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 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."

Lessons Learned Behind the Hedge

It was a moment where the boundaries between my real world and imagination faded. The waist-high grass along the creek bank combined with the eerie sounds of birds, insects, and wind in the trees to stir my imagination, transporting me suddenly into the world of my current television hero, Jungle Jim. From that point on, every step I took was alive in my mind with danger and intrigue.

Although the real world had temporarily faded from my awareness, I was in fact a twelve year old with the best Saturday job in the world, a kid helper at Garlands’ Landscaping Nursery in Oklahoma City. On that day I was the spray foreman’s assistant, unwinding up to 200 yards of high pressure hose from the truck and pulling it to where the foreman was spraying DDT to quell a mosquito outbreak.

You could only drag a hose around for so long before a job like that got tedious, and it was then that I let my imagination out to play. I became Jungle Jim leading a safari into the dense undergrowth of deepest, darkest Africa, where danger lurked behind every tree and shrub. I found a machete we used for cutting grass sod in the truck, which I stuck in my belt, just the way Jungle Jim did each Saturday morning. Not only did I look good, but now Jungle Jim was armed! With the hose over my shoulder and hat pulled low, I started using the machete to chop a path through the tall grass, thrown deeper and deeper into my imaginary safari by the burning Oklahoma sun and the primitive sounds of nature all around me.

I was at the top of my game, larger than life, clearly indestructible, when it happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something jump, long and black and slimy. It was just a glimpse, so I wasn’t sure I had really seen it. Perhaps it was a figment of the heightened intensity of my imagination. I whispered to myself, “Get hold of yourself, boy…but be ready for anything.” The sounds of the insects seemed to swell, and sweat stung my eyes. I started forward again, hardly daring to breathe, muscles tensed and senses alert for trouble. Three more cautious steps, and suddenly the thing jumped again, this time dangerously close! There was no time to think. I was, after all, Jungle Jim, and I knew what had to be done. Down the machete came, once, twice, three times! In vain the beast jumped again, hissing horribly and spewing forth its deadly venom. But it lost its final battle, and its death throes began to diminish. The once frightening creature finally lay still, fallen in the heat of battle, vanquished by the courage and quick thinking of…Jungle Jim.

Still struck with the shock of such super human reaction, I yelled for help and the foreman came running. He took a short look at me…and a longer look at the beast. As long as I live, I’ll never forget his words that day. “What in the hay-uhl have you done, boy? You just cut off the last fifty feet of our hose.”

Hmmm. I figured out later that when the foreman couldn’t reach the top of some of the trees, he stopped spraying long enough to climb half way up the trees, and then started spraying again. By then the pressure had built up, and each time he hit the nozzle, the hose jumped. That one cost me a “ceegar” every day for the rest of the summer.

I loved working at Garlands. Lee Garland had a gift of making all us young boys feel special. We would have done anything for him. I know now that he did whatever was necessary to build us up until we were old and strong enough to make a real contribution, but at the same time, he made us feel terrific about what we were accomplishing.

When I was about fourteen, Lee told me to spend the morning loading up a wheelbarrow with heavy construction debris, taking it to the dumpster. I wasn’t very big yet and that much weight in a wheelbarrow was a struggle, but Lee said it was time I learned to step up and do a man’s work. But it is the rest of the story that serves as an example of how he helped us build up our characters and bodies. You see, Lee hired a grown man to follow me around that day. Each time the bulky load got the better of me and the wheelbarrow fell, that guy was paid to help set it back up and get it reloaded…and then he once again stepped out of the way. That wheelbarrow was my responsibility and Lee made it clear that it wasn’t going to move without my making it happen.

