I have quite a few students who come to my Marin studio for singing lessons who are over the age of 65. And, I think the phrase I hear most from them is something to the effect of “I never had to think of this voice when I was younger” or “Singing used to be so much easier!” Yes, it probably was. Age does create some big physiological changes for singers. And, if knowledge of vocal technique didn’t quite matter when one was young, it sure matters now to keep the voice as aerodynamically balanced and efficient as possible in the face of those changes.
This blog is not intended to be an in-depth look at voice and the aging process such as a speech pathologist might share. However, I wanted to point out that whatever occurs anatomically to our body as we get older – and what we do to keep ourselves as fit and healthy as possible to stave off aging’s effects – also affects the voice, specifically the larynx, the vocal folds, and our breath.
For instance, seniors may experience an overall decrease in muscle mass, tissue atrophy or edema, which can interfere with the delicate interaction of the larynx and vocal folds. This can lead to changes in the vocal folds and their ability to adduct cleanly (“bowing” or gaps), thus creating a breathier sound. A thinning of collagen fibers and changes in collagen distribution can affect vocal cord elasticity. (Collagen is the important structural protein found in skin and connective tissue – thus all the anti-wrinkle collagen products!) Other issues of aging include calcification of cartilage, for instance in the larynx, where it will interfere with precision and flexibility and where the ribs attach to the sternum, affecting their full expansion on inhalation.
A loss of mucous glands as we age can lead to drier vocal cords, more throat clearing and more “gunk,” as I like to call it. (When the cords don’t have enough lubrication, they can get irritated and whip up said “gunk” to protect themselves.) Also, the diaphragm, an “indirect” muscle, may weaken with the weakening of other related breathing muscles – the intercostals, the transverse abdominus, the latissimi, and other secondary muscles of both inspiration and expiration.
Since our parts interrelate, an incomplete closure of the vocal folds, for whatever reason, will weaken the “elastic recoil of the lungs, resulting in a decrease in loudness” (“Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation” – Leda Searce) and the inability of a singer to hold a note for as long as he or she would like.
Because of the above, older singers might experience a reduced vocal range – ah, yes, I remember when “Adele’s Laughing Song” was a piece of cake! – changes in the fundamental frequency (for women, lower; for men, higher), more glitches, possible hoarseness, and fatigue.
And, of course, menopause and hormones can wreak havoc on a singer. “From a hormone standpoint, progesterone, estrogen, and androgen levels all drop off significantly, and if the male hormones overbalance the female hormones, some masculinization of the female voice may occur. (“The Vocal Athlete,” Leborgne and Rosenberg). Also, because of the drop in progesterone levels, the nerve that innervates the vocal fold may have slower conduction due to demyelization. This slowed down rate of nerve conduction has been suggested as a possible reason for a change/slowing of vibrato rate. (Benninger & Murry, 2006). That’s the dreaded “wobble” or too slow of a vibrato often found in older singers.
So, what is an older singer to do? First, it is important to understand that a healthy you means a healthy singer. Get a physical checkup and review all medications you might be taking. Some meds – especially diuretics (did you know Vitamin C is a mild diuretic?), antihistamines, alcohol – all can dry out the cords. Mind-altering drugs can impair your senses and lead to pressing and anesthetization of the cords. Chocolate, although yummy, can aggravate the singer’s nemesis – GERD (acid reflux). Insomnia, interrupted sleep due to undiagnosed apnea, allergies and exposure to other irritants or weight changes due to thyroid problems – all can affect your singing.
Addressing insufficient hydration, water is super-important for singers – and dietary changes to reduce such things as acid reflux and mucous builders (dairy, etc.) are all essential steps toward maintaining vocal health.
Next, the more you sing, in a healthy way, of course, the more “in shape” you will be to really make your singing into the golden years shine. Even singing 15-20 minutes a day, with a set of exercises that works directly on countering age-related vocal issues, such as vocal fold/breath pressure coordination (e.g. the famed “singing through a straw”), is way better than just warming up before choir practice or a church service. For the older choral singer, choir can be challenging because it’s difficult to hear oneself and one can start pushing the voice. Also, choral warmups aren’t obviously tailor-made for each singer, so they may be too difficult for a struggling senior. For the soloist, it’s unreasonable to expect vocal excellence from spotty practice. It’s like asking a long-distance runner to train running only sprints.
Staying fit, aligned, and strong, whether through the Alexander Technique, yoga, walking or biking is super important for your skeletal structure and your aerobic capacity (e.g., a curved spine leads to collapsed ribs and decreased breath capacity). Full disclosure: I do yoga, walk, and occasionally bike, but I really should up my more vigorous aerobic exercise.
In terms of repertoire, as we get older there’s nothing wrong with shifting gears. While when you were a younger classical singer, lowering the key to a song was anathema to you, now it’s appropriate. Or, if you’re struggling with a coloratura passage that just isn’t happening anymore, change it. Why beat your head against the wall? It’s the beauty and art that counts. I’ve been having a great time exploring more belty musical theater, what auditioners call “age appropriate” songs. I relate way more to the juicy, older character roles than the soprano-y musical theater ingenues. (Admittedly, it’s a tough technical switch for this classical singer.)
Lastly, and this I write with love to my students who grapple with this issue. Although I am a great believer in the power of technique and having a positive attitude, I also feel that as we age, we come face to face with all our feelings about our singing history and the limits of our talent. We might have had great expectations for ourselves, made some choices we regret or now may have to come to terms with our limitations.
For instance, it’s common to hear “why is my voice not working right”? That’s an issue that can be addressed in adult voice lessons and worked on. However, the inability or unwillingness to organize oneself enough to practice daily, to waken to one’s changing body, may reflect a bigger habitual way of being in the world that may be difficult to undo when one is older. In my opinion, this is more of a psycho-spiritual issue that could be explored with a psychologist in therapy.
For many older singers, singing is woven into a lifelong sense of self, social life, and joy of community. Ultimately, the desire to continue that which gives one’s life meaning is what fuels the drive to stay vocally young.