Challenges of choral singing in old age

Interesting photo of a community choir preparing to sing. Women in black, men black pants, white shirts. A tall,slim director in a stylish little black dress stands in front.
A mature community choir prepares for choral singing

I am facing some new challenges in choral singing in old age. And if I feel them, so do others — maybe including you. The photo above shows our happy community choir preparing to sing in a delightful concert last Tuesday. While I’m about to write about some problems, make no mistake: I love this choir, I love rehearsals and I loved our beautiful concert. It’s just that during our performance I became aware of some challenges associated with the fact that I’m now 83: not 33 or 53 but 83. And I need to take a good look at them and deal with them. Because they are not about to improve. Next year I won’t turn 64 but 84. That’s how it goes.

Of the 22 singers who are visible (another 8–10 are hidden), 13 have white or grey hair and 9 do not. We do have a wide range of ages, but the majority are not young. So the challenges of choral singing in old age are on the horizon for other members too, not just me.

Long-standing voice challenges: no surprises there

My singing voice has always been pretty average although once in a while I surprise myself. With age, my range has shrunk. I’m one of those who’s losing the lower range first. When I sing at the lower edge of soprano, it’s more of a croak. That’s allowed—we’re an unpretentious all-comers community choir. If I sang solo, the entire choir would slink away in embarrassment.

How to deal with the voice challenge? I do a quick voice exercise in the shower most mornings when I hit the cold tap. I drink water whenever I remember to. I suck a Vocalzone tablet before we start. Sometimes I lip-synch the notes that are coming out ugly. Try to focus on breathing. And try not to talk too much in the day if I have to sing or speak at night.

I’m not worried about this. A community choir is very forgiving of the odd croaky voice. (Also if you sit next to Marion you can’t go far wrong.) Sorted? Sort of.

Visual challenges for older choral singers: common

Well, I’ve had cataracts, same as pretty much anyone my age. They’ve been removed, but I still have trouble reading some of the printed music. Especially challenging is music where the words are printed very small. In last week’s concert this problem leapt to the fore and I struggled.

Now, this is fifty per cent my fault: I felt under-rehearsed. And that is strange, because I can run much of what we sang through my head. If I was under-rehearsed, there was nobody to blame but myself. But singing at a concert we need an interesting bundle of skills requiring quick switches of focus. We need to look at the music pretty often, even if we know it very well. I try to hold my music folder high but not too high, so I can:

  • read the score, looking ahead to see what’s coming up next, and
  • simultaneously see the director conducting us out of my peripheral vision, and
  • simultaneously read the words, which may be printed small and in a foreign language (last week we sang in English, French and Irish!)
  • look straight up at the director often
  • look at the audience often, especially those at the back — who are a long way away in a big church. (Long range vision is only required when performing, not when practising.)

One new factor was at play last week which threw my problems into relief: four days earlier I’d had a skin graft on my lower lid plus a few stitches, fixing an annoying problem. It takes a while to recover from such things so I wasn’t at my medium-to-average best. Still, it was good to get this advance preview of future challenges to me as an aging choir member.

How to deal with this? I need to practise much more at home, especially when I miss a choir rehearsal. I need to hunt out midi files which help to hammer the soprano parts into my aging brain. Also, on the whole I prefer using an iPad to read the music, because I can enlarge the scores.

Slow reaction times in older choral singers: normal

I really noticed this last week. I’ve been aware of it for ages, in dancing (I’m often half a beat behind) and — oh, in so many situations. In a couple of fast songs, I just couldn’t read and respond fast enough.

What to do about that? I’ll carry on prioritising physical exercise. In a perfect week I do three classes at the Freyberg gym (Pilates and Pump), combined with a couple of swims in the harbour, and a couple of dance rehearsals. I just love all of that, and this episode reinforces the mighty value of exercising.

Carry on choral singing in old age

Yes! That’s the message from me to myself. If I hit problems, sing more, not less! Choral singing brings so much joy and beauty and friendship and fun into my life. The benefits include exercising an old brain that needs exercise, exercising old eyes that need exercise, and learning, expressing, having a voice! What’s not to like?

A challenge is a good thing. A challenge is not necessarily a problem. A challenge is an opportunity to assess a new situation and deal with it.

“Deal with it!”

“You deal with it!” is a phrase I heard often when I interviewed 12 people between 90 and 100 last year for my play, The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People. You’ll hear that phrase again and again if you come to the play at Circa Theatre, Wellington, in November or December this year. I learned a lot from those resilient nonagenarians, so hooray for a change to tell myself: Deal with it!