Lee was always looking ahead, and when I was fifteen, he decided that it was time for me to focus in on a specialty. For that whole summer, he made me the assistant to the hedge trimming crew. My main job was picking up the trimmings made by the members of the crew. There weren’t enough trimmings for the first part of the day to worry much about that job, so Lee made a big thing out of appointing me the “back of the hedge” trimmer. He would sit there for hours with me, showing me in pain-staking detail how to hold one of the handles of the clippers stationary and move only the other up and down to make a more precise edge. He explained how to use the lighter green new growth of the hedge as a guide for depth and straight line, and how to step back every several minutes for a broader perspective on how this place matched where I had trimmed earlier. He also had the other men come and check out my work on a regular basis, always bragging on what I had done well and giving suggestions about how to make my work look more professional. The next summer when I turned sixteen, Lee made me the foreman of that crew. It was only then that I realized that nobody trims the back of hedges. Lee invested an entire summer with me on the back hedge to teach me the skills I would need the next year when I took over. But I remember being so proud of getting better and better.

I have built many choirs and orchestras over the years, but all I know about recruiting I learned at Garlands. One summer the nursery was hired to plant all the grass for a luxurious new championship golf course. That’s a lot of grass. In those days, after the soil was leveled, a crew of men with hoes made precision cuts at six inch intervals, followed by another crew with grass sod. The sod, which came in six foot rolls a foot wide, had to by cut into two inch squares, dumped into wheelbarrows, and dropped individually into those cuts, a tedious and back breaking job. Another finishing crew did the actual planting, but the real problem was the sod dropping. No one wanted to bend over that much. I told Lee I had a better idea and that I would be back shortly. I walked through the ten square blocks of new developments surrounding the country club and came back with twenty kids from third through sixth grade who wanted “the adventure of a life time!” All those grown men couldn’t keep up with those kids for whom I made dropping sod into holes a game. They couldn’t wait to come back day after day, and we finished that monster job a week early.

At sixteen I was a regular foreman, but most of the men were much older, so my assistants were usually chosen with care...until Lee gave me Carlos. Maybe this was another lesson, but oh my…Carlos was a piece of work. He was twenty-nine and had just been released from the penitentiary for attempted manslaughter. He had muscles on top of muscles and a deep knife scar across his chest from a bar room brawl. I knew I couldn’t make Carlos do anything, and that’s how I became a motivator. I told him, “Carlos, I’ve got to unload this semi filled with eighty pound sacks of rock, but I don’t really care what you do. Even if you did help, I don’t think you could keep up with me.” Then without another word, I turned and went to work. Carlos’ vocabulary seemed limited to mostly four letter words, several of which he launched in my direction…as he grabbed a sack under each arm. It wasn’t long before we moved from a personal competition into pitting ourselves against the other crews. Nobody kept up with us, and nobody ever, ever made fun of our crew!

There was more to learn the next summer, and I found out the hard way how to own up for one’s mistakes. I was now also the foreman of the spray crew, and most of the work that summer involved spraying arsenic of lead on evergreens which were being decimated by bagworms. Each morning I would pour three sacks of arsenic into the 200 gallon tank and fill it with water. I followed the same procedure each day…three sacks of mix and then the water. So I was mystified when I arrived at work early one morning and Lee was waiting for me in his car. He motioned me in and we sat in silence until we entered a wealthy neighborhood that I recognized as one I had worked in recently. Sure enough, we stopped at a place I had sprayed just days before, and what I saw made me cringe. The formerly flawless twelve foot tall hedge that surrounded their entire property was wilting and yellowed. Lee asked me if I read the spray mix sacks every day. That made me nervous. It turned out that mix which had always come in two pound sacks had been changed to four pound sacks in the last shipment, and I had inadvertently doubled the mixture. Those mature hedges were irreplaceable at any price. Lee explained that he had already talked with the owner, but that I needed to learn to face problems head on. We went to the door and Lee introduced me and left it up to me to explain what had happened and apologize. But that wasn’t all. Lee brought me to that house every day for two weeks with tools, hoses, special fertilizers and soil boosters, and I cultivated, pruned, watered and babied those hedges until they came back to life. Lee didn’t have to go to that extent for that customer, but it was a lesson he wanted to teach me.

