We don't like to talk about getting older here in the United States. Entire industries, and quite a few charlatans peddling miracle cures, have sprung up to help us ward off the seeming disaster that is aging. And I'll admit that it's not super fun to sit around and contemplate how much of my life is behind me instead of before me. Yet, I can choose to make the most of what I have left. That includes my voice. While aging effects every body differently, there are a few common things that can happen with advancing years. How to solve all of them is beyond the scope of this post and is best done with your voice team so you can address your individual needs. However, there are a few tips I will drop along the way.
1. Loss of range
For many people, a shrinking range is one of the first signs that things are changing. You might lose notes on both ends of your range, but people generally notice top notes are absent first. Staying in good vocal shape overall may help to mitigate some of that loss, and might even help some of those notes to come back. For many people who are in good vocal shape, they might lose only two or three semi-tones. Others who are not in as good shape might lose more. This is all highly dependent upon the individual, however.
2. Shifting of range
Rather than losing a total number of notes, a singer might notice his or her range shifts up or down a bit. This might also mean that passaggio notes (where those register changes happen) are a bit different than they used to be. I think it is most common for the whole range to shift downward, though I've heard of a few singers who have found things shifting slightly upward. Again, it's very individual.
3. Changes in stamina
Like the rest of our bodies as we age, fatigue might start to creep in faster than it used to. Decreased muscle mass means there is just less energy available to us at any given time. More frequent breaks and a consistent vocal "workout" routine is necessary to help keep the system from wearing out completely.
4. Changes in speaking voices
As women lose estrogen and men lose testosterone during the aging process, speaking voices (and singing voices) can change. Women will tend to see their voices deepen, and men's voices will rise.
5. Faster dehydration
This is not universal, but many of us will need to take medications to deal with health changes as we age. Dehydration, particularly dry mouth, can be a side effect of many of those types of medications, and thus we need to be aware of our hydration levels more than we might have had to previously. Check out www.ncvs.org/rx.html for a database of medication types and their known vocal side effects.
6. Changes in vibrato
Vibrato is a natural phenomenon that adds overtones and richness to the voice. Loss of muscle mass can lead to changes in the speed and variation of the vibrato, very often making it slower and wider. Keeping the vocal muscles toned can help to eliminate or improve vibrato changes.
7. Breath support changes
Breathing is also controlled by muscles, and as those muscles lose tone we might find that we are unable to sustain long passages like we could when we were younger. Regular cardio and aerobic exercise can help to improve breathing function (check with your doctor about it before changing anything in your routine), however, it might be necessary to plan for breaths in a different way. There's no shame in taking more breaths if you need to! Breathe and sing!
8. Tuning issues
There are myriad reasons why tuning could be a problem. Some reasons could be things already mentioned in this list. One thing I haven't mentioned yet is hearing loss. Having a trusted teacher, coach, or accompanist that can help you know when you are a bit off in the tuning can be an invaluable help. For example, I already know I have a bit of hearing loss due to scar tissue on my ear drums, and there are times when I sound perfectly in tune in my head, but outside in the real world, I'm off and I have no idea. This is particularly a problem for me when singing at or above the top of the staff. I've had to let go of my ego in those moments and rely on the good hearing of others to help me, and then really dig into my muscle memory to know what those notes should feel like.
The most important thing, I believe, is that you keep singing. Even if your voice is changing or feels unstable, please don't let that silence you. We need your voice in the world! And I believe you need singing in your life, for your own soul.
If you've got some questions related to aging and your voice, give me a call and let's talk about it. I can help you develop a plan to keep your voice in shape. Aging doesn't have to end your singing!