Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Teaching the Older Singer

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Teaching the Older Singer

Article excerpt

TODAY PEOPLE LIVE, WORK, AND CONTINUE TO ENJOY activities like running, bicycling, and working out longer than ever before. Advances in vocal health now allow professional singers to extend performing life past the fifth decade, and trained amateur singers are able to sing well past middle age. Those who teach in an independent studio or college/university voice teachers who also accept private students, are seeing more voice students over the age of 50. As we ourselves age, we want to know how to take care of our voices and what to expect. Over a period of fifteen years I had the pleasure of working with seven fine amateur singers over the age of 50 for periods of more than two years. All of those students but one were female, but their backgrounds, professions, and health problems were quite diverse. Looking back it is apparent that they form a study. This article describes the seven students, their vocal problems, and some of the techniques used in their lessons.


The journey began when a former student and colleague discovered a 60 year old coloratura soprano in his continuing education class in Voice for Choral Singers. The quality of her voice had declined, and, at the end of the class, she wanted to know if there was any hope for rebuilding it. Because the teacher of the class knew I had worked with singers with injured or damaged vocal folds, he referred this lady to me. She had sung in church choirs and as a soloist most of her adult life and had taken voice lessons intermittently over the years. She also was a church organist, and music formed part of her job as an elementary school teacher.

At that point, there was little dialogue among voice teachers about working with older singers. I was fortunate to have certain advantages: I was only a few years younger than my new student; I had taught voice for over 25 years; and I had experience rehabilitating damaged singing voices. I was also well acquainted with the literature on the aging voice that was available at the time from the fields of voice science, voice therapy, and otolaryngology. But I had done little work with students over 60 and no rehabilitation work with singers in that age category.

When I first vocalized my new student, it was obvious that her voice had been quite lovely at one time. Now her vibrato was wide and balanced toward the low side of the tone, which exacerbated her tendency to sing slightly under the pitch. Although she could sing lightly below C^sub 4^, she had no low register, and C^sub 4^, D^sub 4^, and E^sub 4^ were very weak. I had encountered these same problems in young college students; the challenge now was to discover if the causes and techniques needed to repair the problem would be the same for an older singer.


Noted otolaryngologist Robert Sataloff gives an overview of the physiological changes associated with aging that affect singing.

Aging is associated with deteriorating bodily functions. Among them are accuracy, speed, endurance, stability, strength, coordination, breathing capacity, nerve conduction, velocity, heart output, and kidney function. Muscle and neural tissues atrophy, and the chemicals responsible for nerve transmission change. Ligaments atrophy, and cartilages turn to bone (including those in the larynx). Joints develop irregularities that interfere with smooth motion. The vocal folds themselves thin and deteriorate, losing their elastic and collagenous fibers. This makes them stiffer and thinner and may correlate with voice changes often noted with singing. The vocal fold edge also becomes less smooth. The not-so-cheery picture is one of inevitable decline for all of us. However, the notion that this decline occurs gradually and progressively (linear senescence) is open to challenge. It appears possible that many of these functions can be maintained at a better level than expected until very near the end of life, perhaps allowing a high-quality singing or acting career to extend into or beyond the seventh decade. …

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