Nurturing the Older Voice

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As I have mentioned before, I don't do very much one-to-one work, but every so often I'll do a series of half a dozen sessions with someone who approaches me for help. Six sessions is enough to make a difference, in my experience, and I tend to reckon that if someone wants to settle in for the long haul, I'd refer them on to someone whose primary focus is one-to-one work.

Now, the people I work with in this way have had a remarkably similar profile: retired ladies who sing in choirs recreationally, and are being bothered by hoarseness during the course of a rehearsal. There is no great mystery behind this consistency of profile, mind you, since all referrals have come by word of mouth along the lines of, 'Yes I had that problem, I'll tell you who helped me...'

As I said last time I was reflecting on these sessions, I do them mostly because I want to help friends of friends, and in return I learn more about the details of the vocal experience that people are having in choirs.

Now, people worry about ageing, and when they start getting hoarseness issues in choir over the age of 60, they fear that their singing days are numbered. Well, they are, obviously, but the number is likely to be rather bigger than they think. A woman who does yoga, hill-walking or keeps an allotment is far from physically decrepit, and from a standing start I would expect people's singing years to go on beyond their capacity for vigorous exercise.

Age is implicated to an extent, though, inasmuch as the vocal difficulties typically arise from habits that have gradually accrued over many years. A younger and more resilient vocal mechanism may be able to transcend unhelpful habits more easily, but I think it is mostly that the overall distortions of one's vocal set-up increase with age because the habitual ways of being in the world become more entrenched.

The hoarseness and tiredness issues emerge from two interrelated problems. The first is the tendency to try to do too much with the larynx itself. Working on support, airflow and resonance allows singers to stop trying to create volume by pushing the sound from the throat and allows them to ride the vocal mechanism more gently. You lose your voice when you make loud noises unsupported - as the Spooky Men put it, nobody ever loses their voice giving birth, because whatever strange sounds you are making, they emerge from full bodily engagement.

The second is under-use of the head voice and/or crunching of gears over the passaggio. This usually shows up in difficulties in the mid-range, as singers bump up against the glass ceiling of their chest register. The need here is to establish a floating, free placement in the range above the passaggio and then start to mix this down into the mid-range.

Central to all these processes is the poise of the head. The Alexander Technique was developed in response to precisely the same kind of problems as we are working with here, and proves both an instructive and heartening object lesson for us.

The thing that these singers may find hardest to deal with is the typical adult learner's desire to learn everything at once. After a session where they have succeeded in singing through from one register to another without their voice cracking, they may find themselves disappointed when their voice gives out as usual during choir.

But the issue here is entirely habit. In an unusual environment, with nothing else to do focus on but control of the technical elements we are working on, and someone else monitoring and tweaking what you do in real time, establishing a new set-up for the voice is perfectly possible. When you go back into choir, all your usual responses kick in as you are back into your regular world with all its distractions of other people and varied music.

And you know the thing that makes the biggest difference in transferring the new set-up from the one-to-one sessions into real life? How often you practise...

Thanks for another interesting article this week - I quoted wholesale from this post at our choir rehearsal the other night and many of the singers found it helpful. Like many niggly worries, it's nice to know you are not alone in worrying about your voice changing with age. It gives a different focus to warm-ups where you are embracing your floaty head voice too.
One point: The maternal members of the choir would like to point out respectfully to the Spooky Men that if you were a bit hoarse the day after giving birth, you might not mention it. It might well not be the most intense physical or emotional thing you were feeling...
Liz N.

Ha! I have some friends who may be going to another Spooky Men workshop this summer, so I will ask them to mention this if it comes up.

Thanks Liz,
You make some valid and reassuring points. Another thing us older singers can experience is a gradual onset vibrato. I've been struggling with this for years and got to a crisis point where one unfortunate remark completely destroyed my confidence. It has taken a lot of help from a dear friend and constant reinforcement on my part to regain a fairly steady voice. I'm not totally "cured" yet, but have improved sufficiently to regain some confidence which is key to singing without vibrato. I'm not very happy with my vocal quality, but thanks to the support of my MD`s I have a safe environment in which to practice and grow. Xx

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