Lee was a wonderful salesman. He was an expert in his field, but he added to that expertise a captivating enthusiasm and a pervasive love of landscaping which fed the imaginations of customers. I watched time after time as customers couldn’t wait to get home and plant what Lee had just sold them. He had a way of stirring up their passion. For two weeks each summer when the garden center foreman was on vacation, he put me in charge of the shop. I learned what excited customers and how to pace the presentations. I learned how to get customers to see possibilities. Selling became more of a service of showing people how to beautify their homes. Lee would come out to the shop once a day while I was in charge and challenge me to a selling duel. I was to choose the first or the second customer that walked in the door, it didn’t matter to him, and he would take the other. When those customers left, we would compare sales slips. He always made the deal that if I ever beat him, he would give me his check for the week, and he was the owner! I was a damned good salesman, but I never beat the champion. He was masterful!

Lee not only taught me to work hard, care about detail, and sell anything, he also took the time to teach me to hunt and fish, to play tennis, and mostly to live every day to the fullest. When our family returned from living in Europe during my father’s sabbatical leave, Lee threw a party for us. I’ll never forget his words when I walked in, “there’s my Mike.” It meant so much to me that I was special to him. When my two boys, Todd and Brad, were in fifth and second grades, I flew them out with me to Henry’s Lake near Yellowstone Park to meet Lee, my boyhood mentor. During that magical week together, Lee taught my boys to fish and shoot as he had taught me at their age. On the last day, the four of us were in the middle of the huge lake in a small boat catching an incredible amount of fish. The weather was threatening, but we were pulling in so many fish that we ignored it. Finally Lee looked up and ordered us to pull our lines in fast. A menacing black wall of storm clouds was racing toward us. It was coming directly into us as we turned the boat to head home. Lee came from a long line of game wardens and outdoorsmen, and he knew what had to be done. He had me take off my jacket and put it around the boys who were between my legs in the back of the boat with him. The front of the boat came way out of the water and we moved slowly forward as the violent storm broke. I doubt that the boys and I would have survived without Lee, so I owe him for that too. All along the way, he kept us calm by explaining that the other fishermen were watching us right now through binoculars, and if they sensed we were in trouble, they would bring one of the big boats out in a flash. It took us an hour, but we made it in safely.

I never saw Lee again. A few years later, he was stricken with a virulent cancer for which there was no cure. As his last days approached, Lee went back to Henry’s Lake for a final fishing trip and died in the lake. But even death could not diminish all that Lee meant to my life. Even to this day when I need courage, strength, or resiliency, I have only to think of him. He never taught in a school, but he was the most significant teacher of my life, and how he taught is a superlative paradigm for the rest of us who dedicate our lives to being teachers. May we all make our students feel so special.

Good Old Gus!


Good old Gus….a violin born in Germany circa 1850 (the same year and country as the premier of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”), eventually brought to the United States by an unknown owner, but soon vanishing circa 1938, lost and presumed dead.  But in 1992, Gus was accidently found and exhumed from oblivion, brought back to life, albeit in a weakened condition.

Gus before restoration

Like the early television hero, the million dollar man, Gus was later completely restored to a magnificent and much improved new life in a restoration project beginning in December 2011 and culminating this week.  The resurrected, exceptionally handsome “Augustus” will be played for the first time in his new life on Thursday, March 8, 2012 in the workshop of Harold Golden, Golden Violins, in Chestnut Hill, PA. What follows is Gus’ life story.

The name of the original luthier is unknown, as there is no identifying label inside the instrument, but its characteristics and style indicate an approximate age of 160 years. All respectable instruments are named, e.g. Gus’ brothers and sisters on my mantel who have all been built or restored by me, Rebecca, Edward, and Wilhelm.  I chose the name Augustus because of the obvious Germanic feel of the name, but also because Gus was the clandestine nickname the working men gave to my landscaping boss, Lee Augustus St. Clair Garland, who meant so much to me in my high school years.  I have always wanted to honor him in some way.

