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Addressing Older Choir Members Overall Sound/Vibrato

I am new to this sight and am needing some good advice regarding addressing the overall choral sound of aging church choir members.  (i.e. - wobbly vibrato, holding pitch, "older choral tone" etc.)  Any info. you have regarding me being able to give them empowering & helpful choral tips to address these typical issues that face natural aging issues with their voices would be great.  Thank you in advance.
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on July 10, 2013 8:49am
Hello, Shawn. Aging voices need not be wobbly. Almost any singer's wobble (which is different from vibrato), is caused by either a specific tongue tension (which can be trained out) or a lack of air moving between the vocal cords.  As muscle tone wanes, many singers unwittingly try to compensate by tightening the vocal cords. Thus the cords do not vibrate freely and one starts to hear the "old" sound. (I am simplifying a bit.)
As a voice teacher, I have worked with many, many older singers whose voices were exhibiting typical signs of age like those you describe. Getting them to move the air, to let more air through between the cords, has alleviated the problem in each case. This is even so with a tenor in his mid-seventies with the right vocal cord paralyzed by stroke. Getting more air to move has gotten the right cord to vibrate in sync with the left and the man has a usuable, nearly-two-octave range. He is now eighty-two and is a vital member of his choir.
I have aging singers use the "Yogi Bear" or yawning voice. They invariably say that it feels or even sounds breathy. They have to breathe more often and can't usually sing really long phrases, but the tone quality is quite improved. This paragraph will undoubtedly illicit some unfavorable responses, as it the information is quite simplified, but hopefully you will understand that you have tools. I have seniors in all three of my choirs, which are non-auditioned, and no wobbles.
on July 10, 2013 10:21am
Thanks Thom.   
Thom or Other Members viewing my response:
What are some practical teaching steps to tell the older choir member to help with better air movement or flow between vocal cords so the cords vibrate freely?
on July 11, 2013 6:08am
My church choir consists primarily of singers in their 70s and older - we even have a 93-year old bass who still sings regularly. I always work with them for several minutes at the beginning of rehearsal on breathing - mostly to increase air flow as Thom as recommended (the two that seem to work the best are 1) slow breath in and then hissing for a specified number of beats - often to the rhythm of the first piece we will rehearse that night), and blowing out the candles on their imagined birthday cakes (just like I would do with kids). We work on vowel shapes too within exercises designed to increase vocal flexibility. You'd be surprised how quickly the sound can improve just from these warmups (followed up with application of those principals where required in the music - with little reminders "just like in our warmup"). Their tuning has improved significantly, as well - we can now consistently stay in tune during a cappella sections and even entire anthems.
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on July 17, 2013 8:29am
Hi Thom,
I know about the yawning voice but could you elaborate about the "Yogi Bear" voice please?  That's a new one for me.
on July 11, 2013 7:45am
Our bodies already know how to breathe properly!  When we lie down to sleep we automatically breathe low and expanded.  Funny thing, when we stand up on our two feet we "forget" how to do that, so we voice teachers must "reteach" that process.  Teaching the breath process to all singers, young or old, is the first step in building the voice.  Working in front of a mirror is helpful.  The singer can see the expansion at the beltline, and can then correct the "shoulder raising." There are numerous books on how to teach one to sing, so I won't go into the explanation here.  Good luck!
on July 11, 2013 10:02am
I have to comment on Marilyn's great suggestion that we FORGET how to breathe when upright.  When I was about 10 years old, I went to my first "singing lesson".  The Sisters wore the now old habits and so looked rather severe to this Anglican girl unused to the Roman Catholic traditions.  The first thing my teacher said after I sang as instructed was, "Just as I suspected.  You don't know how to breathe."  I was so surprised as I was sure I had been breathing up to this point.  She had me lie on the floor, placed a book on my diaphragm and had me sing and move the book up and down.
That was my introduction to deep breathing and I have taught students of every age including our golden singers, how to use that amazing muscle.
You have been given some great suggestions here and they will make a huge difference.  I find that if I use a bit of humour like my real "nun's story" we focus better and the lesson is learned much more painlessly. 
The homework my choir gets is to blow air out between the teeth with an open mouth while walking between telephone poles.  They learn to control the breath and have to breathe from the diaphragm in order to have enough breath.  It gives them a goal and can be done without being at choir. Fun little prizes for those who "do their homework" like Tim Horton's certificates (maybe Dunkin' Donuts in the U.S.) or funny little buttons that say, "You Rock!" or similar purchased at the Dollar Store really make it fun but also help you keep repeating the basicis. 
Have fun.  Your singers are probably well aware they "wobble" and will welcome the help to be the best they can be.
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on July 12, 2013 6:09am
I've found a lot of helpful information in "Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer" by Brenda Smith and Robert Sataloff (Plural Publishing).
In general, I find that good technique is good technique, whatever the age.  The problem is that as we age we can't sing with poor technique and still sound good!  So spend time in the warmups encouraging good posture, free breath flow, and relaxed tongue and jaw muscles.  Also, you can say "lighter and brighter" to the women when the tone becomes dark and wobbly, or when the altos start to honk.
Good luck!
Jay Lane
President, McClosky Institute of Voice
on July 16, 2013 1:09pm
I wonder if you are located close enough to a university/college who has a voice teacher who would be willing to come in and work a part of the rehearsal at the start of the church year.  Being lucky to be in the Chicago area, I know of some wonderful voice technicians who are very willing to demonstrate vocal techniques to "tune up" the choir for the season.  It is great to have a fresh face in front of your choir, and the voice teacher can claim it as an outreach for their institution.  Ideally, if the experience is positive, you can have them later in the year as a follow-up.  I realize you might wonder about a fee, but I have even bartered dinner for the experience!  Many teachers would welcome the chance for the experience.
All best.
Bob Boyd
on July 20, 2013 2:10pm
I intend to add two exercises to the ideas listed.
The main idea is to make up their mind to stop "singing" and replace it for "blowing". Blow this phrase, not sing this phrase (sorry, I'm not an English native speaker, so I don't know if I'm using the right terms here)
1. Try to begin with "uh" vowel and teach them to hold one medium pitch feeling the wind passing through their nozzle as if they were whistling.
At the beginning it's going to make them employ excessive air but it's a way to bring them the consciousness of a continuous flowing of air.
You can use this in very basic vocalises (like short scales or arppeggiations).
When one goes to wider vowels ("oh", or "ah") the tactil feeling of the air is lost, but you can do it and remember them that it's important to relate this flowing with the use of the abdominal breathing support.
2. I call it a "ship horn" exercise. Ask you chorists to keep their mouth opened, cover it with the back of their hand, blow strongly making a sound just like a ship horn. It's important that you feel a good amount of air evading at the corners of your hand.
At the same time, this exercise gives consciousness of the flowing air related to the breath support and establishes a supra-glotical pressure that helps to warm-up the vocal chords, relax the larynx and create open space in the mouth and pharynx.
I hope those ideas can help you somehow.
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