"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:
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.
Many people lose at least some hearing over time. Depending on a lot of factors, some folks will have more hearing loss than others. If a singer gets hearing aids, there may need to be some adjustment to technique, or at the very least there will need to be a period of adjustment, as they learn how to sing with the new technology. Most people adjust quickly, though. For folks who may not have hearing aids but struggle with understanding speech (the most common symptom of hearing loss), writing down instructions every week can be helpful.
Hormones, hormones, hormones
Beyond just the estrogen and testosterone levels changing, other hormones in the body can also fluctuate. Thyroid changes are some of the most common issues that singers have to deal with, and voice changes can be a huge part of thyroid hormones that are out of whack, as well as changes to energy levels, cognition, digestion, and even bone loss. However, if there is regulation of the thyroid hormones, the voice changes very often go back to what was normal. It's important for singers to work closely with their endocrinologists to manage their care.
Dentures and tooth loss can lead to changes in how easily a singer articulates words and phrases. Some things may be flat out uncomfortable to do, so again, choosing songs that work with the new reality of dental apparatus in the mouth is important.
This is perhaps the biggest and most under-acknowledged issues that I see in older singers.
Sometimes our bodies just hurt. Offering accommodations to our clients that allow them to be more comfortable can really be helpful. Offer those accommodations early and often, so it is normalized and clients can know that it is totally fine for them to be comfortable in your studio. I have a variety of seating options in my own studio, and I encourage my online clients to be comfortable with how they are situated. I tend to talk about posture less with older clients (I'm talking about it less and less overall, but again, that's for another time), and instead talk about what feels good to their bodies. Who really cares if they're standing up straight? There's not a lot of real evidence that an upright posture is going to make them sing any better, but it could make their body feel worse.
Chronic pain is fatiguing, and if the body is tired, the voice will likely be tired, too. There is a bit of a balance to strike, however, because there is good evidence that pain can be relieved through singing and other types of music-making, so ask a lot of questions about how your client feels when doing new things. It is not unusual for them to feel more pain at different parts of the lesson, either pain being relieved from the singing, or increasing from the physical exertion of singing. Clients can be really different in that respect.
Taking some of the surprise factor out of vocal changes might make them easier to acknowledge and work with them, rather than fighting against them. After all, these singers earned the years they've lived, and the wisdom they've gained. Let's honor that! I love working with older singers, and if you serve this clientele, I hope you experience the joy in the midst of the challenges that aging can bring. These clients deserve the best!