What to expect as singers age

"Aging" is practically a dirty word in many Western cultures. Even in the singing world we tend to be obsessed with youth, often for very silly reasons. That leads some singers, especially older women, looking for ways to maintain their youthful sound, and to keep their voice young for as long as possible.

While we can debate the merits or drawbacks of such an approach, I do think we need to examine how we discuss aging voices in the studio, so our clients are empowered to sing for their own enjoyment at whatever age they happen to be. One of the things that has helped me as I have slid on in to peri-menopause and noticed some changes in my own voice is simply knowing what is normal for a body as it ages. Some changes have been, frankly, very fun. I've developed more richness and flexibility in my singing than I've had in years. (Now, some of that has come after I've stopped obsessing about some technique critiques I've received that were not accurate or helpful, but had stuck with me. That's perhaps a story for another time.) I do know that some changes are likely on the horizon for me that will not be as fun. I've learned more about the aging voice in recent years so that I know what I can expect, and therefore not be surprised. I firmly believe that when voice teachers normalize changes to the voice and to the body, when our clients aren't surprised by them any more, then a singer can take ownership of the voice and the body he or she has.


To that end, here's a quick list of some of the changes that come in a singer's body as they age, and what might happen as those very normal, very natural, changes occur:


Atrophy


As tissues age, they tend to lose mass and function can decline. For singers, we can experience this at all kinds of levels, but one that we don't talk about enough is the decline in nerve function from tissue atrophy. Neuro chemicals can change as we age, and that changes the way nerve signals are transmitted. Most often, those changes mean that signals go a little slower, or are more intermittent. This means it can take longer for singers to make decisions, it may take longer for the voice to react, and the voice may react in different ways than expected. Voice teachers can allow for more time for processing, offer lots of encouragement and demonstration when working on new concepts, and set reasonable goals for wherever a client happens to be.


It is also worth noting that for some of our older clients, neurological changes can be more common because of neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia and Parkinson's, as examples. These conditions do not mean that a singer cannot enjoy a robust singing life, but if you are not familiar enough with those types of conditions, it may be best to refer your client to someone with more experience. There's no shame at all in getting your client the best thing he or she needs at any given time.


Cartilage hardens to bone


Cartilages all over the body ossify, which makes for creakier and stiffer joints, including the joints in the larynx. This can lead to a loss of flexibility, making fast passages more difficult to sing. Sometimes arthritis can creep into joints, which can increase stiffness and pain. If a client is experiencing new pain in her singing that doesn't resolve, or seems to follow a pattern similar to arthritis, referring her to a laryngologist and possibly a rheumatologist for help can be warranted. It's best to get on top of pain in singing as soon as possible. There is no cure for arthritis, but medications and such can slow the progressive degeneration of the joints for many people.


Vocal folds lose mass


This is atrophy by another name, but it is worth mentioning separately. Along with the lost thickness of the vocal tissue itself, the edges of the vocal folds can lose their smooth edge, making the contact between the vocal folds less complete. Breathiness and quicker fatiguing may be the result, as well as some of the telltale signs we tend to hear in aging singers, like uneven vibrato and a loss of range and richness. The voice can sound thinner and be less predictable. Managing these changes with smart choice in repertoire can help a singer manage these changes while still having fun.