Gus about to be born again!

Mystery surrounds Gus.  When I came to Abington Presbyterian Church as Director of Music in 1991, there was no music library or organist’s office, but there was an old storage room that no one seemed to have cleaned out in decades.  What was stored in that room was largely outdated and unwanted, so most of it was thrown out in order to turn the room into a choral library and organist’s office.  In the midst of the cleaning process, I found in the shadows of a dark corner a box covered with many years of dust.  Inside was brand-new sheet music, but the newest publisher dates on that music was 1938, a really old box of music! The surprise lay underneath the music.  At the bottom of the box were various pieces of what seemed to be a complete violin.  My first thought was to throw them out, but on second thought, I took the pieces to a Zapf’s Music Store to see if it could be glued back it together.  The man who waited on me then is now my longtime friend and luthier mentor, Harold Golden of Golden Violins.  He put it back together, threw in a cheap bow and case, and charged me only $60.  That was March 1992, Gus’ first attempt at resurrection!

About seven years later when I started teaching at Germantown Academy as both choral director and string orchestra director, Gus was became the emergency instrument for students who forgot their violins.  Although cosmetically ugly, Gus had a sturdy sound that projected well, but also a sound void of the richness referred to by Muti as “velluto” (velvet sound).

Now, fifteen years later and in my first year of retirement from full time school teaching, and having completed five other luthier projects, I needed a new venture.  Harold and I decided to see what would happen if we completely restored Gus.  The new restoration began in December, 2011 and took three months, usually working one or two days a week.

Disassembling Gus

The history and health of a violin can only be gauged from studying the inside of the two plates, the back and front of the instrument, so the first thing we needed to do in plotting the restoration was to completely disassemble the instrument.

The original luthier had obviously been in too much of a hurry. A good luthier makes the inside of an instrument as beautiful in appearance as the outside, both because the sound waves move more freely and because they know that someday, in perhaps a hundred years, some future luthier will disassemble this violin and judge the quality of his own work by the beauty and flawlessness of the inside.  So it was time for us to disassemble Gus and see its history and what restoration procedures needed to be followed.

Disassembled pieces

The good news was that Gus had been made from good wood, although the workmanship was a quick job without much finesse.  Building a violin can only be done by hand using hand tools, almost the same as Stradivari (his real name…the “us” was added much later thinking it would add prestige to the name).  Thinning the upper and lower plates (officially called regraduating) for maximum capacity to vibrate is perhaps the most time consuming part of the restoration process.  It is accomplished with tiny finger planes and requires many days of tedious labor.  Therefore throughout history, luthiers interested in building and selling large quantities of violins would just do enough graduating to get by.  As a result, Gus’ plates were twice as thick as they should be to create maximum richness and fullness of sound.

Varnish stains on top plate

The original varnishing job, probably 160 years ago, had been hurried and sloppy.  Note the excess varnish that had leaked into the F holes on the top plates and also the strange black tar or acid stains on the back plate.

But those are simply cosmetic concerns.  The most significant issue of this type of restoration is the thickness of the top and back plates.  The first step toward regraduating the plates is to draw circles on the insides of both plates every 2 square inches.  Then a caliper is used to measure the exact thickness at each circle.

Acid or tar stains on bottom plate

The original thicknesses averaged 5 to 6 millimeters, significantly limiting the natural ability of the violin to vibrate and create sound.  My first job was to spend three days  thinning the top plate (spruce for better vibration) to exactly 2.5 millimeters, using finger planes less than one inch long.

Once the thickness was a consistent 2.5 millimeters, I then used a curved steel scraper to totally smooth the inside surface.  That inside curvature needs to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom, allowing the sound to roll throughout the instrument unimpeded.  As careful as I was, the thinning job on the top plate ran into a serious problem that I had managed to avoid in my other restorations.  Gus’ wood was more brittle with age than I knew.  I pushed a little too hard on the top plate with the finger plain, and the top plate snapped, almost splitting right down the middle.  I panicked, thinking the project was ruined, but Harold as usual came to the rescue, perfectly re-gluing the dangerous split using animal hide glue and various unique clamps.

