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.
- Vision Through Healthy Aging Eyes. NIH National Library of Medicine
- Reaction Time Decreases with Age Due to Changes in Ability to Prepare Movement. Newswise American Physiological Society
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.Follow Write Into Life