The other night at rehearsal, it dawned on me that the symphonic chorus with which I sing had "Boomer-anged"—we had transitioned into women and men "of a certain age." You know, the age when the meaning of the word senior has less to do with college and more to do with retirement and pension plans.
One of the fallouts of getting older is that some of us are beginning to experience voice problems. For me, it's showing up as reduced stamina and somewhat reduced range. Things that used to be easy are harder—sustaining the high notes, singing through a phrase on one breath, doing a smooth crescendo and decrescendo.
Having your voice play tricks on you is no small thing for a singer. Many of us have been singing in choruses pretty much nonstop since grade school. It feeds our soul, it's a primary source of friendships, it's the way we can help make the world a better place. We want to keep singing as long as we can.
Grappling with an aging membership is no small thing for choruses either. Music directors must balance their desire to maintain and improve the artistic quality of the group with the needs of individual members, many of whom view the chorus as their home away from home. And there's organizational stability to consider too. In many volunteer choruses, long-time singers are the glue that holds the organization together.
So what can a chorus do? We asked a number of choral singers and conductors to tell us how their groups are managing issues related to aging voices. Their experiences run the gamut depending on the size of the chorus, the group's "culture," and whether it is volunteer or paid, auditioned or not, a church or community choir.
But one message was clear: There is much more that both singers and choruses can do to manage the issues that arise with the aging process.
Older Voices: Weeds in the Garden or Hidden Gems?
Physiologically, the effects of aging on the voice are the same ones plaguing other parts of an aging body: sagging and stiffening. When you read about everything that begins to atrophy, it's understandable that some consider aging voices to be the weeds in the choral garden.
But a number of choral conductors do not believe that aging voices are to be rooted out like crab grass. "There's no such thing as an age problem, other than the degree of all the problems we have to deal with all the time," asserts Andrew Lewis, music director of the Elgin Choral Union, a 130-member auditioned chorus in the Chicago Metro area. "Singing is like exercising any other muscle," he claims. "As long as you keep doing it, you can stay supple and strong."
Lewis says the older members of his group are still, by and large, healthy and singing well. The issues he sees, while acknowledging that they may affect older singers to a greater degree, have to do with vocal production and good habits. What he hears from the podium when things are not going well is an amateurish, unsupported, thin sound.
"I have a fantastic meaty alto section," he says. "If they start sounding like high school girls, they are not paying attention to their breath support, not singing with their entire being with their feet firmly planted on the floor, not really engaged. You can hear it."
Susan Beckley, artistic director of the Harrisburg Singers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, shares Lewis's perspective that the challenge for older singers has less to do with age and more to do with technique. The singers in her auditioned chamber group range in age from 17 to 68.
"Unless an individual develops a physical problem that hinders his or her ability to sing," she says, "in my experience, a person in their 60s or 70s who sings correctly can continue to make a valuable contribution to the ensemble."
What Singers Can Do
If singing correctly is the answer, singers need to know how. But often singers say they are more aware of the problems than the possible remedies.
Stewart Creelman, 71, had sung in a symphonic chorus in Springfield, Massachusetts for many years and had noticed small changes in his voice, but hadn't really addressed them until he enrolled in the "Singing for a Lifetime" course at the Berkshire Choral Festival.
The course—open to all, but required of Festival participants over age 70—explains what happens to the voice as it ages and offers an array of strategies and exercises for maintaining the voice's agility and flexibility. "I found out that there were things I ought to be doing," Creelman says. "The Festival was offering voice lessons and I decided, 'I'm going to do that.'"
That week, the Festival was performing the Dvorak Stabat Mater, not an easy piece with its high F-sharps for baritones. "I could feel myself in the early rehearsals squeezing my voice, raising my chin, reaching through my ears to get that note," Creelman confessed.
"In a voice lesson, with proper positioning of the vocal opening and getting the diaphragm activated, the note came right out and it was beautiful. You can hit a note comfortably with the proper training."
The Berkshire Festival faculty who teach the "Singing for a Lifetime" course are firm believers that older singers can continue to sing well into their retirement years. But it takes effort.
Barbara Peters, a voice teacher and voice therapist who has maintained an active solo career into her 50s, has observed that older singers may not understand that singing is a full body activity, much like other sports.
"You have to be physically in shape," she says. "I encourage older singers to join the Y, walk every day, swim or do some other low-impact exercise." When Peters leads the "Singing for a Lifetime" class she offers a long list of strategies for taking care of the body, reducing tension and stress, and warming up the voice.
"Warm-ups are incredibly important," she says. "You hope that choral conductors bring knowledge of singing to rehearsal, but if not, you need to do your 10 minutes a day," she admonishes older singers.
Like Creelman, older singers need to consider whether regular voice lessons would help them maintain their voice. "It's not enough to say, well, I studied singing in college," says David Hayes, music director of The Philadelphia Singers. "The body ages, and the voice is part of the body. It's particularly important for the serious amateur singer not to discount the idea of some kind of regular study with a teacher."
