February 15, 2017

The Aging Singer
by Karl Nelson, R&R Chair for Community Choirs

In working with members of the community, I find that there are unique challenges and rewards unlike any other type of ensemble I’ve worked with. For me, the most rewarding aspect is the members’ experience and stability which is as distinctive to each personality. Often times, individuals are able to express themselves more freely based on these experiences as a teacher, a physician, an engineer, a parent or any number of specialties. I’m sure we’ve all had this connection after a rehearsal when discussing musical context, possible intentions of the composer, or that time when it all comes together as a cohesive whole. The reactions of community members, verbal and non-verbal, is priceless and inspires me to make sure each rehearsal is a fertile environment for future growth.

However, this often comes after the culmination of consistent vocal development and reinforcement through the rehearsal process. One of the main challenges I encounter is that for many of them, this one night of rehearsal is the only time during the week where they really concentrate on healthy vocal habits. To improve or maintain anything in life (musical instrument proficiency, physical fitness, diet, etc.), one day each week will only bring incremental changes. As the body ages, it becomes more important for singers to become more efficient with their vocal instruments through knowledge and practice. The eighteen-year-old singer may be able to pass with 50% of his/her current potential because the condition of the body is above the acceptable standard. If this potential increases to 70, 80 or 90% through various factors such as vocal training, exercise, and even medications, vocal function can be maintained for decades to come. (Sataloff 2005) Voice building is important for everyone, not just the singer. Proper vocal care and development allows us to convey our personalities and ideas clearly by using direct and underlying intentions. How many times has someone’s voice alone made an impression on us, whether it’s applying for a job, selling a product, or listening to a political speech? A strong, confident, well-modulated voice can make the difference between a passive, indifferent message that is easy to dismiss and a healthy, strong and credible person with intent (Heman-Ackah 2008).

As all of us age, we can expect different changes in our body, including accuracy, speed, endurance, stability, strength, coordination, breathing capacity, nerve conduction velocity, heart output, and kidney function. Atrophy occurs in our muscles, ligaments and neural tissues, as well as the ossification of cartilage. This dreary outlook of decline is inevitable and occurs gradually and progressively, but at different rates for each individual. Fortunately, it appears that many of these functions can be maintained at a high level until well beyond the seventh decade of life (Sataloff 2005). Our choir members can continue to enjoy the benefits of making music in groups large and small no matter how old they are (personally, this is evidenced by my ninety-year-old father’s dedication to singing choral music on a regular basis—bravo, Dad!).

It was early in my career that I learned that the best directors are teachers, and this idea has been reinforced in many forms ever since. From that point on, I wanted to make sure that I develop my rehearsal techniques and acquire as much knowledge as possible so that I could then share it to the singers in my choirs. The first step to anticipating the changes in the voice is learning what changes will happen and anticipating how to maintain vocal health through these changes. Dr. Sangeetha Rayapati, who will be presenting at this year’s ACDA National Conference in Minneapolis, MN, has written an excellent resource describing the changes of the aging voice with ideas for maintenance and improvement in her book, Sing Into Your Sixties… And Beyond! I will not go into too much detail about the vocal production aspects, but I would like to share some of the changes which are related to age, as well as vocal exercises for improvement and maintenance. She describes these changes in four concise stages that many of us are familiar with: respiration (breathing), phonation (making sound), resonation (amplifying sound), and articulation (shaping sounds into words) (Rayapati 2012).

