Cis-gender females ages 40 and up often experience hormonal changes to their singing voices that can result in pitch and stamina issues, excessive throat dryness and mental focus, through no fault of their own. It can happen with women who’ve kept in good physical and vocal shape, and to those who’ve had good training and singing experiences.
There aren’t many studies on female singers in mid-life and beyond when compared to all other studies of male and female singing voices in other life phases and stages.
Not all women will have unsolvable vocal issues but the manner in which the director works with them can have long-lasting and positive results.
Some church and community choir directors might not have time in rehearsals to do what I suggest. However, some of these things can be snuck into a few minutes or used to break up rehearsal time. They are tailor made for a group leader to lead on Zoom with the singers’ mics turned off.
It’s relatively easy to get a pleasing choral sound from a select group of singers compared to obtaining a balanced and energetic choral sound from a group of non-auditioned, or marginally auditioned, volunteer midlife to older adult singers!
However, it is more than possible! You do have to add to your awareness, as these things are not taught in academia right now.
Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating large muscles used in singing. Many singers with good training have the knowledge stored in their heads, and don’t realize their bodies have changed enough that they need some reconditioning. Remind singers to only do what feels good to them. They can be modified to be done sitting, too.
Dr. Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life, draws connections in her psychology practice among brain health, emotional stability and movement. Beginning rehearsal with mindful movement is the foundation for music-making.
Combing through a used book store many years ago, I came across a 1974 gem-of-a-book called “Dance of the Self: Movements for Body, Mind and Spirit,” by Blanche Howard. The illustrations alone are joyful! Here are three examples from that book that encourage Somatic Awareness and Reeducation:
1.) For the 7 cervical vertebrae and neck/shoulder muscles: Explain where these vertebrae are. Not only in the length of the spine, but in the center of the body like an apple around a core. Repeat often.
Work on it yourself and model standing with “body bright” so you can show them by your example. Count backwards moderately slowly, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. and with each count slightly turn the neck to the left, imagining gently turning each vertebra to look behind you. Allow it to feel comfortable. Finish that side with very slightly twisting the torso to the left, and end with one more slight neck turn.
Repeat on the right, then repeat both sides again. Great stretch for the whole spine.
2.) Stretch right arm straight up & try to move upper arm to as close to your right ear as you can. Stretch through finger tips. While continuing this stretch, stretch left hand down and straight back. Count to 6 slowly, and continue to breathe. Lovely stretch through torso. Switch sides. Repeat.
3.) Punch the air, like you are punching a punching bag, 25-50 times, depending on fitness level. Good aerobic activity and fun.
Forget “Proper Breathing” for a minute and focus on Just Breathing
Breathing exercises–You are encouraging activation and relaxation at this point, not “teaching them to inhale a certain way and support.” All the breathing in the world won’t help weak laryngeal function, but these exercises address general health and awareness.
1.) Lift arms out to the sides and ask them to feel for their ribs. (Find them on yourself first and look up stuff if you need to do so–instrumentalists, this means you too!) Have them put their hands on their ‘bra lines,” as if you are cradling the ribs. (The men love this..) Invite them to breathe sideways into their ribs, more as a “release” after blowing their air out, not a “tanking up and lifting shoulders.”
Then ask them to exhale forcefully on BRRRRRRRRR (raspberries), pulling their abdominals in to push their chests up. Tell them that it is the pectoral wall moving, not the flesh that is the female anatomy. This is a breath/muscle activation exercise that can be adjusted, added to and adapted. Many of the senior singers I used to work with in choirs were people who had lost a lot of muscle tone and coordination. Remember–it is breath activation and not how to sing!
2.) Inhale fully into ribs to a count of 4, hold the breath for the count of 6, exhale for a count of 7. Repeat up 3-4 times. Tell people to rest if that many is too much at first. Helps the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore, mental focus. This is really big, because they come in wanting to work, but chattering and visiting and bringing in all their issues right through the rehearsal room door. This exercise is like magic–afterwards stillness descends upon the room.
3) I work constantly and happily to help unfold a more flexible and free body throughout the whole rehearsal, which means I have to embody the work myself. With seniors, you have to gently insist on it all the time. Remind them with specifics, ALL THE TIME. See how many ways you can say the same thing and sprinkle those things throughout the lesson/rehearsal. CONSTANTLY and ALL THE TIME! DID I MENTION ALL THE TIME?
Their instrument is their body. Can you imagine the sound your piano would make if it was bent in the middle??
4.) Teaching seniors to hold music, by developing the relationship among the arms, Thoracic spine #12 and the shoulder blades is a developmental process that is very important because that is related directly to the rest of their system. And it helps them get their eyes up!
For aging singers, strengthening the muscles of the larynx (that darn wobble or severe registration issues,) can’t happen without simultaneously relaxing any muscles that don’t belong in the vocal process. The relaxation part can be aided by encouraging lots of silly noises, call and response style, along with silly faces to engage faces that are not expressive. Embody the work yourself, or it can not translate to your group! In addition, do not hesitate to refer a singer to a fellow-ship trained otolaryngologist to assess their vocal fold function. A Speech-Language Pathologist can help strengthen their speaking voices, and a singing voice specialist–either an SLP or an experienced voice teacher with vocology training–can help with the relaxing and strengthening process. (During the pandemic, most laryngologists are not seeing patients, but singing voice specialists are often able to work on-line.)
