Monday, November 12

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, November 12, 2012 10 comments
During the spring of sixth grade, something very strange happened to me. Whenever I opened my mouth to speak, the sound that came out could be breathy and girlish, hoarse, or squeakily soaring between registers.

This was not supposed to happen to girls.
photo from

Voice change was, as far as I knew, a boy thing. One day the kid telling you to stop hogging the swings would sound like your sister, then he'd sound like someone had replaced his larynx with a slide whistle, and a few weeks later, he'd sound like your dad.

It's no picnic to be the girl having this kind of boy thing happening to you. Especially if you got one of the leads in the sixth grade musical.

For a while, I managed to keep my affliction secret by telling everyone I had laryngitis and speaking only in a whisper. As long as I didn't try to engage my larynx, the embarrassing register changes and sudden bugling didn't seem to happen. I sucked a lot of cough drops and passed a lot of notes.

The affliction lingered. Salt water gargles did nothing. I tried talking it out in the woods behind our house. Tried singing it out by practicing my upcoming solo again and again, restarting whenever my voice hitched then squeak-squawked.

The afternoons of talking to the trees paid off. I was able to manage play rehearsals, speaking lines clearly. When I felt my larynx hitch, I'd stop, clear my throat, start again. The director thought I needed to see an allergist for all the throat clearing, but he let me keep my big role.

The rub came when we started adding in the songs. But try as I might to hide my affliction from Mr. Farr, the day came when he wanted to rehearse my solo. No more lip syncing, like I'd done in the full-chorus numbers. He played the opening bars, and I began to sing. The piece was a parody song of "Beautiful Dreamer" from the kids' musical "Frankenstein Follies," and I was cast as Liz, one of the villains. I needed to sound conniving and wicked. Squeaking every third syllable just isn't very villainish. Squeaking is for the comic relief, not the bad guy.

Mr. Farr was kind when the first swoop happened. "Relax," he said. "Pretend this is a player piano and you're all by yourself."

His advice was of course rubbish, because the moment I relaxed, my voice betrayed me horridly. It cracked and I could only speak in a wheezy helium voice.

Mr. Farr blanched. "How long has this been going on?" he demanded.

"Weeks." I squeaked.

"Weeks?" He looked at me askance. Surely he was going to kick me back to the chorus with the musically challenged kids, give my part to someone else. Someone with no imagination who had no idea how to be awesomely evil like I could.

"Sorry," I whispered.

"Take the week off, " he told me. "And don't worry. You know the story of the Ugly Ducking? That's what's happening to your voice. Give it a little more time, then we'll work on your breathing."

I went home and sobbed. I was ugly. An ugly-voiced freak. I would have to take up sign language and pretend to be deaf or something. Mr. Farr was picking my understudy. I was finished in theater.

I barely spoke all week, I was so upset. I spent hours in the woods, singing to the trees. The hitching wasn't happening, but something else was. From deep in my chest to the tip-top of my sinuses, things were resonating differently.

When my next scheduled rehearsal came, I smiled shyly at Mr. Farr.

"You doing better?"  he asked.

I nodded.

"You ready to try again?"

I nodded again. He played the opening bars, I filled my lungs with air and out came the sound. The woman sound. It poured out of my eleven-year-old self and it was as terrifying and wonderful as magic. The squeaks and hitches and cracks were left behind like the dull, grey down of a cygnet. And I soared.

Have you ever gone through a painful transition? What did you learn from the experience?

Voice tips for your writing

Today I'm talking "Elements of Voice" with author C.M. Keller, over at her blog A Merry Heart. There I discuss some key aspects of developing unique voices for your characters. If you're looking for ways to pump up your fiction, swing on by for tips.


  1. Wow, that was fascinating! And cool. Glad you got through that "ugly duckling" stage, though it was painful. :)

    1. Maturation is almost always painful. That's just the nature of growth, I think. But hard-won changes are more valuable than those that come easily.

  2. Wow, I've never heard of the voice change happening before--fascinating.

    I went through a massive physical transition between 7th and 8th grade. During that summer I went through all of puberty in three months. The change was so drastic that several of my classmates didn't recognize me in the fall.

    1. I've heard that Julie Andrews went through the same awkward voice change, which is all kinds of comforting, because she was a hero to me as a kid (who doesn't want to sing like Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp?). This happened nearly two years before the big physical transformation you speak of. My "blossoming" into my adult shape happened really fast also, over the exact same time frame as yours, the summer before I turned 13.

  3. LOL! What a great story! I never had a voice change like that. I did sing in a choir for several years, and I did see that my voice got stronger the more I used it... Hey! Is that an analogy there that can go with your voice analogy?

    Funny story, Laurel! <3 :o)

    1. I think my take-away is that difficult transformations are the most rewarding, and that we have to be patient with change.

      Glad you enjoyed the story!

  4. I've never heard of anything like that happening to a girl! I would've totally freaked out too. There's a reason middle school is the toughest years of your life.

    1. It's a pretty rare phenomenon, though Julie Andrews went through it too. I suspect some who ended up in opera probably did also.

      The physical changes and no life experience to put things is perspective does make middle school so, so hard.

      If you're looking for a writing analogy, it would be that finding a mature voice will mean enduring a period of tunelessness. With time and practice and training it improves, sometimes dramatically.

  5. I'm glad your story had a happy ending!

    1. Not every ugly duckling experience transforms one into a swan, but it did in this case. :-)