I have an 87-year-old woman in my choir who sings baritone. Do you? Chances are, at some point in your career, you will work with aging singers. While working with young voices, one has the opportunity to shape and mold them as their voices mature, but when working with the mature voice, it’s pretty set. So, what’s the best way to get the best out of your choir? Here’s what works for me.
- Expect more of them
Many choirs go for simplicity in order to sound their best, and that’s a good thing! If you have 20 women and 2 men, you need to choose music that will work. But! Always work toward excellence, even with your 2 guys. If you believe in them, and work hard, they’ll feel valued and trusted. And they’ll sing better.
- The notes are only a guideline
What? Is that blasphemy? Let me explain. If your last 3 measures have the sopranos hanging on to a high Bb, and none of them can do it, don’t sing it. You can change the inversion, or just leave it out. No one’s worship was ever enhanced by hearing a screeching soprano. Older voices lose range and luster as they age. Make sure you pick music that is in their wheelhouse.
When I was a brash young professional singer, I scoffed at older voices, thinking their big vibratos were just a sign of laziness. But now, as an aging singer myself, I know that vibrato widens and tends to wobble as time marches on. The vocal cords lose mass and the membranes are drier. They don’t vibrate with the same efficiency. But the voice will age better if a singer has good technique. So, by all means, encourage good technique with each rehearsal; specifically reminding your singers to support their sound and not over sing. It can always be addressed without hurting feelings, such as “Ladies, some of you are driving a truck through that vibrato. (Smile.) Listen to your tone, and support. You can do this!”
I’m no doctor, but it is very obvious with the older choirs I’ve taught that their posture can be downright awful. There is a wonderful man in my choir who looks a bit like a turtle sticking his neck out, while slumped in the back. When asked to sit up, he dutifully shifts—and nothing changes. What’s up with that? After much pondering and some research, I realized that his spine is simply not what it used to be.
Here’s a quote from Berkeleywellness.com that explains it.
People lose height because the discs between the vertebrae in the spine dehydrate and compress. The aging spine can also become more curved, and vertebrae can collapse (compression fracture) due to loss of bone density (osteoporosis).
This is not to say, that you shouldn’t always encourage them to sit taller so as to release the rib cage to expand. Having said that, don’t forget that having them stand during part of a rehearsal also will not kill them and is always a better way to sing.
A young person’s energy in singing is altogether different than a 70-year old’s, right? Some of my older singers struggle from chronic pain, stiff joints, and diseases that really wear them down. All the more reason to warm them up with gentle activity. Make your singers move. They need it and will sing better once the blood is flowing. I often make my singers box the air, hula dance, or do a step touch while warming up. Anything to wake up the energy. And not surprisingly, we are all happier once we sit down to start rehearsal!
Editor’s Note: Please enjoy these selections suitable for senior choirs.
Amy Martin Cole holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of New Mexico. Insisting she would “Never teach!” She went on to Los Angeles to become a famous singer. She became a bad waitress instead. But grace smiled, and she moved to Florida to take a job with the well-known acapella group The Voices of Liberty at Walt Disney World. Amy spent many years singing in that show and several others at the Disney parks. She also recorded numerous tracks for the Disney company, including parades, fireworks shows, and television broadcasts. She also enjoyed a busy freelance career traveling the world as a performer.
As a studio singer she was lucky to become one of the voices for Shawnee Press choral demos. If you’ve listened to a Shawnee/Hal Leonard recording in the last 30 years, you’ve heard Amy on the alto part!
In the meantime, Amy found that she truly enjoyed using her Music Ed degree, and she’s spent many happy years teaching workshops to choral groups that travel to Disney. She’s also taught music in the schools and now holds a position at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, where she teaches music to singers from age 4 to age 87.