The Ageing Voice

The Baby Boomer generation was born between 1946 and 1964. That means the eldest of this generation are 70 now. And there are a LOT of us!

Many Boomers fully intend to be doing lots of activities into their 80’s. Those who are retiring are looking for meaningful activities and many are returning to singing. Adult choirs that are primarily composed of folks 50 years old and above are popping up all over.

But when returning to singing after a rather long hiatus, many Boomers are finding that what they “used to do” they can no longer do.

As with any sensory memory and any muscles, if we don’t use them they atrophy. Neuro-muscular pathways fade over time if not used. Muscles loose their strength and coordination. Plus, there are actual physical changes that take place in the larynx as we age.

But, the news it good! With retraining, and attention to what we can still do well, most Boomers can re-learn to sing to their hearts’ content.

There are predictable changes that occur with aging. What is not predictable is exactly when these changes will occur. One example is the age at which women enter menopause. Some healthy women enter menopause in their early 40s and some in their late 50’s. Physiologic age is probably more important than chronologic age. Physiologic age is determined by measure of health such as blood pressure, heart rate, lung vital capacity, joint mobility, etc.

Here are some changes that will occur as people age and the predicted results of these changes:

  • Laryngeal cartilages ossify (turn to bone) with increasing age.
    This is a gradual process that beings in one’s 30’s and is completed in one’s 80’s. (Kahane, 1983). It is hypothesized that this ossification might better support the tension of the vocal folds since bones are less bendy than cartilage. If ossification takes place around the joints of the laryngeal cartilages or the cartilages actually fuse together, then movement between the cartilages will be less.
  • Excessive ossification of laryngeal cartilages is called calcification. Calcification can cause bone to become more brittle. The singer could loose range as the mobility of the joints decreases.
  • Female voices tend to lower with age. Male voices tend to rise.
    Decreasing estrogen levels in women are a factor in the lowering of the speaking voice. Decreasing levels of testosterone in males are a factor in the rising of the speaking voice.
  • Connective tissues of the vocal folds become less organized with age. (Kahane, 1983). Collagen decreases with age as well.
    This can weaken the stress-bearing ability of the vocal folds. It also means that the “shock-absorbing” quality of the lamina propria will decrease.

This sounds like a bunch of bad news. But it’s not as bad as it seems for most.

As with anything, if you don’t use it, you loose it. There was a fairly large study back in 1991 (Brown et al.). They used 100 non-trained subjects and 60 trained singers. They measured fundamental frequency for speaking pitch. Trained singers in this study maintained a higher fundamental frequency throughout life. Several other studies have shown that normal ranges of intensity and fundamental frequency can be maintained into the 70’s.

What can YOU do to help your clients “use it” and “not loose it”?

  • The STRAW!  Singers of any age benefit from all of the acoustic influences of the straw
  • Have them stretch out the voice fully on other semi-occluded exercises.
    This decreases vocal fold bowing and helps maintain mobility in the crycothyroid joints. Use lip trills or tongue trills on long arpeggios to the very top and bottom of their range daily.
  • Help your clients develop a daily vocal strength-training program.
    Daily vocal exercise will build strength and endurance. Older singers can end up having stronger voices than they did when they were younger and didn’t have a consistent practice regime.
  • Plan ways to mitigate the decreased shock-absorption ability of the aging lamina propria.
    Consider shortening set lengths for those who perform regularly. Plan an instrumental break within a demanding song so the singer can have 30 seconds of vocal rest. Organize the set list so that there is a non-demanding song in the middle of the set.
  • Encourage them to be physically fit.
    Physical fitness helps maintain lung capacity and efficiency. Have them do breathing exercises for both inspiration and sustained expiration daily.
  • Educate them about how music and singing feeds the soul and changes the brain.
    Singing and making music change brain chemistry. New neuropathways connect. Feel-good hormones are released. Self-confidence and sense-of-accomplishment occurs.

People living in relatively economically advantaged cultures are experienced unprecedented lifespans. Working knowledgably with older adults so that they can sing their whole life long is a wonderful gift you give!

Please share in the BAST Facebook Forum ways that you have found to work with older singers that help keep their voices vital, help them reach their goals, and bring them joy.