As mentioned earlier, general strength is reduced, and the diaphragm is no exception. When it comes to respiration, this makes it more difficult for the diaphragm to remain in the descended position, or is working harder during each cycle of breathing. A series of changes influence the efficiency of the respiratory system: loss of lung tissue elasticity, changes in lung volume, an increase in residual volume (the air left over after expiration), a decrease in vital capacity (the amount of air we can breathe in), and a stiffening of rib cartilages that aid in the process of lifting and lowering the ribs during inhalation and exhalation. These changes make it more difficult to breath, and therefore affects tone quality, phrasing and intonation (Rayapati 2012). Below are some of Dr. Rayapati’s ideas for breathing exercises which focus on the development of muscle coordination:

1. Muscular Awareness. There are several ways to become oriented to these low muscles in your torso, both in your front and your back. One way is to stand and find the fleshy area between your lowest rib and your hips. Place your hands there with your thumbs in front and your middle fingers touching in the back. Bend over from your hips, elongating your spine, and take a deep breath in. What happens to your middle fingers? Do they stay together? Pull apart? They should pull apart when you take that deep breath. What happens to your belly? Does it fall toward the floor? It should fall away from you to the floor.
2. Pulsations. Use your abdomen to pulsate on an [s], [sh] or [f] five times. Deliberately, but gently, pull your abdominal wall inward with each consonant sound. As you become better coordinated, increase your speed or number of pulsations from five to seven or nine before taking a breath again. This motion is similar to what you do during singing and is a good way to train your muscles.
3. Staccato. This exercise requires your abdominal muscles to pulsate, much like they did in the last exercise, but with less exaggerated effort. On a syllable such as [ha], sing a vocal warm-up (vocalize) in a staccato or separated style. It could be the outline of a chord (arpeggio), the first five notes of a scale, or anything you make up on your own. Make sure your abdomen pulses IN on the syllable and releases OUT on the rest between (Rayapati 2012).

In the process of phonation, the basic vocal sound and vibrato can also change as we age. Terms such as breathy, unsupported, and stiff can be used to describe the tone quality. Many also notice that the tuning is not as precise, vibrato becomes excessive, and that phonation is generally more difficult (Sataloff 2005). Some of these are results of respiratory issues, however, changes in the larynx can be strong contributors. One change is in the relaxation of muscle fibers, which takes the form of vocal fold bowing. Here, there is a loss of elasticity in, or atrophy of, the vocal ligament, which leads to a poor glottal closure. The covering of the vocal folds (the epithelium) can also thicken, which can be caused by hormonal changes, as experienced before, during, and after menopause. This can result in not only a breathy, coarse tone, but also a lowered tessitura (as some female singers feel more comfortable singing in the tenor range). There are also alterations to the laryngeal cartilages, such as ossification, a gradual change from cartilage to bone. Ossification increases stiffness in the vocal mechanism and creates an unstable tone. Some singers compensate for these changes by increasing tension in the larynx, which can lead to a pressed vocal quality. In addition, a deterioration of the central nervous system and a decrease in blood supply can cause atrophy to the muscles of the vocal mechanism and peripheral systems. This weakens the vocal mechanism in general, making it less flexible. The limitations of range can be caused by muscle atrophy, arthritis in joints of the vocal mechanism, hormonal changes, and edema, or swelling in the tissue spaces (Rayapati 2012). A couple of suggested exercises to improve phonation include the following:

1. Pitch levels of speech. Try saying “Bobby baker bought a bag of bagels,” or “Hello, how are you?” in conversational, elevated and sing-song styles, making sure to breathe well before beginning. For example, say a phrase as if you are talking to someone next to you. Next, say a phrase to someone across the street. Finally, experiment with pitch level and breath energy as you play with sound. Remember, you don’t want to feel anything in your throat, only your head or face.
2. Slides and glides. These are some of the most helpful exercises for feeling how easy vocal production is supposed to be. Start at a higher pitch and slide downward on a variety of syllables. Start with semi-occluded exercises such as [ma], [me] or [mi]. You can progress to [wee], [nu] or [ja].