What Choruses Can Do
While there are many things a singer can do to stave off the effects of aging on the voice, what can choral organizations do to help older singers?
Jay BeVille, artistic director of the Williamsburg Choral Guild, an auditioned community choir in Williamsburg, Virginia, believes that attending to singer vocal health is part of his responsibility as a music director.
"Encouraging individuals to be conscious of their vocal health is important as well as teaching proper techniques," he says. He and a number of conductors address issues of the aging voice either directly or indirectly in the manner in which they lead warm-ups and rehearsals.
Keep it simple
When working with the Elgin Choral Union or his church choir, Lewis thinks very carefully about how he warms up the singers.
"I like to keep it very simple, 10-15 minutes at the beginning of rehearsal focused on the fundamentals of breathing, support, creating beautiful sound, and pure vowel formation," he says.
"Those are the basic things we really have to strive for in everything that we do. For this group if I chose warm-ups that are complicated or overly athletic, it might not be warming up, it might be too taxing for them. I make sure the first few pieces I do in rehearsal are easy on their voices. It's continuing the warm-up, in a way, though we don't say that. But it is."
Group voice lesson
Beckley of the Harrisburg Singers does not audition her singers every year. Instead, she approaches each rehearsal as a group voice lesson. "I find that I can attend to aging voices by teaching proper vocal technique in rehearsal," she says. "Occasionally, if I feel it necessary, I will work privately with an individual to correct a particular problem."
Some of the techniques Beckley uses in rehearsal include:
- For higher placement and more focused tone. Ask four or five singers (older voices included) to sing a certain phrase in the nose. Hold the nose closed and sing into the fingers to protect the throat from tightening and to keep it open. Then, ask the singers to sing the phrase correctly. "More times than not, the sound will immediately be lifted into the mask and be more forward and free," says Beckley. The technique also helps to decrease a wide vibrato because of the high and lifted placement, she says. It reinforces the feeling of singing behind the eyes and in the mouth, not the throat.
- When pitch is sagging. Have everyone speak a phrase in a "Julia Child" or "Mrs. Doubtfire" voice and then immediately sing the phrase in the same space. This places the voice high and forward, helping pitch. Working with a bright "e" vowel and moving from the "e" to other vowels before placing the consonants will keep the tone forward.
Sometimes voice issues are not resolved with the more global approaches and the choral conductor must work with singers individually or consider other options.
Changing voice parts
As vocal tissues thicken with age, it is not uncommon for voices to drop in range. Insisting on staying with the same voice part can cause strain on the voice, limit the efficacy of singing, weaken the sound of the section, and ultimately decrease one's enjoyment.
Beckley of the Harrisburg Singers occasionally asks older singers auditioning as soprano or tenors to consider singing alto or baritone. "This allows me to avoid potential intonation problems before they begin," she says, "and allows the individual who still has a fine voice to continue to sing."
For sopranos, changing parts can be particularly daunting. "Many have never sung any part but the top, which often carries the melody and is therefore easier to learn," says Marjorie Herman, artistic director of the Hopewell Valley Chorus in Princeton, New Jersey. "But learning to sing another part can be very gratifying, a real accomplishment once one gets the hang of it."
Lewis softens the blow by telling sopranos how much they are needed on the alto part. "We do a lot of repertoire where the altos sing really high," she says. Moving tenors down a voice part is trickier, but tenors may find that singing baritone gives them a new sense of choral texture as well, says Herman. "They may very well enjoy the baritone's 'perspective.' So changing voice parts should be encouraged where appropriate."
Some choruses handle voice problems, whether related to aging or not, by offering a period of time for remediation. During that probationary period, a singer might get voice lessons or work individually with the music director. When asking singers to enter into remediation, the choral director has to carefully assess whether this will help fix the problems.
"If remediation can help, I strongly encourage the singer to do it," says Lewis. "Asking someone to take voice lessons, while it might seem scary to them at first, is more a vote of confidence."
Fortunately, Elgin Community College offers voice lessons at a reasonable rate to members of the chorus. About one-third of the singers are studying voice, Lewis says.
Softening the blow when it's time to go
But what if all reasonable measures fail? The challenge of "retiring" singers from a group, especially long-term, possibly even founding members, is highly sensitive and sometimes volatile.
Gisele Becker, music director of Cantate Chambers Singers in Maryland, faced this situation several seasons back. The group had improved artistically to the point where some of the veterans were being left behind. The first time she dealt with a singer's "retirement," she gave little advanced notice and heard through the grapevine how unfair the singer felt it was not to be able to say good-bye and come to some closure.
Now she negotiates these transitions differently, giving singers a full season's notice of their impending retirement. "This gives the singer an opportunity to experience their last year with the group," she says, "and figure out a new relationship that might be possible, either in a board, volunteer, or donor capacity."
BeVille of the Williamsburg Choral Guild took a similar tack when he asked four members to step down, giving plenty of advanced notice and urging them to remain involved in the group. "I hope that two of the four will remain part of the organization as historians," he said. "I do take the personal approach. The individuals who make up our choirs are our instrument and they are worth it."