The alternative is to stop singing. Now why on earth would I want to do that?

You can sing in a choir at any age. When age-related changes present new challenges, deal with them — and carry on singing.

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23 thoughts on “Challenges of choral singing in old age

  1. I think you are amazing. Luckily I could never sing. When I did, my wife assumed I was singing offkey on purpose and would say, “Stop, you are ruining that song.” At least I do not have to worry about any decline in my voice.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Smart work,seeing the upside 🙂

  2. Dan Antion says:

    I love this, “…I wasn’t at my medium-to-average best.” Taking stock and moving forward is a good thing.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’ve never been a perfectionist, fortunately!

  3. Cathy Cade says:

    I can relate to that loss of vocal range. My alto was always on the low side and now, with the singalong group I go to, I often hop up and down an octave mid-song. But nobody minds. I can make up the harmonies I love and nobody cares. (Probably nobody hears except my neighbour, and she’s a friend from a previous acapella group that folded when our leader moved away.)
    Yes, we do occasionally sing in public, at care homes or in the market square at events. But either most of our listeners are deaf, or the surrounding crowd drowns out our imperfections. I sing because it makes me feel good (not because I make the group sound good).

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That sounds like an ideal situation for a happy older singer 🙂

  4. Jane Fritz says:

    Everything you describe is SOooo true for all of us aging choral singers. And no group singing during the few years of Covid accelerated those challenges. Of all the limitations brought on by the aging process, for singers the reality that you may not be able to sing anymore is right up there at the top of the list for disappointment. As you say, singing brings such joy. Happy singing, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Jane! I’ve got a hunch that when I can’t sing any more I’ll be able to hum. And when I can’t hum, I’ll be able to chant.

      1. Jane Fritz says:

        😂😊 That’s what I call a great example of a positive attitude!

  5. Always an inspiration, Rachel. I envy anyone who can sing well. I went to a ‘learn to sing’ weekend and they advised me I could ‘match pitch’ (just and only now and then), but what struck me most on that weekend was the glorious voices of mostly young women, who’d been told by a mother, a sibling, or a singing teacher that they were not good singers…. these were young women with truly lovely voices (unlike mine)… it fascinated me to think they thought they couldn’t sing. I actually got better at singing (briefly) but I hear you, it isn’t just a ‘natural thing’ it needs work and I love your attitude about everything you do. xx

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well that was a weekend and a half! So worth doing: you did aging!

  6. Belt it out, Lady!

  7. I admire your positive outlook. I’ve lost half my range, but it doesn’t matter, because I can’t get to the church choir rehearsals. I sing at home and have the hymnbook before me while attending the live stream of our service. It’s fun to sing the different parts.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, that’s an upside : singing bass!

      1. I can’t hit all the notes, but I hear them in my head. John was a strong bass.

  8. cedar51 says:

    Have you talked/asked any of the others in your vintage if they’ve got similar or different problems in this arena? Maybe if there’s a “yes” you could create a group kind of chat/sing so you could all be on the same page/musical note…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      We do talk! and we share problems and solutions 🙂 So you’re quite right to recommend this — thank you.

  9. I am saving this post for when I need a swift kick in the patoot with ‘Just Deal with It!’.
    Thank you for your honesty and transparency that inspires many of us and shows that we are not alone

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I really, really appreciate your words. Kia kaha!

  10. Loved this! Sent it along to an 86 year old choir-member friend. My 84-year old self was right there with you right up to the point where you whipped out the Pilates and Pump, harbour swims and dancing cards. You kind of lost me there. My major exercise is whacking away at computer keys and hauling myself out of my lazy girl to make a trip to the kitchen. Oh, but once in a little while, I do walk a bit, or hit the exercise room in my old-folks building. Thank you for liking some of my blogs! I’m looking for a “follow” button but do not see one. Am I missing something?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hello Julia. Thanks for reading this post. I’m not competing with the exercise! By our age we do what we do, and that is what we choose to do. You are surely exercising your brain and have a great social life through your blog alone, and goodness knows what else you’re up to. I am following through on this post by listening to the works we will sing this term. Thanks for pointing out I hadn’t followed: done.

  11. Hi Rachael! Thanks for your response! And thanks for following, though what i meant to say was– when I went to follow YOU, I couldn’t find the button? Am I missing something? Yes—I love the blogging community. Who knew?! It’s nice to welcome you as a new addition!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Ouch! I need to add the Follow button to the bottom of each blog post. And I have been forgetting to add it. It needs a permanent fix. Thanks a million for telling me. A crazy design flaw! I will do it today.

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