Finding their voice and that old confidence, too

With age, vocal cords weaken, but these seniors show how singing can help

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / February 27, 2010

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Gathered around a piano with 15 other Bostonians of a certain age, Dory Tobias was trying to find her voice.

“Come to your life like a warrior,’’ she sang out, joining in the lilting lyric of the “Song of the Soul’’ with a boldness often lacking when she talks.

Tobias has a soft voice, and she said she is often asked to speak up - requests that fill her with doubt and twist her tongue. Now, in this singing for seniors class, she is learning to breathe deeply to support her voice, open her mouth wider, and warm up - basic singing techniques that she can integrate into her speaking voice, too.

A collaboration between Longy School of Music and the United South End Settlements, the class focuses on ensemble singing and harmony, but also on techniques that can strengthen voices that are naturally changing with age.

“I’m not much worried about being a singer,’’ the 63-year-old Tobias said during a break. “I just want to speak with confidence.’’

Normal aging causes natural changes in the body and mind, from wrinkles to memory loss. The voice also changes, in a phenomenon called presbyphonia. Older voices become quieter, shakier, reedier. Men’s voices tend to get higher; women’s, lower.

Joseph Stemple, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, said that aging muscles weaken and vocal cords no longer close completely - creating an airiness or breathiness in speech. Each syllable takes a greater portion of breath.

Such changes are usually not considered a problem, and most people don’t seek help from a voice therapist. But for some, a weakened voice can affect their lives, making them feel isolated or less confident - afraid they won’t be heard in dinnertime conversation, or will be unable to read stories aloud to grandchildren. Tobias finds that being asked to repeat what she says makes her feel nervous and wonder, “What did I say wrong?’’

Daniel Kempler, chairman of the communication sciences and disorders department at Emerson College, is studying whether older people’s voices lead to prejudice or stereotyping of the elderly.

“We treat [presbyphonia] when it affects people’s ability to function in the real world,’’ said Kempler, a consultant to the senior singing class Tobias is part of. “The effect is people can’t hear you or people think something’s wrong and they say, ‘Are you OK?’ ’’

Most of Tobias’s classmates aren’t there with the goal of improving their speaking voices - for most it’s about the singing and camaraderie. But any improvement in the students’ voices will be measured through a survey and by comparing how long they can sing “ah’’ at the start and finish of the class.

For instructor Elizabeth Anker, the aging voice has a distinctive sound.

“What I tend to notice with older voices is the range diminishes - the highs come down,’’ Anker said. “I hear voices being left unsupported and more easily fatigued.’’

So Anker starts class by asking her students to clasp their hands over their head and then to bring their hands down, as a preparation for taking deep breaths that comes not from the shoulders but from the diaphragm. They go to the mirror and trill their lips in an exercise that allows them to practice generating deep breaths - and also amuse their grandchildren at home. And they practice ways of projecting sound and breathing.

The class is free, supported by a grant from the MetLife Foundation Creative Aging Program. Most of the people taking the class didn’t sign up because of problems with their voices, even though they have noticed changes as the years have passed.

Rachel Silva, 67, who crooned a silky solo of “Someone to Watch Over Me’’ at a recent class, said she was hoping her voice would crack less.

“People laugh at me all the time,’’ said Silva.

Joycelyn Harewood, returning to the class for a second year, said that the breathing techniques she learned last year helped her in the three church choirs she sings in.

“As you’re singing, you open up your lungs, you can breathe better, and you become healthier,’’ Harewood said. “I’m 68 this year and as far as my voice, it seems to be getting better instead of weaker.’’

Stemple has found that specific vocal therapies can alter vocal aerodynamics in beneficial ways. One study, he said, found that female singers of all ages had better vocal function than people who did not sing.

While research has yet to show that Do-Re-Mi will turn back time for your voice, one good thing about singing as therapy is that people do it anyway, whether in church or the shower.

“The kinds of things that we would do in standard therapy,’’ Kempler said, “can be done in a context of singing songs from your youth or putting on a show.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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