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Lake View voice lab helps trans clients find their voices
by Liz Baudler
2015-03-25

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Jackson Voice Lab sits unassumingly in the basement of St. Peter's Episcopal Church near Broadway and Belmont Avenue. But once inside, the space swells voices, making it perfect for vocal training. Owner Liz Jackson finds Lakeview a great spot to attract young, artistic professionals, and as Jackson Voice Lab offers services to trans individuals looking to help their voice compliment their identity, Jackson said she feels she's in the right place.

"A lot of times in a first lesson I'll ask a student, 'What do you want your voice to sound like?' [This,] for the trans community, is a really crucial question. It's a really important aspect of the transition and also a really unguided aspect," Jackson said.

Vocal strain can be anyone's problem. "Any time the vocal folds vibrate together you're creating friction and heat," Jackson said. "Voices are really resilient. In your daily life, when you're talking to people, it's not that could cause any irreparable damage. Teachers, preachers, actors, phone salesmen always are kind of dealing with this prolonged vibration, prolonged friction that can cause irritation."

Among various techniques, Jackson and her co-instructor, Alexandra Plattos, love a simple tool—a drinking straw—for voice repair. A mug of straws sits on a table in the lab. The straw works, Jackson explained, because it plays with the acoustic and lung pressure and the vocal folds. "At the end of your day, you can sing through the straw for a while and it can repair your tissue. It also ramps up the sensation of resonance. It's a great way to heal your voice if you're feeling really sore."

The straw also aids trans patients trying out new ways of using their voices and perhaps dealing with biological changes from hormone therapy. "Women tend to inflect a lot more than men," Jackson pointed out. "In using the straw to build up these new muscular arrangements and types of muscles, you gain a lot of flexibility in the amount of pitches that you can make and the pitch range that you use."

One of the lab's clients is Das Janssen, a philosophy professor at Chicago State. Jackson said Janssen's challenges include using a less breathy sound and not injuring his voice while testosterone continues to change it.

Janssen called his voice lessons fun, and had nothing but praise for Jackson's sensitivity and acumen as a teacher. "Liz has been really excellent about issues about the level of discomfort that can come from being trans, about voice issues," he said. "She seems to just get that I don't necessarily know or see what's going on because of dysphoria. And so she'll give me an honest assessment of how I'm doing. It's also encouraging. If I don't sing right, she doesn't say, 'Oh, that's wrong.' She says, 'Good ... let's try this one again.'"

Janssen also said he feels the service he's getting is worth more than the cost, pointing out how important that is in light of the trans community's struggles with employment and insurance coverage for treatment.

Jackson Voice Lab does feature other kinds of voice training, and occasionally clients partake of multiple services. Zoe Wendorf came to Jackson Voice Lab as a referral for vocal strain before revealing her intent to transition. She's also a singer whose dream, said Jackson, is to become the first transwoman death metal vocalist.

Wendorf said she values all of Jackson's expertise. "She's helping me with both singing and speaking. She knows from a singer's perspective, but also the science of the voice, she gets the anatomy of it. She's able to tell me what I'm tensing up, and that's something that a lot of other vocal coaches I've worked with don't do or don't know how to do."

Jackson and Plattos speak with sincere appreciation for their art. Jackson loves her clients' curiosity and commitment to learning about their voices, and how their needs challenge her. "I have the best job in the world," she said giddily.

"Your voice is your voice, you can't go to the music store and trade it out," Plattos added. "But that's also the beautiful thing about it. It's distinctly yours, no one else can have it." She said constant training extends a voice's range, something she's discovered even with her own.

The former grad school classmates said they compliment each other both in terms of skill set—Plattos works on classical techniques where the body supports the voice, while Jackson starts from the top and works down—and their business approach. Both have big plans, but Jackson's a dreamer and Plattos reins her in by focusing on details. Yet their focus remains broad.

Plattos said that when she and Jackson first started planning the Voice Lab, they looked at past experiences and thought about who they wanted to teach. They realized they wanted to create a place for all levels and all genres to experiment and share their voices. Perhaps not jokingly, they listed "world domination" in their future plans. As Plattos put it, "we really just want to teach everyone."

Visit jacksonvoicelab.weebly.com/ .


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