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Practical Remedies for the Aging Female Voice

by Dr. Patti Peterson

What should the daily vocalizing routine of the older female be? For most, less is more. Since the older voice is more easily fatigued, there is no reason to assume that you need to vocalize for 30-40 minutes a day, but more like 15 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes of song work. Head voice is the key to keeping the voice young. No matter what the voice type, head voice seems to want to go first, probably because the larynx tends to seat itself lower in the throat after menopause. While you may indeed enjoy your newly-found chest register, overuse of it will only thicken the folds and make it harder to access the use of the crico-thyroid muscles, which are responsible for the stretching of the folds needed in head voice. That isn’t to say you can’t enjoy some good jazz singing as you age, but a good warm-up will include more work on the top and middle voice than on the bottom.

Most voices benefit from a gentle warm-up that starts with a hum, a raspberry, or lip trills. Jean del Santo (University of Minnesota) likes to start her students with a “v” hum that engages the vocal folds more than a regular hum. The next part of the warm-up would include some melodic exercises in the middle voice with a variety of vowels, then work on the upper range, leaving the chest area for the end of the warm-up. Runs should be done by all voices, even the heavier ones. Runs are oil for the engine and they help keep the registers connected, develop breath control, and require good coordination of all the intrinsic muscles. Staccato may become harder with age, as the folds become thinner and drier, so light, fast legato arpeggios are recommended to help access head and whistle voice.

Shirlee Emmons told me that an older singer should sing fifteen minutes a day, every day of the week, even if all you have time to do is a warm-up. Her thought was that this singing should occur in the morning before teaching or singing or whatever work you do each day. She was very particular in her instructions that each day’s warm-up should include exercises that work all three registers (chest, modal, and head). She recommended Coffin exercises and the Stemple exercises below.

Stemple Exercises. These were recommended by the late Shirlee Emmons, who got them from voice therapist Joseph Stemple (University of Kentucky). They work both the vocalis and cricothyroid muscles, the breathing mechanism, and bridge chest and head voice. Dr. Stemple recommends a little /o/ shape because the rounding of the vowel helps propel the voice into whistle at the top of the slide and is akin to Ingo Titze’s straw vocalization technique.

STEMPLE VOCAL FUNCTION EXERCISES

The goals of physiological vocal therapy are to modify and improve laryngeal muscle strength, tone, balance, and stamina. Practitioners seek to improve the balance among these processes:

  1. laryngeal muscle effort
  2. respiratory effort and control
  3. supraglottic modification of laryngeal tone
  4. attention to the health of mucus membranes in terms of hydration and reflux disease.

Of the various orientations of vocal therapy, physiologic therapy in Stemple exercises is one of the few based on knowledge of vocal function evaluated through objective voice assessment, including acoustic, aerodynamic, and stroboscopic analyses. They should be done daily, since completion of these exercises takes such a short time. They can also be used for cooling down the system after rehearsals or performances.

  1. Vocal Function Exercises are a series of systematic voice manipulations, similar to physical therapy for the vocal folds. They were designed to strengthen and balance the laryngeal musculature, balancing airflow to muscular effort. The exercises indirectly address problems such as focus of the sound, onset, and laryngeal tension.

Normal phonation depends upon a balance between respiration, phonation, and resonation. When one system is disturbed, other systems adjust to accommodate the disturbance, which then unbalances the whole vocal system.

On all the exercises, the tone should be monitored for vocal breaks, wavering, and breathiness. All exercises should be done as SOFTLY as possible. Since it is more difficult to produce soft tones, the vocal sub-systems will receive a better workout. A forward tone without laryngeal tension should be the objective. Vowels should be postured before inhalation with an easy, but not breathy, onset.

As efficiency of vocal fold vibration improves, so does phonation time. The efficiency of oxygen exchange with the circulatory system is responsible for increasing phonation time, not lung capacity. (Hence, exercise # 1.)

Each exercise should be done two times in a row, the entire series done twice per day. Bare function is all that is required, not artistry.

