought. But within the voice there is power, expression, strength, and diversity. I was extremely excited to do this interview because as a nonbinary disabled person who likes to sing, conversations around the voice and vocal training are ever-present in my life. Historically, trans people and disabled people have had vocal training to change the way their voices sound; sometimes by choice and sometimes by way of strong culture pressure of what a gender and the voice of a person whose gender that is “should” sound like. Trans people have been told they must sound more “feminine” or “masculine” in order to fit society’s conception of their gender, and disabled people have had their stutters and wobbles in their voice corrected all in the pursuit of sounding more “normal.” Knowing the potential negative histories of vocal training, I was thrilled to sit down with a teacher who approaches the voice completely differently; not in the pursuit of “normal” or with an attitude of “fixing” but rather in the pursuit of uplifting self-expression and showing people the power of the tools their body has to express themselves.
I sat down with vocal coach Renée Yoxon to talk about voice, gender, and gender-affirming vocal therapy. Renée is a powerhouse creator and educator clearing the path for trans and disabled folks around the world. Their talent combined with their intense passion for others makes them a stellar educator. They’re a queer, non-binary, disabled voice teacher and musician who’s been taking the internet by storm by working to bring accessible gender-affirming vocal therapy to all.
What is gender-affirming vocal care?
Renée says: "Some people call it Trans Voice Lessons. Other people call it Gender Affirming Vocal Therapy or Voice lessons. Voice Feminization or Voice Masculinization. In essence, it’s about teaching people how to modify their currently habituated voice to better reflect their inter-sense of gender and to give them gender euphoria. And also to help them be perceived the way they want to be perceived in this binary world. This work is about noticing what we already use in terms of our instrument [the voice] and how to use those tools to create a voice that makes us happy. "
However, vocal therapy doesn’t have to be about feminization or masculinization. What can vocal therapy look like for nonbinary people?
Renée: "People ask me all the time…‘how do I neutralize my voice? How do I make a nonbinary voice?’ No one person can tell you ‘do this to have a nonbinary voice’, if anyone tells you that’s fake. It depends on where you start (vocally) and what you want. What are you being perceived as currently and how do you move away from that but not so far in the direction of the other way that you get perceived as something in the middle. Not that there is a two-party [gender] system here but it’s about how you are being perceived.”
Just like gender, the voice is not a simple binary of high to low pitch. There are a lot of components that go into how our voice sounds and how one might go about changing that.
Renée: “You are not limited on this particular binary of high/low. People tend to approach it that way, but the voice is about the least binary thing there is. There’s so many qualities to the voice. Pitch is one of the qualities I tend to focus on. But resonance is way more important. Like how bright or how dark a voice is. [Additionally, I focus on] vocal fold mass.”
Yoxon talked with me about how the actual physiology of the voice resists societal conceptions of gender. People often insist there is such thing as a male or female voice but looking at the anatomy of the voice itself challenges that.
Renée: “A lot people think the voice is extremely gendered as a physiological structure and its not. Queer the larynx. It is not gendered. I don’t use gendered terms because it doesn’t make sense. Voices are all equal and those that are exposed to testosterone go through certain changes…”
So, what does an initial lesson for gender vocal therapy look like?
Renée: “[It] depends on where you are starting from. A lot of people come in with having done their own research online. [As a teacher it is extremely important that you] let a person tell you what they’re hearing and approach that from a non-judgmental way. If you’ve NEVER taken voice lessons before you can expect to be surprised by what you feel and hear from your own voice. A good teacher can show you if you make this shape you’ll hear this, et cetera. A big part of the beginning of this work is developing proprioception: body awareness. You need to be able to identify what’s happening in your body. And a lot of trans people are explicitly disconnected from their body. If you’re starting out with extreme body dysphoria or voice dysphoria, tell your teacher! And they will help mitigate those things. For example, they won’t tell you to go stand in front of a mirror and practice… What matters more is consistency more than how hard you work on a particular day.”
How does one get into teaching gender-affirming vocal therapy? Yoxon started their musical career with a degree in Jazz performance as a vocalist making three jazz albums between 2010 and 2015. After that, they took a break from jazz and started to teach more trans and disabled people. Through those teaching experiences, and an arts practice course in Ireland, Yoxon made an intentional shift in their music.
