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Care and Feeding of the "Mature" Choir ...

I'd love to get some ideas from the group here on some exercises that I can use with my "seniors" choir, and as well as any repertoire suggestions for Christmas or spring music (our spring concert theme is "the birds and the bees").  
I currently direct a a wonderful group of around 25 (mostly) octogenarians.  Most of my singers had sung somewhere before, but many had not sung in quite a few years.  There are no auditions; I tell them that as long as they can speak, they can sing,  and it helps if they can hear well enough to differentiate pitches.  Most are residents of the retirement facility in which we rehearse; a few travel from a neighboring facility.
We've been working on reconnecting breath support and learning to sing with more "mature" voices that often don't work like they used to.  For example, blowing up balloons has been particularly helpful in gaining a sense of the muscles involved in supporting a tone.  It's been a real learning experience for all of us, but we're in our third year, and the group is still enthusiastic and truly enjoying our rehearsals.  i've been careful to select repertoire that works with more limited ranges, as well as arranging some public domain material for them.  We sing mostly 2-part music, and there's a small group that enjoys the challenge of 3-part.  We're preparing material for our Christmas concert, and expect to play to our normal SRO crowd.  It'll be great fun!
Some of our challenges: 1) voices with limited ranges.  Many of my female singers are closer in range and vocal timbre to tenors than altos or sopranos. 2) cognitive issues. Several of my singers have difficulties with memory and with following along in the music. 3) physical issues. Many singers cannot stand without aid (walker, cane, etc.), so we do a lot of singing sitting down, which creates additional challenges in trying to achieve good singing posture. 4) repertoire issues.  Most published 2-part music seems to be aimed toward children's ensembles, and really doesn't work so well with my more mature singers.
Any suggestions you have will be most welcome, and i'd also enjoy hearing from others with similar groups.
Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA
Director, Goldentones Vocal Ensemble, Seattle, WA
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on October 29, 2010 1:20am
Thank you for these great questions and wonderments.  I'll offer some suggestions this weekend, but I'm sure several other folks will have some really good suggestions, too.
on November 12, 2010 6:30am
Sorry for not keeping my promise to reply to your post right away, Lana.  The intent was strong and honest, but I got whelmed with local work and haven't had a chance to finish my reply.  The reply will be relatively long because contextual information will be included regarding the nature of age-related changes in the human larynx and its vocal folds, and most importantly, deconditioning-related changes in the larynx and its vocal folds.  The latter changes are much more relevant to the current singing abilities of members of the Goldentones Vocal Ensemble.  Finally, there will be suggestions about what to do to increase the vocal conditioning level of your singers and how their vocal abilities will grow more and more. 
An anatomically and physiologically accurate and relatively deep understanding of vocal conditioning and deconditioning, as well as how to help people resolve deconditioning effects, are not widely known by members of any of the voice professions.  This is one of several knowledge-and-practice voice education areas that I am pretty well up on, now, both scientifically and experientially.  I know, pretty bold statement and all, and you and other readers are invited to judge for yourselves.
Come to think of it, I may have to reply to you in a series of posts, and then later, combine them all in a composite post, say, in this community's Library section.
[NOTE: In my lingo, we all have a variety of capabilities = what's possible for us to learn to do, and abilities = what we can actually do right now.  Your singers' vocal capabilities are actually quite considerable, but because considerable atrophic changes have happened in their vocal muscle, nonmuscle, and nervous system tissues due to considerable deconditioning, their vocal abilities have been considerably diminished.  So, suggestions for increasing vocal conditioning and vocal coordination efficiency will make it possible for them to gradually reconvert their vocal capabilities into vocal abilities. 
[For some years now, I've been working with a currently 82-year-old woman (Olga) who sounds like she's in her 40s when she sings.  I swear!  She willingly has participated in my very careful explorations of issues like conditioning and converting capabilities into abilitires in older adult singers.  I will likely include one or more recorded samples of her singing at ages 77, 79, 80, and 82 years.  She has a very substantial pitch range of Eb3 to B5, with C6, C#6, and D6 growing in strength every week (we meet once per week), and she is now singing opera arias such as Mozart's "Porgi amor" from Le Nozze di Figaro and Puccini's "O, mio Babbino" from Gianni Schichi, and she is preparing "O Holy Night" in the key of Eb for her church's Christmas observances.  The high note at the end is a 'mere' Bb5 that she 'nails' with all the strength and full-throated tone you'd ever want to hear in that piece.  At the age of 80, she learned Handel's "O had I Jubal's lyre" from his oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, and we recorded it.  She sang it up to professional level tempo and sang the high-speed melissmatic passages with great clarity and consistency of tone!  We have learned so much from each other and I admire her immensely!]
Keep the faith, Lana, as the saying goes.  I will get these replies going as soon as I can.
on December 3, 2010 2:22pm
Apologies, Lana, BIG TIME!  I have not forgotten. 
on December 13, 2010 12:38pm
No problem Leon -- this is a busy time of the year for all of us.
GoldenTones presented their holiday concert "Home for the Holidays" on Saturday 12/11/2010 to a packed house (mostly relatives, friends, and other residents of the facility where we rehearse).  They did themselves proud.  No, it wasn't perfect, but it was enthusiastic, and everyone had a great time.  We did four pieces that included some rather intricate rhythms and 2-part harmony.  My soloists were super (an 87-yr-old firecracker who sang "Santa Baby" wearing a red feather boa and flirting with all the younger guys in the audience; and a lovely rendition of a Yiddish lullaby, sung by one of my visually-impaired ladies who still has a sweet soprano voice).  We had a small women's ensemble as well as a men's quartet.  Add in some audience participation (a couple of familiar carols), and we had a solid 45-minute program.
One of my singers just celebrated her 102nd birthday about a week ago.  She has come to every rehearsal, and does a very respectable job with pitches and rhythms.  She intends to sing until she can't physically handle it, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for awhile.
I'm looking forward to reading whatever you care to share -- anything I can do to help these folks either regain/retrain their vocal abilities will be time well-spent.  As for repertoire, I'm going to spend a good part of January arranging some things for them -- pieces that are currently public domain.  I think that will be easier than scouring publishers catalogues for suitable material.  OK, so we'll never sound like a professional choir, but that's not really our purpose.  We just want to make the best music we can given the givens.  I want to do everything I can do to help them realize their potential, both individually and collectively as an ensemble.
Thanks again ...
Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA
Director, GoldenTones Vocal Ensemble, Seattle, WA
on December 15, 2010 12:36pm
Oh, my!  That's wonderful, Lana!  Blessings on you and every member of GoldenTones for doing what you're doing and for sharing a wonderful and very human experience with the people who had the pleasure of being at your holiday concert!!  Reading your post about it has set my day on a happy course, and I wish I could have been there.  A 102-years-young singer and an 87-year-old very young firecracker--WOW! [A prominent and now-deceased sociologist named Leslie Montague wrote several fine books, and one of them is titled Growing Young--an early influence on my perspective about "aging."]
I'm planning to post some info within the next few days that I hope can lead to the members of GoldenTones becoming even more vocally amazing than they already are.
Be well, all of you; happy holidays, and keep up the great work you are doing,
on September 17, 2011 8:18am
I was reading this thread and wondering if you had any more suggestions.  Our church choir is mostly more "mature" voices with limited ranges.  Most of them are very faithful in attendance and try anything we ask of them.  My husband and I just seem to be running out of ideas.  Any other help you could offer would be greatly apreciated.
Thanks for you help and insight.
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