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 a significant 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. This is a topic that I frequently address, among other senior singer concerns, at national conferences and my "Booster Shots."