Choral Pedagogy: Singing Through Female Menopausal Changes

This post suggests ways to conduct choir rehearsals with practical tools for helping cis-gender female singers ages 45 and up.

PART I

Easy Intro

This demographic often experiences 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 basic physical shape and had good training and singing experiences.

Not all women will have unsolvable vocal issues but the manner in which you work with them can have long-lasting and positive results.

During the pandemic, you can take some of these ideas and have on-line sectionals to work on these principles and encourage continuing new habits.

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. 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.

What follows are “tips,” all designed to improve your singers over time.  I have also used some of them with men of the same ages. A challenging aspect of working with volunteer choirs is the systematic insistence on the exercises needed to “prime the pump” in order for voices to free up and work mindfully and joyfully as they move through midlife into older age. Ask them to add these exercises to their health routines, like brushing their teeth.

PART II

Somatics

Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating. 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!

PART III

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.

VITAL SINGING

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 meet 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!

Please click the “more” button to share this post with others! Let’s get the word out about cis-gender female hormonal transitions and our voices!

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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 40 years. Cate founded and conducted a Levine Music’s large women’s chorus program for 20 years.

Her co-authors are Nancy Bos and Joanne Hayes Bozeman. Also visit SingingThroughChange.com

Psoas Release and Strengthening in a Tenor: Vocal Master Class #2

Nick is a musical 28-year old tenor with a Theater Degree and college voice lessons. He was on the roster of the Annapolis Shakespeare Company and sings in operetta, opera and golden age musical theater. He arrived full of enthusiasm…and with a voice transitioning from baritone to tenor.

About 15 years ago, through personal circumstance, I realized that the ‘Psoas Muscles’  are an important part of both the body’s Core Muscles and Respiratory System. Somatic Educators are talking about them now, but they remain rarely discussed in the voice teaching community. They are  primary muscles in stabilizing the trunk of the body and in movement and have their insertions in the Lumbar Spine.

The Psoas is deeply connected to the diaphragm through the fascia, and with the main ligaments of the diaphragm  which run alongside the psoas and wrap around the top of the psoas.

Nicks’ postural habits were to stand with his pelvis thrust forward and his thoracic and cervical vertebrae collapsed. He stood and walked with his knees turned out and feet splayed. Vocal pedagogue, Marybeth Dayme, (Dynamics of the Singing Voice and other vocal pedagogy books), advocates that singers stand with their feet pointing straight out, knees unlocked, to help biodynamic energy flow. I use this idea with most students and for most, it stabilizes the hips and pelvic structure so breath management and general grounding work more efficiently. But Nick could not stand this way comfortably, and it made his alignment even worse, so I knew he needed to tea to first release, then strengthen, his psoas muscles if we were going to free up his alignment in order to have his functional voice training really take root.

Releasing and strengthening the psoas  also means working with the “holding” patterns of other muscles around them. For the first two months of weekly lessons, we worked on psoas lengthening, releasing, and strengthening. This took about five to ten minutes of every lesson, and he did the exercises at home. His body alignment used to make him look like a “curmudgeon,” and now reads “leading man!”

There was a gradual change in his perception of standing and moving.

Here are some good sources for learning about the Psoas Muscles and how to release and strengthen them for free and flexible alignment.

Liz Koch’s “The Psoas Book.”  Or Visit her Website.

How to Stretch and Strengthen the Psoas

articles from Align Integration and Movement

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Part V, Final Post, Journal of a Richard Miller Week

Thanks for joining me for the final installment of Journal of a Richard Miller Week. In this series I am sharing my journal notes from a 1994 week’s workshop with the great vocal pedagogue, Richard Miller.

It is interesting to compare these notes to what is available in pedagogy graduate programs now days. This information seems basic now, but 20 years ago it was new information.

Friday, May 27

The first part of the morning is spent studying female registration.
Chest voice “pivotal point” around E-flat above middle C.
From E-flat to F# 5, “voce media”–sometimes called head voice
F# first passaggio.

(I hope we have time to talk about this more. My first passaggio is around E-flat)

High C–F6–Flageolet

The size of the larynx determines the “pivotal point.” In mezzos and dramatic sopranos these points are obviously different. (my question answered.)
Lighter voices have an ease about registration matters.

Whistle voice is not the same as flageolet according to voice science. Whistle voice is a dampening and slapping apart of the folds.

Flageolet is a great assister, but not necessary for all voices. Some voices can’t do this.

Miller feels it is best to start vocalizing in upper middle voice.

Insert 1

Miller emphasizes charging what you are worth. “Is this an avocation or a profession?”

