The Sound of My Voice

A few days ago, as I checked most of my self-assigned coronavirus projects off my list I took advantage of a free offer to watch a documentary for which I’d neglected making time to see in the theaters last year. As much as I knew I needed to see it and wanted to see it, I also thought it would be a difficult 95 minutes of viewing. I can’t remember any other film that I ever had the same hesitation. Watching it at home seemed a better plan since I could pause the show whenever I wanted.

So, I clicked the link and turned on Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Hers is a story I know well. I grew up listening to her music. I’ve seen her in concert. I learned much from her about how to use your voice as an instrument – more than any other artist I’ve followed. I know of no other vocalist who can accomplish what she has in her career; and frankly, even if she weren’t such a success her talent shines far above anyone I’ve ever heard.

Over the years I watched her get stronger. Her musical arrangements were genius and she owned every song she ever touched. She partnered with the most consummate talents in all genres because she understood the importance of working with the best to be your best. She has forever been and will always be my favorite singer. The day it was announced that she was retiring from performing due to Parkinson’s Disease was painful for many of her fans.

I was one of those fans. But it was more than that. Over the years I’ve had a couple of vocal coaches and I learned some technical aspects of singing from them; but it was in using the recordings of Ronstadt that I was able to strengthen my voice and broaden my range. It was listening to her share her philosophy of being an artist in interviews that I learned how to make my voice an instrument where before I was just hitting the notes.

One of the concerns with me transitioning from female to male was my voice. In order to stop people from misgendering me it was important that I sound male. There are a number of ways to work towards this for trans people and I’ve shared the physical transition of my voice in previous posts. I’ve also written about the loss of singing capability I’ve experienced as a result of thyroplasty and testosterone. It has been the most difficult part of the transition for me.

You may be thinking right now, “sure…no one likes being misgendered.” This was so much more than that. Anyone who was around when I was a kid and visited our home on the rare weekend when Dad had a day off, the people who joined us around the many campfires on our summer weekend camping trips, or attended the family gatherings when my Uncle Roger would be right there with guitar in hand and my Grandpa Ken would tap into his inner country singer self to join my father song after song after song knows that this was the one part of my childhood that made sense to me – the only thing that never brought any form of dysphoria or made me feel less than. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a boy.

My father turned 80 years old last November. You may be surprised to know that he still plays his guitar and harmonica and sings in public for others to enjoy, as well as for his own enjoyment. Watching him play with his brother was a treat we could never get enough of, nor will his place in the family singing circle ever be filled. But as one of six kids – this was my connection to my dad.

I started playing guitar in 1974. Dad taught himself to play and that was my plan as well. I played other instruments over the years: fiddle, clarinet, and an ever so brief attempt on the harmonica. I was part of the percussion line in marching band. But the guitar was the thing because I could accompany myself while I learned song lyrics. The idea of putting my voice in any kind of risk – even to physically transition, was not an easy decision.

I have hinted at the fact that the combination of the thyroplasty surgery and testosterone have lessened my vocal capabilities. I have an incredible surgeon at the Washington University Voice and Airway Center and when I asked him to select a vocal therapist that could work me and my voice back to some usability, they found me a talented therapist that created a program tailored to my needs. I can’t sing their praises enough for what they have done.

For a long time I couldn’t sing anything. Months after the surgery, there were complications with the muscles around the vocal cords. When they gave me the go ahead to try to sing it was painfully disastrous. You would not have wanted to hear it! I had measured my range pre-surgery at a strong 4 ½ octaves. Thanks, Linda Ronstadt! More than six months later I had no discernable singing ability. I tried singing while I was driving – you know, so no one was around to hear. I could not hit a single note without sliding into it and then I could not sustain the note. All of the nuances that I had spent years developing were gone.

Don’t get me wrong – I never had any aspirations of being a professional singer. I did the karaoke host thing for a few years and would occasionally join others on stage for a song or two throughout my adult years; but I was never striving for a career. Tips were good and covered my bar tab when people weren’t buying me drinks but making a living at it was not anything I wanted.

I was just singing and playing until the next opportunity to play with my dad. Years ago, the family moved to Oklahoma so Dad could take a job. I’ve only managed to make it down to visit a handful of times. When I do, my guitar comes with me and we play. I have not seen anyone in my family since my transition. And a few months ago, I explained that I don’t have a voice like I used to. I knew it would be different, but I was not prepared for the loss.  

I’ve explained to a couple people how important recovering the use of my vocal cords is. Here’s the thing…in all the years that I’ve played alongside my dad or he has joined me in a song, it has felt like it’s been for me. Now things are different. Dad has been incredible throughout my transition. Growing up he has never asked anything of me. He told me a couple of months ago that he wants to record a duet with the two of us. This is his one request of me in 56 years. Now it’s personal.

My furlough during the coronavirus has given me the chance to triple down on my vocal exercises. I’ll likely never sing much Ronstadt going forward or Natalie Maines (the stylist I’d emulated when new Ronstadt music was no longer an option to keep my flexibility in tact), but at approximately 50-60% capability on a good day I can now eke out a the range of an 80 year old Kris Kristofferson. Hey, it’s a start. The work continues. There’s improvement that I can hear every day and I thank the knowledgeable medical team at Wash U for making that possible.

As painful as the Ronstadt documentary is to watch for her fans, it is everything ever expected from her music. It is 100% her and it is a reminder that no matter what you work with the cards you’re dealt. Spoiler alert: there is a scene towards the end of the film from 2019. Linda is sitting with two family members – a nephew and a cousin. They are singing a family favorite. After hearing that she could no longer sing, imagine the shock to hear notes coming from her. They were weak and she seemed slightly embarrassed that she struggled. But she sang. To hear the wavering notes gave me goosebumps and made me sick to my stomach at the same time. But she sang. And you could hear hints of her in the mix.

When reminded that she’d told the world she couldn’t sing she emphatically said, “That’s not singing. But I couldn’t let them do it without me.”

I’ve been asked why I haven’t been around much to support community events over recent weeks/months. That’s pretty much where things stand right now.  I am dropping current and future support of all local orgs for the time being because this project will not happen tomorrow. I have much work ahead and an intense recovery process. My apologies to the people at stoplights. You’re just going to have to sing along or roll up your windows.

To Linda Ronstadt and Natalie Maines, you will likely never read this, but there aren’t enough words to say thanks. With their own fathers’ influences in their music, something tells me they would understand.

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