I used the spoken pattern “uh oh!” which encourages gentle vocal fold closure the ‘coup de glotte,’ sung on pitches on pitches 5-1, (encouraging a very slight glottal on the onset.) I divided the ensemble into groups of 4 to do the exercise so I could hear if someone was overdoing it or not engaging enough. This happened in sectionals as well as occasionally in full rehearsals so I could check in with everyone.
Traditional vocalize and choral warm-ups were added, but only after the initial 10 minute somatics and “activation” period. Two of their favorites “activators” were
YOU HOO HOO! (1-5-3) Head Voice, bouncy, easy staccato
HEE-HAW (5—slide to 1) Heady registration slide to mix, or whatever they can manage. If they crack going into chest registration, allow this for about a minute and tell them that this is a sign that their larynx is moving, which it needs to do. Cartilages and muscles can lose elasticity and get “stuck.” Then you back and do the same exercise and suggest that they get softer as they go lower This takes some awareness, developed over time. Encourage them to try it at home and literally no worry what it sounds like during the exercise.
Arpeggios can go up staccato, and come down legato, with arm movements to simulate direction and connection. Men didn’t like to do this much, so I asked them to move their hips in a gentle circle. They REALLY didn’t like that, so they eventually started moving their arms….I also asked men to sing in head (some call this falsetto.) This increases over all flexibility and range over time. I am not here to debate the difference between head and falsetto but work as simply as possible with the singers in front of you.
I am constantly surprised and delighted by what seniors are able to accomplish, but the manner of working with them is as important as what you do. Many of them are caring for adult children, grandchildren and/or their own aging spouses. Many are recovering from surgeries, still working and/or suffering from chronic conditions. Each moment needs to allow them to unfold their own possibilities.
If you understand Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises, teach and encourage them to do straw-in-water work at home, plus other SOVT’s throughout the week between rehearsals. It is usually not enough for most singers after a certain age to not sing between rehearsals.
The choirs that I worked with weekly followed a model of a one-half hour voices class followed by a one-hour rehearsal. The voice class was designed to also include choral warm ups and pitch patterns they would find in the music we were to rehearse that day. I know many of you do this already–but it does take planning. The results are more than worth it in tonal quality, perception and understanding of how their part fits into the whole.
I go over words and texts very slowly and more times than you can imagine. Articulation exercises are really important. Pull out any pattern that makes the tongue move. Tongue twisters are great fun to speak as a group. Singing in unfamiliar foreign languages means that I chose a fairly repetitive text and gave LOTS of lead time to learn it before a performance.
Quick, syllabic music will simply need more time to get words under the tongue. If you are older, give yourself a lot of encouragement to practice what you preach! This actually is part of your job and you can list it in your “duties.” Teach them how to work slowly and consistently and not get discouraged. Athletes at age 50 don’t expect to function exactly like they did in their mid-20’s, and neither should singers.
Church choirs have special needs because they have to have music ready every week. Most directors can’t take the time for a complete warm up, so singers have to be encouraged to do so BEFORE rehearsal begins. I used to teach workshops showing church choirs what singers can do before a rehearsal. One choir I worked with has a music teacher who sings with the group who is able lead the specific exercises for anyone who shows up 20 minutes early.
Seniors often can not hear, and may speak loudly during rehearsals. If it is disruptive, I talk to them privately: Many do not actually know they are speaking out loud. They can ask whoever sits on either side of them to gently put a hand on their shoulder if they start to speak or hum and are not aware of it.
Since hearing is an issue, I have to repeat myself many, many times, and SLOW MY SPEECH WAY DOWN. Sometimes I will ask, privately, if their hearing aids are in and request they carry an extra set of batteries to rehearsal.
If they claim I did not tell them something, I resist the urge to scream. I make light of it and repeat it AGAIN. I ask the person who made the claim to repeat back what he/she heard several times, smile with a twinkle in my eye, and move on. Then have a glass of wine that night.
I hope some of these ideas help and inspire you to find your own ways of working with seniors. We are at a very important time in our culture’s history, where is it time to embrace the wisdom of the aging and recognize the love, intelligence and perseverance that they all hold. We are all made richer for these things!
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Cate Frazier-Neely is a co-author of an Amazon #1 Seller in both Performing Arts and Singing, “Singing Through Change: Women’s Voice’s in Midlife, Menopause and Beyond.” She has been working with this demographic for over 40 years, in addition to being one of the first American vocal pedagogues to combine historical vocal pedagogy principles with the rhythms and vocal functions of Americana, pop and world music. http://www.Catefnstudios.com
Her co-authors are Nancy Bos and Joanne Hayes Bozeman. Also visit SingingThroughChange.com