EXERCISE 1. Sustain an /i/ vowel as long as possible on F4 for females, F3 for males. The tone should be very forward, but not nasal. Sound should be as soft as possible, but not breathy.

EXERCISE 2. Glide or slide from the lowest possible note that phonates to the highest note possible. Use a tiny /o/ shape with the lips almost closed, as if singing through a straw. When breaks occur, the glide should be continued without hesitation. If the voice breaks at the top of the range, the glide should be continued without voice, as the folds will continue to stretch. Do NOT lateralize the lips. The glide encourages slow, systematic engagement of the crico-thyroid muscles.

Gliding forces the use of all the laryngeal muscles (vocalis and crico-thyroids) and also improve muscular control and flexibility.

EXERCISE 3. Glide from the highest note to the lowest note on the same vowel described in Exercise 2. Institute a feeling of more space in the pharynx on the way down. This downward glide encourages the use of the thyroarytenoid muscle (vocalis).

EXERCISE 4. Sustain C, D, E, F and G for as long as possible on the vowel /o/, all notes in one breath. Being on C4 for women, C3 for men. As the singer begins to run out of air, the abdominal muscles should be used more, not the throat. Permit the vocal cords to do their job.

Some singers experience minor laryngeal aching for the first day or two of the program. It is similar to any muscle ache that might occur with a new physical exercise and will soon subside. Singers are encouraged to continue the program through the discomfort.

Joseph Stemple, PhD, is a professor at the University of Kentucky. His work (including a DVD) is sometimes available through Plural Publishers, but they are presently out of print, it would appear, as many websites consulted said “Currently Unavailable”. I thank him for his permission to publish these exercises.


Adduction Exercises.It is perhaps controversial to suggest adduction exercises as a remedy for the breathy aging voice. Some voices benefit from them, however, so the author suggests trying them, especially if the vocal folds are not coming together properly, causing breathiness, cracking, and unusually early or late register breaks. The vocal fry works well, if done without tension, but the fry seems to then limit the ability to access top notes, when done too frequently. It can also induce hoarseness if used too much or cause phlegm to form on the folds. Dan Marek in his book, Singing, the First Art, has an exercise that he calls “detached articulation” which works well. It is an octave arpeggio that is detached on different vowels, depending on the initial pitch, which then segues into a legato downward arpeggio. Manuel Garcia had his students sing the same note seven times with a rest in between each note, in which the glottis closes (without pressing). It is a classic exercise that demonstrates his “coup de glotte” approach to phonation.

Other methods that help are to use voiced consonants to preface mid-voice vocalizes, staccato in the middle, and simply saying a vowel in chest voice with a great deal of resonance, then quickly singing it. Yodels of an octave or tenth from chest up into the middle often help beef up the middle area of the voice without causing damage or hoarseness. Sirens from whistle voice down help add brilliance to the middle and thus lessen pushing. Too much breath pressure in the middle voice will cause the vocal folds to pull apart in self-defense, so pushing is not going to help the problem, although it may temporarily clear the sound.

LIGHT VS. HEAVY MECHANISM

William Vennard talks about light versus heavy mechanism in his book, Singing: the Mechanism and Technic. Keeping an older voice healthy means working both types of singing because, once again, two sets of muscles get worked. Heavy mechanism works the vocalis, requires a lower larynx, more open vowels, and a strong, solid breath support system. Light mechanism works the crico-thyroids, requires the folds to lengthen and tense, allows the larynx to be flexible, and forces the breath system to constantly change pressure and flow. Light mechanism, i. e. coloratura and head voice, is the oil for the engine. Heavy mechanism, i.e. legato and modal/chest voice, is the engine!

If you have spent most of your singing career working only one mechanism, then you need to consider working both as you age. Berton Coffin, in his book Overtones of Bel Canto, has many vocalizes that specifically work one or the other and then mixes them together, but you can make up your own, once you know what elements are involved. High and light with a predominance of head voice probably requires more closed vowels and a real sense of blown air, as a flute works. Heavy mechanism uses more open vowels, continual, steady use of the abdominals, and a French horn airflow.