When the Rules Change
From the singer's point of view, the most painful situations come when a chorus changes the rules of the game. This happened at the Sierra Community Chorus in Roseville, California, a group of some 65 singers, ranging in age from 19 to 74. When Lorin Miller, the group's director, announced that he would be re-auditioning all singers, it sent a shock wave through the group.
"The fear was that it was the basis for dropping people," said 61-year-old Dick Frantzreb, the chorus president. "One singer, a woman in her mid- to late-70s, was scared so much she dropped out. Another woman, older than I, has redoubled her efforts as a volunteer as her voice has diminished."
Frantzberg, who opposed the decision to re-audition singers, worries that the older singers in his group will think they are washed up, which isn't true, he says. "There is the physiology of singing, but it is also a mental game, too," he says. "How one thinks about oneself as an older singer is important. If you lose confidence, your performance is diminished."
And he fears the group may be diminished too. "The people who do the work and keep the chorus running are retired and can afford the time," noted Franzberg. "If you cut out older people, you will cut out those most able to contribute in terms of the administrative aspects."
But if changing the rules of a group's audition practice hurts morale, so does keeping singers on when they are not performing up to par. When Marcia Giambrone became music director of the Buffalo Choral Arts Society in 1987, she urged the board to adopt measures that would allow for auditioned members. They did so—but grandfathered in all the current members.
"Over the last few years, we have noticed that some of our better members are seeking membership in other organizations," said Giambrone. "They are apparently frustrated with the problems of some of the 'grandfathered' older members."
Giambrone re-audition all members at the end of a recent season. Each member sang in a double quartet and audition with an already performed piece from the past season. Those found to be deficient in basic choral singing techniques—tone, range, intonation, and sightreading—were asked to take remediation classes. After being on probation for one year, they can re-audition. If they do not pass the re-audition, their membership will be rescinded.
The majority of the members welcomed the change, said Giambrone, viewing it as a chance to grow and broaden their choral experience. But some claimed that it was an attempt to humiliate members who could not sing as well and to make the Choral Society an "elitist group."
To help allay some of the raw feelings and anxiety, the Society has instituted a program called "Keeping Your Voice Throughout Your Life" to prepare the singers for the auditions. The workshops will cover topics such as dealing with the aging voice, extending a limited range, improving tone, and sightreading.
"As conductor, I won't be involved with these classes," Giambrone said. "The idea is that I will remove myself from the whole remedial process and stick to preparing and conducting concerts. I'll be very interested in how this will play out."
Singing for the Joy of It
Emotions run high when something you love dearly is in danger of being taken away. As one choral singer related, "Singers have to sing. It's tragic if they feel like they don't have that outlet."
That's why Peters of the Berkshire Festival encourages aging singers not to give in to the fear but to get creative. She suggests that singers take a look at the repertoire they're singing and consider whether it is appropriate for their voice. Consider the type of group they want to sing with. Join the church choir. Form a quartet. Switch from the symphonic chorus to a group that sings early Renaissance, or vice versa.
"If singing is what keeps you happy, it's not so much which group you're with," she says, "it's singing for the joy of it. If you come home exhausted, how much joy are you getting?"
Anne Heider is well acquainted with the challenges of adapting to a changing voice. Previously an active soloist in the Chicago area, she had to modify her rehearsal techniques and singing venues to deal with her own voice problems. And as former artistic director of the Chicago-based chamber choir Bella Voce, she knows the hard choices that have to be made to create performances of the highest caliber.
She thinks the choral field should be creating more opportunities for "low-impact, not-for-performance singing." "We used to do that in our families," she says. "That's basically what singing hymns in church or singing folk songs in the car is." Heider led her own version of a "community sing" called Polyphony Camp—no auditions, just sign up—at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
At the same time, Heider believes choral groups can be more proactive in meeting the needs of older singers, while maintaining high artistic standards. "Conductors should be open to one-on-one meetings with singers who feel that their voices are in trouble," she says.
"It should be possible for the singer to initiate that. If the artistic director is extremely busy, maybe there is somebody else in the organization who can take on that role—something like a chorus ombudsman."
For his part, Frantzreb and his fellow choristers would welcome such an opportunity to deal with their aging voice problems. "You can wait until someone tells you that you don't have it anymore, or you can take charge of your own situation and do something," he says.
The payoff, he says, would be huge: getting to grow old with a community he has grown to love. "I sing in our chorus, rather than another chorus, because I like the repertoire we sing and it fits my schedule," says Frantzreb. "But a strong factor is that I count many of these people as dear friends. We hold ourselves to a standard to perform competently, to deliver a concert pleasing to the audience, but there is so much more to it. I care about these people."
"With the growth of volunteer choruses, finding the right balance between the chorus as social institution and performing group with artistic standards is important," he says. "You can't ignore either side."
This article is adapted from The Voice, Spring 2008.