For Women Only – Reclaiming and Building Your Singing Voice After Menopause
Catherine Britell, M.D.
When I was 18 and a freshman in college there was this guy in my Psychology 101 class who was a baseball star and a rather good tenor and guitar player. I remember that he hardly ever showed up for class on time. If you’d have told me then that we’d be sitting in the living room 45 years later drinking tea (chamomile) and playing and singing…and talking about …er…menopause, I’d have said, “Eeeuwwww, that’s creepy!!” Yet there we were. We were working on finding the right key (like, one we could both sing it in) for a song, getting the intonation and diction right, matching and taming our ever-increasing vibratos, and discussing how much harder this is now than it was back then. And we were talking about how women face a whole different set of issues around vocal function than men do as they age.
Shirley Verrett, an operatic soprano who enjoyed great fame from the late 1960s through the 1990s, particularly well-known for singing the works of Verdi and Donizetti. described some of these things as they affected her as an elite professional singer: “ I could sometimes feel a hot flash coming on in the middle of a phrase, as I sang onstage. It began as a gradual heating up of my chest, followed by a rush of heat to my face and body. My bronchial tubes became full. I couldn’t sleep…my breathing was more labored at times. In truth…during one performance I didn’t trust what my support was doing to keep my pitch in place. As I sang the lullaby to Vasco (Placido Domingo), I asked him to give me a signal if he heard the pitch sagging. A thumbs-up sign meant for me to raise the pitch.” (Shirley Verrett with Christopher Brooks. I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer, 2003. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken NJ)
Some or all of those things may sound familiar to “mature” women who find themselves singing for love or money, on or off stage. Here are some common issues that many women singers face as they age and their hormones change:
Dryness of the lining of the throat and vocal folds. This can cause tickling in the throat, a cough, and the voice to catch at just the wrong times.
Loss of muscle tone of the vocal chords. It becomes more difficult to sing the pitch that you’re hearing in your head, and to achieve the tone that you used to be capable of.
Decreased vocal range at the top, bottom or both. You can’t get the high notes, and sometimes the low ones go away too. You start looking for songs that are an octave or less.
Increased vibrato. Many women develop a “wobble”, which is an exaggerated vibrato that sometimes wanders too far away from the central pitch to be recognizable as that pitch.
Decreased breathing capacity. You can’t take in as big a breath or hold it as long. You have to find new places to breathe in songs.
Hearing changes. It becomes more difficult to hear pitches as we sing. We may be dismayed by recordings that reveal that we are singing flat or sharp when we thought we were on pitch
Poor posture. As muscles and bones become weaker, some women can develop a slouched posture as they grow older, making breathing difficulties worse.
Hot Flashes. It seems that excitement or stress brings these on. What is more exciting than being onstage?
Poor Sleep. This of course can lead to drowsiness, difficulty remembering lyrics and chords, and timing issues.
Emotional changes. We tend to laugh and cry more easily. Sometimes our patience wears a little thin. Sometimes music affects us more profoundly. Sometimes we feel more timid and less sure of ourselves than we used to.
All this could add up to a bit of a bummer, couldn’t it? Well, it turns out that menopause doesn’t have to mean the end of our singing. We can do some things to avoid or reverse these problems.
Of course, the first thing everybody seems to think about these days is a pill. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) has been popular for some time, for staving off menopause symptoms. The trouble is, a recent, large study found that use of HRT can pose some serious risks in some people, such as increasing some women’s risk for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung). If you have questions about HRT, talk with your doctor to find out if HRT is right for you, and also discuss other ways to relieve menopause symptoms.
The good news is that there are some effective ways to address these issues that are ALSO GOOD for your general health. These are:
Sing. Your vocal chords are muscles, and the only way to keep muscles in shape is to use them. The more you sing, the easier it will be for you, the more confidence you will have, and the better your voice will sound. The emotional overflow that sometimes happens will tend to subside as you sing with others and perform more. If there’s a song that always makes you cry, you can often get over that if you just keep singing it. And as time goes on and your body and mind become more comfortable with themselves, the hot flashes also tend to subside. Furthermore, sing with your well-tuned autoharp! This is a great tool to get your ear and your voice working together, matching pitches, and producing on-key singing.
Exercise. This is a multifaceted recommendation. First, be sure to spend some time each day lying flat on the floor or another firm flat surface. This will allow gravity to help you maintain a straight spine and maximize your breathing. Yoga can also be tremendously helpful in this regard. Next, aerobic exercise at least three times a week will increase your stamina, keep your heart and lungs working optimally, so that you can move air and support your breath. Another thing that aerobic exercise does is allow you to sleep better. A third kind of exercise is muscle strengthening. Core strengthening to help your posture, and strengthening of the shoulder and back muscles to avoid slouching, will help you to breathe better, sing better, and hold your autoharp more effortlessly. The fourth kind of exercise is strengthening your diaphragm and other muscles that support your voice. I’ll talk more about that under “Think of Yourself as a Vocal Athlete”.
Hydrate and avoid poisons. Things like cigarette smoke, smog, alcohol, very hot liquids, and caffeine will dry out and irritate your throat and vocal chords and make it harder for you to sing. Drinking lots of water, and making sure you get enough vitamins (eating fruits and vegetables is always good) will make your throat tissues healthy and moist.
Think of yourself as a vocal athlete. This is where a good teacher (trainer) can be very valuable. There are special warm-up exercises, diaphragm exercises, listening, harmony, and pitch exercises that are particularly effective in addressing these issues. And even though the problems we face are similar, everybody is different and responds uniquely to different techniques, so a good teacher will be extremely valuable. Probably the least intimidating way to start is to find a small choral group or class, with a well-trained professional conductor/teacher who really understands how to work with the older woman singer. An individual voice lesson now and then with a teacher who can give you pointers and exercises and then monitor your progress can also be very useful. And of course, like any other skilled endeavor, just taking part in lessons won’t do as much as if you take what you’ve learned in the lessons and practice them for short periods every day.
In truth, we probably won’t ever sing like we did when we were 18 or 20 or 30; but we are so much better in so many other ways, and we can still sing joyfully and well for our own pleasure and the entertainment of others.
About the author: Cathy is an almost-retired medical specialist in Rehabilitation Medicine, 2005 International Autoharp Champion, and she and the baseball player can be heard singing duets at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/cathybritellandwilliamli