Working with Aging Singers

By Freed, Donald Callen | The American Organist, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Working with Aging Singers


Freed, Donald Callen, The American Organist


OUR CHOIRS and singers are aging. Yet more and more retirees are studying voice, and increasingly, older singers are members of church choirs. This can bring about unique problems for the choir director.

Some of these problems include the aging bodies of choristers, loss of some suppleness of muscles and vocal folds, and less efficient use of breath and coordination. My own experience with church and college-community choirs indicates that aging is the norm: my last church choir had singers ages 49 to 85, and my current college-community ensemble has singers ages 17 to 72.

The late soprano Beverly Sills stopped performing at age 50. Most musicians know of other instances where persons stopped singing at an early age for various reasons. Yet there are also examples of those who sang past 70. Tenor Tito Schipa sang on the Metropolitan Opera stage until well past 70. Other examples can be cited. Of course, Schipa used his voice every day, unlike the average chorister in church. But there are still problems of the aging singer that can be alleviated or moderated with careful guidance from the church choir director.

When to Stop Singing

On ChoralTalk, the list serve of ChoralNet (www.choralnet.org), a recurring discussion has occurred as to when church choristers should be told to stop singing. Needless to say, there has been a wide variety of opinion. We have heard singers with uncontrollable vibrato uncoordinated pitch, or other problems. Yet I have never asked someone who sings in a church to stop singing, preferring to counteract problems with techniques to help the voice last. And many who are "problem" singers at an advanced age have never received proper training, which includes warming up the body as well as the voice, warming up the voice gradually from the middle range up and down, and attention to body balance and posture. In these and other areas, the choral director must be sensitive to aging singers.

Vocal Aging

Some issues of the aging vocal instrument are inevitable. These include, but are not limited to:

1. drying of vocal folds (mucosal linings may thicken, narrowing the effective range);

2. atrophy of vocal folds (vocal fold bowing = weaker voice);

3. the cartilages of the larynx may harden;

4. joints, especially of the jaw, may move with less range of motion;

5. blood supply to the vocal organs may change;

6. medications, such as diuretics, heart medications, or cortisone, may have a drying effect; and

7. overall muscular control may be less supple and balanced.

In short, pitch, amplitude (loudness), vocal quality, and vocal control may all be affected by aging.

Improving the Aging Voices and Choirs

How do we improve the dynamic range, intonation, and vocal quality of our aging choirs without becoming otolaryngologists ourselves, especially in a weekly rehearsal and on Sunday morning? It's not rocket science-there are some basic things that can be done. Here are 15 basic considerations that I use for the older church choir:

1. Warm up the body to prepare it for singing. Richard Miller, the noted voice pedagogue, has showed how to do this when he was 71. Others routinely make the body part of the warm-up. Use shoulder rolls, neck rolls, revolving on the knees, stretches, massaging the jaw and facial muscles, and walking in place (Miller, personal observation).

2. Warm up the voices, throughout the high and low range. This is generally from the top down (5-4-3-2-1; sol fa mi re do) and in the mid-range first. Start on A-G-F#-E-D and go up to E-D#-C#-B-A; then work back down to low E-D#-C#-B-A, then back to the middle. Use sirens, lip trills, hums, even raspberries, as well as vowel combinations. Warming up the voice in the midrange also allows the extremes to function. Encourage singers to parachute rather than land, to keep the voice flexible, and to listen as loudly as they sing. …

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