Renée: “I gave myself the time to just sit down and said ‘Okay what do I really want to say if I want to say something as an artist?’ I had this album, my thesis, called The Bad Years, which I’ve never published but I will. It was all about processing the first 5 years of my chronic illness through the lens of grief.”
After that work, Yoxon began moving back to the direction of teaching, creating “The Right to Sing” award, a scholarship program designed give free lessons to disabled and trans people. For two years, they had two cohorts with ten people who get access to two free lessons. They were able to fundraise around $2000 for one month.
Renée: “The reason I got into this work is because of the Right To Sing Award. I had been doing voice teaching of singing for a while and had been slowly pivoting towards only teaching trans and disabled folks. Because I wanted that for clientele I started the Right To Sing award so they could afford to take my lessons.”
Currently, Yoxon is having great success on TikTok spreading vocal knowledge to the world sixty seconds at a time as well as working on their own e-course. They have been so overwhelmed with support and students seeking lessons, that they decided to take the time to create content that's accessible to more people.
Renée: “This Trans Vocal Exploration Course is mostly gonna be about learning what’s already inside of you. There are definitely different exercises for femininizing and masculinizing. But what I want people to take away is that this is something you already possess. I’m not giving it to you! I am going to film it all, make it into a package that is less expensive than private lessons with me and more available forever.”
As a queer, nonbinary, disabled educator and musician, Yoxon has a lot of unique experiences that have formed their career. Structural ableism made it quite difficult for them to succeed as a musician.
Renée: “The way the music industry is set up, there’s a big barrier of entry to the music industry to disabled people... The physical toll it took to perform was such a high cost. That’s when I started pivoting to teaching. By the end of my music degree (2018), I had decided I wasn’t gonna perform anymore unless it was a big to-do.”
Conversely, having the experience of being a multiply marginalized individual has made them uniquely good at teaching and creating music.
Renée: “[Being disabled, queer, and non-binary] makes me more empathetic. A more creative story-teller…Because I’m sorta tuned in to the desires and needs and difficulties of others I can write songs that aren’t 100% navel-gazing because I actually care on a daily basis. I feel very grateful for being, disabled, queer, and nonbinary when it comes to teaching. Because that is what makes me an excellent teacher…I’m a good teacher because I really want people to succeed. And I’m willing to be like “Okay, what is going to work for this person”. Like problem solving. Thinking about what they can do mechanically, “Okay they can’t do x, y, z. Well we’ll just think of it doing it this way.” Or, “this might make them feel this way so let’s try that.” That is the creative problem solving I absolutely get off on. It’s so awesome to be able to make someone learn something more easily, especially when everyone else has written them off.”
Gender-Affirming Vocal Therapy can be a radical tool to help create the gendered vocal experience of your choice. In many ways, it is a uniquely private component of transitioning that can be practiced alone.
Renée: “This is my favorite part about this particular aspect of transition. People suddenly realize they have a little iota of control. There’s not gatekeeper. There’s no paperwork. People can literally stay where they are and do [vocal practice]. It’s the most accessible form of transition, in my opinion.”
As we finished our conversation, Yoxon explained their thought process for teaching:
Renée: “I want people to feel empowered to explore the capacity of their voice. But I don’t want people to approach like their voice is a problem that needs fixing. They could do all this work with their voice and then decide that they like their voice the way it is and that would be okay!”
If you'd like to hear more from Renée, you can check them out on:
- Tik Tok: https://www.tiktok.com/@reneeyoxon
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/reneeyoxon
- Their website: https://www.reneeyoxon.com/
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/reneeyoxon
Additionally, they suggest these resources as great educational tools on Gender-Affirming Vocal Therapy:
- The Voice Book for Trans and Non-Binary People: A Practical Guide to Creating and Sustaining Authentic Voice and Communication by Gillie Stoneham and Matthew Mills
- One Weird Trick: A User's Guide to Transgender Voice by Liz Jackson Hearns
- Anatomy of the Voice: An Illustrated Guide for Singers, Vocal Coaches, and Speech Therapists by Dimon Jr. Theodore
- The work of Zheanna Erose: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBYlEnfAUbrYSwF0VujcmHA