Reconsidering “Too Old to Sing”: Can Singing Skills be Revived?

There is a poignant movie called “Christmas without Snow” in which John Houseman plays the part of a recently retired college choral director who has taken on a small volunteer church choir. The story line follows rehearsals for the choir’s first performance of a major work, Handel’s “Messiah”. Intriguingly, it also follows the behind the scenes drama that is always a part of our work. The script writer must have had first-hand knowledge of volunteer choirs, because all the personalities in our own choirs are right there, including the dedicated older alto with a heart of gold and love of singing, but also diminishing vocal skills. One scene in the movie portrays Houseman giving her the “too old to sing” talk which we all dread. But is the problem purely one of age, or can singing skills be revived or adjusted?

We are facing a dilemma. Volunteer choirs are aging at a momentous rate. Singers aged 70 and older, who used to be a rarity in our choirs, now constitute asignificant proportion of our singers, not to mention the phenomenon of retirement home choirs which are springing up throughout the country. We can no longer afford to say “you are too old to sing”.  Besides, philosophically, we shouldn’t. On the other hand, some of those old singers are ruining our sound, which frustrates other singers and diminishes the experience for our audiences and congregations. What to do?

Esteemed otolaryngologist Dr. Robert Sataloff wrote, “These aesthetically undesirable effects of aging can often be reversed.” Physical aging is a fact, but the good news is that many of the most noticeable vocal problems typicallyblamed on aging are in reality due to a lack of conditioning and skillbuilding. I will be addressing these issues among other senior singer concerns at the national ACDA conference in Chicago in March 2011.

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3 Responses to Reconsidering “Too Old to Sing”: Can Singing Skills be Revived?

  1. Betsy Scherer says:

    Hi Michael - This is an interesting subject. My voice has certainly changed as I've aged, and I'd be interested in knowing how to combat that. Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I find being in a good choir - such as the community chorale you conduct at the Germantown Academy - enormously satifsying. Thank you for all your dedication, expertise, patience, and perseverence in coaxing forth the music that is within all of us.

  2. Tim Wert says:

    I attended the session in Chicago and look very much forward to the book on the subject. My group "The Magnifiers" in Columbia, SC, is very much like the ones Dr. Kemp describes - they love to sing, but have felt the need to 'retire' from 'good choirs' in which they once enjoyed singing. It always seemed such a shame and depressing life passage when a senior member of a choir felt like they couldn't keep up, contribute or worse yet, held the choir back in some way.

    With Michael's help perhaps we can grow senior citizen choruses rather than watch them decline.

  3. Fran Morton says:

    We have to keep in mind two major believers in singing as a life-long skill -- Oren Brown and Lucinda Gurly Shaw. . . both concertized well into their 80's! While this may not be all of us, their example is worth noting. . .

    Both of them made extensive study of physiology of singing to understand thoroughly how the "mechanism" works and, most importantly -- they kept singing!

    You can Google Oren Brown and even hear him singing at age 92 on YouTube. Lucinda was George Bernard Shaw's mother, a Mezzo and teacher. . . so to all of us -- keep singing!

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