Maintaining Your voice for Optimal Lifelong Singing
Healthy vocal habits can help older adults continue to enjoy the benefits of choral singing. Erin Donahue and Wendy LeBorgne, voice pathologists from the Blaine Block Institute for Voice Analysis and Rehabilitation and the Professional Voice Center of Greater Cincinnati, share expert advice on staying vocally “fit”.
Choral singing is an important part of the lives of many aging Americans. As we are living longer, retired persons now have the time and energy to pursue their avocation, which often involves choral singing. Over 22 million Americans participate in a choral activity once a week. The many benefits of choral singing have been well documented, including group camaraderie, mental acuity, personal confidence, and emotional gains from creating and enjoying music.
As the voice undergoes normal age-related changes, singers may experience vocal obstacles that younger choral singers do not face. These changes in voice do not have to curb the performance of any singer. But, similar to general physical and mental fitness, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Developing an understanding of how the aging process typically affects the voice and how to maximize your vocal fitness are the focus of this article. It is imperative for choral singers to maintain healthy vocal habits so that their singing voice can last well into the golden years, providing enjoyment and mental fitness.
What happens to your voice through the years?
The effects of aging on the body are often visible including decreased muscle tone, decreased agility, and sometimes slower physical movement. These observable age related features occur due to changes in the structures of the body, including slower nerve conduction, muscle mass changes, joint mobility, bone density issues, and cartilages becoming ossified. The larynx, or voice box, is made up of muscles, joints, ligaments, and cartilages, and systemic changes in the body are often reflected in voice output. For example, the muscles of the larynx may atrophy including a thinning of the vocal folds themselves. These physical changes could result in symptoms of vocal fatigue and changes in vocal quality, such as increased breathiness, unstable voice, and decreased loudness. Habitual speaking frequency, or pitch of the voice, may also change with age. Men’s voices tend to become higher, while women’s voices may become lower. Additionally, the cartilages of the larynx begin to ossify (become less supple and more bone-like) resulting in decreased vocal flexibility (range).
Some additional system-wide changes that may impact vocal performance are changes related to posture and supporting musculoskeletal framework. This framework is necessary for adequate alignment and breath support to sing. Changes may occur in how quickly and accurately your brain conveys signals to your muscles in order to coordinate all the intricate adjustments needed for voice production, becoming slowed or interrupted. The resulting vocal symptoms may include a decreased ability to control dynamics, vibrato, vocal agility, and pitch stability. Hearing loss, gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux disease, and endocrine system dysfunction (among many other conditions) may also contribute to vocal obstacles. Additionally, medications, which are often necessary to treat systemic conditions, could have negative side effects on the voice .
All of this information can seem depressing as we consider how vital a part of life singing is for many individuals. It is important to note that the extent and speed of the physiological aging process is variable from person to person. There is no specific chronological age which these changes occur and studies have indicated that trained singers may experience few to no negative vocal symptoms with aging. This supports the supposition that the vocal difficulties often associated with aging may be delayed or even avoided with continued appropriate voice use through singing. So, how do you maintain your voice for optimal lifelong singing?
Maximizing your vocal fitness
When considering options to maximize physical health as a person ages, a balanced diet and regular physical exercise are usually recommended. Your voice is your instrument and how you treat your body correlates directly with vocal output. An example would be aerobic exercise providing benefits for singers. By maintaining the respiratory system, the basis for adequate pulmonary function (breath), skeletal muscle coordination (breath support) and control (phrasing for singing) is supported. Here are some tips on keeping your voice vocally “fit” as you age:
Five Vocal Fitness Tips
1. Keep your vocal muscles in shape by warming up and cooling down (both physically and vocally). Physical warm-ups prior to singing include gentle stretching. For ideas of physical stretching, here is a link to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) page for exercise for older adults including physical warm-ups and cool-downs.
2. Similarly, vocal warm-ups may include lip buzzing, humming, vowels, and text on scales and other vocalize, to stretch and prepare the larynx for the upcoming task of singing. Vocal cool-downs (similar to vocal warm-ups) should be performed after one is finished singing. Just as an athlete would do post-performance stretching, a vocal cool-down may work to gently stretch the muscles and ease them back into a resting state.
3. Although many singers only perform in an ensemble once a week for several hours, individual and daily practice is beneficial to maintaining vocal stamina and technique. Short practice sessions (15-30 minutes), four to five days out of the week, will help to keep your voice “in shape” for longer rehearsals. If you are only singing once a week, it is similar to trying to get all of your physical exercise in for one 2-3 hour session at the gym, instead of a little exercise each day.
4. Aging singers may also benefit from participating in solo voice lessons to continue to develop a good foundation in vocal technique. Specific problems an older singer may be experiencing, such as increased vibrato/tremolo or difficulty with pitch control, may be addressed with a qualified singing voice teacher.
5. Should a singer experience sudden or significant change in voice, such as throat pain with voice use, hoarseness, and/or vocal fatigue with a short amount of voice use, evaluation by a skilled otolaryngologist or voice pathologist is recommended.
Sataloff, R. T., Rosen, D. C., Hackshaw, M., & Spiegel, J. R. (1997). The aging adult voice. Journal of Voice, 11(2), 156-160.
Smith, B., & Sataloff, R. (2006). Choral pedagogy. (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.
Erin Nicole Donahue, M.A., CCC-SLP is a voice pathologist at the Blaine Block Institute for Voice Analysis and Rehabilitation and the Professional Voice Center of Greater Cincinnati. She holds a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance and has a special interest in the singing voice.
Wendy LeBorgne, PhD CCC-SLP (Voice Pathologist and Singing Voice Specialist) is the director of the Blaine Block Institute for Voice Analysis and Rehabilitation and the Professional Voice Center of Greater Cincinnati. She holds an adjunct Assistant Professor at Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and the College of Allied Health and specializes in care of the professional voice.