Singing strong with an aging voice.

April 19, 2007

ANN ARBOR— The grandchildren can barely hear when you
phone to wish a happy birthday. The choir director wants
more volume from you for Easter Sunday’s cantata. But you
just can’t deliver more on either occasion.

Leslie Guinn, University of Michigan professor of
voice and the voice training specialist with the U-M
Medical School’s Vocal Health Center, has some suggestions
for working with the aging voice.

There can be a number of reasons why the aging voice
changes, he says. “However a persistent breathy or hoarse
voice quality should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist,”
says Guinn. Other manifestations of the aging voice may
include a higher pitched, thin, and reedy voice in males.
Females may experience a lower pitched voice. Either
gender may experience a breathy voice throughout the range,
a weakening of the muscles, which work the voice box, or a
dryness of voice and mouth. Lack of flexibility in the rib
cage cartilage can result in less efficient breathing.
Lack of flexibility in the cartilage of the voice box can
result in less control.

However, gastroesophogeal reflux can be a problem at
any age, Guinn says. Reflux symptoms, especially if they
are worse in the morning, can include habitual throat
clearing, postnasal drip, nighttime choking spells, sour
acid taste, and heartburn.

Aging voices sometimes become weak as the result of
little use—the “use it or lose it” theory. Often the
older person lives alone and has fewer social opportunities
for conversation, leading to less use of the vocal muscles-
says. Just as any athlete conditions and trains his
muscles, anyone using the voice for speaking other than in
ordinary conversation or singing needs a healthy conditioning program.

Any of the changes mentioned can cause one to employ
compensatory vocal habits, Guinn says, usually at the cost
of extra effort. This extra effort often results in a slow
and wide vibrato when singing.

Guinn suggests the aging voice be treated to a minimum
of eight 8-ounce glasses of non-caffeinated fluids every
day and 12-15 minutes of vocal exercises, beginning with a
couple of minutes of tongue or lip trills gliding over a
comfortable range as a stressless warm-up. This brief
warm-up is especially important on days of rehearsal or
performance. Some practice can be done in the car while
running errands or driving to work, Guinn says, but only if
attention is paid to proper breathing. Wide vibratos are
often caused by singing too heavily. Guinn suggests
“singing ‘ah’ with a slightly breathy straight tone at a
very modest volume, beginning each note with a soft Y
resulting in a ‘Yaaahhhh.’ Then move to rapid
triads/scales in a comfortable range at a modest volume
still beginning each with ‘Yaaahhh.'” Guinn instructs his
clients to sustain the last note of each rapid sequence
without preparatory pause, being careful to keep that note
at the same modest volume. Adding movement of the head
from side to side at a steady pace of about 60 times a
minute while singing these exercises will help isolate and
reduce neck tension.

Participating in a church or community choir can be a
lifelong joy if the voice and all its vital parts receive
proper care and treatment, he says. Not only can amateur
singers benefit from Guinn’s suggestions, so can teachers,
clergy, salespeople, attorneys, telephone operators, radio
and television professionals, and even politicians, coaches
and quarterbacks.

“But,” Guinn says, “regardless of the amount of voice
conditioning and training you do, do not assume your voice
type is the same as in high school. Be prepared to change
voice parts in a choir as needed.”

Bass baritone Guinn, a faculty member at U-M since
1971, has appeared with most of the major symphony
orchestras and summer festivals in the United States, sung
leading baritone roles in several new opera productions in
Europe, and is a prize-winning recording artist. For the
past 25 years he has collaborated with otolaryngologists in
the rehabilitation of the injured voice.