We work with the following–

1—–5—–1——54321
EH———————-

In upper middle range–
5′ 5′ 5—-1
Eh EH EH—–

1——8—7—8—–1
EH

Equality of timbre dependent on more appogiuro.

Heavier baritones may need to go toward (a) on top. Use ah-oh-oo combinations.

Do not base tenor (or anything) on the “HEY!” or “call” technique. Introduces too much vocalis pressure which can create imbalance. (Note: this was before voice science knew much about registration balance in popular music or musical theater.)

Insert 1

Mezzo di voce important every day.

Zwichen-fachs must be the patient in development.

We listen to recordings of Boerling, Corelli, Comingo, Pavarotti, all singing the same “pen-sier” to a high B-flat. All very different, all thrilling. Vowel choices interesting.

It is a common male teacher mistake to have women sing up high with too much breath pressure. Female teachers tend to underenergize their male students.

We have been saving our questions all week for today. There are many technical questions and clarifications. I ask him about his wife. What role has she played in his professional success?

Miller seems surprised by this question and says he has never had anyone ask it before. His eyes actually tear up a bit, when he says he would not be where he is without her. She has enabled him in every way to be where he is today, from taking care of his home and children to typing and editing manuscripts to listening to him practice talks.

There is a good-natured disagreement between Miller and the female teachers/singers in the class (myself included) over his assertion that the abdominal muscles have no play in support. He says there is no use of abdominal muscles other than all the muscles of the thorax have their origins in the pubic area and are therefore “used” without thinking about it in appogiuro. All the women have spoken up in disagreement, and we have a show and tell that is very interesting. He concedes that women have more space in the abdomen because of the womb, and perhaps we feel things differently.

We end the week with singing “daily regimen warm-ups.” He emphasizes warming-up before teaching.

On performing dates, sing through the voice by 12 noon. Before performing, sing agility exercises.

Learn not to sing fully during contracted orchestra rehearsals and save bloom for performance.

We leave the room slowly, speaking with each other, trading business cards, thanking Miller and talking in small groups. I am anxious to see the children but don’t fly back to DC until tomorrow morning.

Part IV, Journal of a Richard Miller Week

Welcome to Part IV of recently found journal notes from a 1994 workshop in Nashville, taught by the great vocal pedagogue, Richard Miller. You can find Parts, I, II and III HERE.

It is interesting to compare these notes to what is available in pedagogy graduate programs now days. This information seems basic now, but 20 years ago it was new information.

May 25

A medical doctor by the name of ‘Dr. Mitchell’ is brought in to lecture on vocal health basics.  They are ‘basics’ alright.  He is talking to us like we are 10 year-olds.  He gives us such gems as “A professional instrumentalist must operate at over 100% efficiency in order to do his/her work.”

The number of glands that lubricate the cords and larynx dry up as you get older, just as a course of regular aging.  wow, I did not know this….

Medication for infertility can have a permanent effect of lowering the voice. Aspirin can cause vocal fold hemorrhage.  Blood pressure medications can cause drying and mood changes.

Increase hydration when on medications.  Lord he is on a roll.

He says one vague thing about the female endocrine system–“premarin helps keep you moist.”  (used when? all through the life passages? how? the lack of useful information from this medical person is astounding.)

Other brilliant tidbits include 1) When you are on tour, bring your own food. (which you figure out fast enough when you are on tour, ) and 2.) Environmental allergies are hard to test. (smoke, perfume, carpet cleaners, etc.) Basically got nothing out of his lecture.  pffffft.

Next we observe slides of various surgical processes. First one is removing a cyst from a fold. Also observed enlarged blood vessels due to great subglottic pressure in one singer and during menstruation in another. Observed a laser coagulating blood vessels.

Observed a vocal hemorrhage in an undergraduate singer.

Fig 4 Vocal fold hemorrhage

Miller notes that speech pathology degrees do not include singing training until the masters’ level.

Vocal folds should vibrate in phase relative to each other.  When they fail to oscillate in phase, these phase differences contribute to dysphonia. Normal is when the vocal folds open and close together.  Out of phase vibration is when one fold in the open phase while the other fold is in the close phase.  Phase shifts can occur in the lateral/medial plane or anterior to posterior direction.

Many possible variations in vocal fold oscillation means that some seemingly abnormal vibratory patterns are actual normal variations.  Miller says the “open posterior chink” is common, especially in women.

“Bowed vocal folds” typically applies to the aged voice.  It appears that the front part of the folds have atrophied or there is nerve injury to the folds.  This means that the Bernoulli effect takes place through a smaller space and picks up speed.