There appear to be many variables at play with the change of vibrato rates. The first is the “slackening of neuromuscular control and tiring of the musculature of the larynx,” where there is less flexibility in the larynx to adjust for air pressure and pitch. Secondly, the female larynx lowers during the aging process, which leads to stronger oscillations and larger fluctuations in pitch and intensity. The combination of these two factors often lead to what is commonly considered a “wobble.” One exercise for managing vibrato:

1. Experiment with crescendos and decrescendos. You might need to lighten up your vocal approach if your vibrato is too heavy. This will allow your muscles to relax and enables a freely resonant tone quality. If you have a vibrato that is too fast, a tremolo, you will need to engage your breath more energetically to help the tone become more stable. Engaging one’s breath and being free of inappropriate muscular tension are the crucial steps in correcting vibrato problems (Rayapati 2012).

A few factors may lead to a lower resonant frequency. This includes, a lengthening by the vocal tract, a closure of space in the larynx, a lowering of the lungs and growing facial skeleton. Deepening or darkening of the tone is not necessarily a problem, but vibrancy and brilliance can be lost, which makes tuning difficult and limits the vocal range (Rayapati 2012). Some ideas for improving resonance:

1. Octave leaps (Di-yo). Energize the leap between pitches. Sometimes adding physical motion to an exercise can help release tensions. Try bending your knees on the high note if you need to feel more gut tug support or increased freedom. You also could pretend to roll a bowling ball on the high note. The point is that the motion is the opposite of the direction of pitch change.

2. Arpeggios. Sing arpeggios in legato, and then staccato fashion. Imagine that you are connecting your air between notes as if you are painting the air in between them. Does your tone feel and sound stable? Do you feel as if you’re singing out of your face, or from your throat? You should be wary of any tensions in the neck and throat, while striving to maintain comfortable focus sensation in the face.

3. Descending slides. On a comfortable vowel, sing a descending arpeggio, being sure to slide the pitches between notes in the chord as you go. Keep using your air and tone connection in the balanced fashion you have established. If you feel yourself controlling the sound in your throat, relax and try to refocus on the air or breath.

The primary difficulty of articulation for the aging singer stems from the loss of strength and agility of the tongue. When the precision is gone, there is less resonance, which makes it more problematic to distinguish vowel sounds. In addition, though less of a factor, the soft palate becomes less controllable because of the ossification of the cartilage. The text becomes difficult to understand, especially consonants such as [g], [k], and [ng] at faster tempos. Consonant production also can be affected by changes in the speed of response by oral and facial musculature, which generally become slower because of changes in the central nervous system (Rayapati 2012). Exercises to improve articulation focus on freedom of tongue and jaw movement and flexibility of the soft palate:

1. Hung-a. Use the hung-a exercise to work the muscles of the soft palate. Changing from [ng] to [a] exercises this area, provided the [a] is sung with a non-nasal quality.

2. Repeated [n]. Use the [n] of ni-no-ne-na as a voice building consonant. The [n] must be produced with the tongue forward, at the alveolar ridge or the very front of the hard palate, behind the front teeth.

3. Alternating vowels. Sing combinations of vowel sounds in a pattern of descending skips. Alternate the speed at which you sing this pattern. If you have difficulty at faster speeds, slow down and execute the pattern properly before trying to speed up again (Rayapati 2012).

Without the consistent improvement by the ensemble and individual members, complacency begins to set in and can lead to stale rehearsals. New music can bring new challenges, and if you’re like me, those challenges can inspire new and creative teaching methods. Some of these ideas to aid the aging singer may be applied as a foundation and may be combined with musical challenges to reach vocal development goals, realize musical ideas, and allow your singers to receive the full benefits of choral singing.

Heman-Ackah, Yolanda D., Robert T. Sataloff, Mary J. Hawkshaw, Venu Divi. "How Do I Maintain Longevity of My Voice?" Journal of Singing, 2008: 467-472.
Rayapati, Sangeetha. Sing Into Your Sixties... And Beyond! Delaware, Ohio: Inside View Press, 2012.
Sataloff, Robert T., Joseph R. Spiegel, and Deborah Caputo Rosen. "The Effects of Age on the Voice." In Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care, by Robert T. Sataloff, 259-266. San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2005.