(I am belly-missing my children but it is a relief to have a break from continuously coordinating all my moves so the kids are taken care of…)

Afternoon Masterclass

Soprano sings Schumann “Widmung”

Miller uses the interval of a 6th on (eh), followed by (a) and back again to even out a wobble on the top.  He maintains that just by opening the mouth while ascending, vowels are modified.  He does not think one needs to substitute different vowel sounds to modify.  It seems to me that he is using “opening the mouth” to mean how the jaw moves through an ascending pattern.

Most of today’s master class singers got lessons on vowel migration or lack thereof.

May 26

Epiglottis covers the larynx in the act of swallowing.  Epiglottis responds to the tongue.  He recommends the book “Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Larynx” by Sir Victor Negus.  (Note today: look for this in discount venues and used book stores because it is crazy expensive on Amazon.)

Vibrato is a healthy relaxation principle. The shaking jaw or tongue may be tension, but it is more often in a healthy, relaxed posture, particularly in sopranos because of the size of the larynx.

Miller abhors straight-tone singing.

The “tracheal pull” occurs with lower abdominal breath–lowers the larynx automatically.  Note: this does not mean ignore the width of the ribs or movement of the back when inhaling.

The false vocal folds move away from the true folds as pitch ascends.  This is not a conscious thing, but occurs with proper coordination.

Vocal folds have three parts (skin or ligament, middle, vocalis muscle) The muscles and tissues of the larynx are as sensitive to minute adjustments as the eye.

Chest voice vibrates more fully in the vocalis muscles, Head voice vibrates more on the edge of the folds.

There is fixed subglottic pressure in trachea and bronchi.

Voice scientists at present think there are only 2 registers. (? really?)

When Leontyne Price sang Carmen, she carried chest voice up to a4 and b-flat4 and got nodes.  Had to take off for 6 months.  Miller admits he knows nothing about mitigating technique for popular styles.  (He was good-naturedly accused of living in an ivory tower.)

Point–I don’t want to imitate technical differences between vocal styles. I want to be able to teach technical differences and have been trying to develop methods to do this for years.  Feel like I am out on my own, with few resources. Disappointed Miller couldn’t speak to chest registration and belt more. He does mention that he has observed that a higher larynx allows a singer to sing in chest longer.

All his slides this afternoon are from his book, The Structure of Singing. He also has pictures of the epiglottis/folds from Appleman’s book.

Miller insists on a quiet breath for efficiency.  Sub-mandibular muscles are attached to the hyoid bone which is attached to larynx.

The mouth, pharynx and larynx are the main resonators, just occasionally, the naso-pharynx.

The Germanic school often teaches “cover.”  The Italians teach a small amount of graduated modification at first passaggio and continues on up. Miller recommends starting this adjustment right below the primo passaggio.

Use falsetto in men to counter rigidity.  Falsetto is not head voice in men!

Increase appoggio for high notes.  We compared visual performances and spectrographs of Price, Tebaldi, Steber and Shirley Verrett singing “Visse D’Arte.”  Miller calls Verrett a “zwischen.” She was not as successful singing this aria as the others. She used high clavicular breathing, head bobbed all over the place, very unstable compared to the stillness of the others.  Tebaldi was under-energized in appoggio.

We then spend some time talking about exercises for men’s voices.  He suggests 5-4-3-2-1-5-3-1, starting on “oo” and going to “ah” on 1, using falsetto if the voice is rigid.  He works with several different volunteers from class.  If a singer has a  break going from 5 to 1, he has them sing softer and slide more, sometimes changing the vowels.

Increase appoggio for high notes.

Afternoon Masterclass

Tenor-“Comfort Ye….Every Valley”

Miller vowel-tracts (has singer go vowel to vowel) for more legato and brilliance in a beautiful voice.  Also uses “nie, nie, nia, nia, niu.”   Just an observation–he seems much more comfortable working with male voices.

Soprano–(did not note what she sang) but she has a wonker of a voice–very loud with crazy vibrato.

Miller first realigns support from “pull in” method to appoggio.  He says this will change her subglottic pressure which is currently creating throat tension.

This soprano is large breasted and he has her put her hands behind her back, walk slowly forward, kneel, walk backwards while singing on “ya.”  1—5—1—54321—-5—-1.   This seems to help her alignment and freedom of breath.

Soprano sings John Duke “Nobody Knows This Little Rose”

Miller starts by using agility exercises in mid-voice:

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He is trying to build focus in her middle voice, which doesn’t have much of a presence.

The old wisdom “inhale through the nose like you’re smelling a rose,” pertains to the zygomatic arch.

Stuck in between the pages of this journal at this point were two postcards I sent my children that week. wow.  remember hand-written mail?