Caliper for measuring thickness

Then the same process of tedious and now more cautious regraduating needed to be accomplished on the back plate.  The back plate is, however, much different in many ways.  The wood is maple instead of spruce.  Maple is far denser and is used for the back plate as an acoustical shell to shoot the sound that is created by the less dense top plate spruce back out the F holes above.  But Stradivari discovered that the graduation needs are different between the top and back plates.  Because the center of the back plate needs to be the source of shooting the sound back up, Stradivari allowed the center of the plate to be up to 5 mm thick, graduating down to 2.5 mm on the all the outside edges.  The feel of carving on the two different kinds of wood is quite different, and one needs to adjust the weight pushing into the wood and the speed of the stroke.

Thickness numbers on bottom plate

Once both plates were adequately thinned and the insides perfectly smoothed with no rough edges, it was time to re-glue the top and back plates to the garland, the term used for the sides of the violin.  The back plate is always glued first, being the simpler of the two because of the added complications of the top plate needing to work around the fingerboard and neck.  Once glued, the back plate needs to dry overnight, and then the top plate is glued the next day.  In the disassembling process, the fingerboard, neck, and scroll remain attached to the garland.  They are rarely detached in a restoration unless there are specific related concerns.

Luthier’s finger plane for thinning plates

Later in the restoration process, we encountered continuing concerns with the glued components not holding consistently.  We had to re-glue certain seams on three different occasions.  Harold sensed that the problem had something to do with the original glue used back in 1850.

At some point in his life, Gus had obviously been neglected and abused, because there were several chips and gouges missing from the wood around the lip, the outside edge just outside the purfling (the black lines along the edges of both plates which are actually 1.5 mm trenches filled with three slender, flexible lengths of pear wood, the purpose of which is to protect the violin from cracking later in life).

Repairing split in top plate

To fill these gaps for cosmetic reasons, we used an artificial wood called Rock Hard which is a powder mixed with water, making a substance somewhat like spackling, but drying much harder.  A glob of Rock Hard was placed in the area of the missing wood and allowed to dry overnight.  Then that glob was gradually shaped over several days, eventually blending into the shape of the real wood.  These artificial wood areas dried white in color and therefore needed to be painted a darker color before the first stain was applied.

Re-gluing back plate to carriage

A violin’s finger board is made of an extremely dense wood called ebony so that it can withstand the constant pressures of the fingertips pressing against the wood.  But even with ebony, after that many years of being played, the strings begin to create indentions in the wood which must be removed during restoration.  This is slow, careful work with a wood fine file using a rocking, rounded motion and always pressing evenly.

Artificial wood to fill in gouge

Now we were ready for the staining process, and the first part of that process is applying a sealant coat. When Gus was being built, the apparently luthier did not use an undercoat of sealant, applying the stain directly to the wood.  This permanently blackened certain areas of Gus between the fingerboard and the bridge and on the edges of the C bouts (the C shaped areas in the middle of the violin on either side of the bridge).  Even after the first coat of stain, as you can clearly see, that black area is still visible.  In the color staining coats to come, no color was added to these already dark areas and double color was added the lighter areas beside them, helping the two to blend in.

Refining artificial wood (varnish stripped)

Therefore we put a sealant coat down first, allowed it to dry overnight, and only after that beginning the series of color stainings, each one progressively darker, but never so much so that the beauty of the wood grain and flame (the tiger skin looking horizontal lines on the maple back plate) were not clearly visible and natural looking.

When I built Rebecca, we put on only one coat of color staining, followed by a heavier varnish.  Granted, it is very beautiful, but varnish is known to somewhat diminish the vibration capacity of the wood.

Refining artificial wood (varnish stripped)

At Harold’s suggestion and to some degree as an experiment, we decided Gus would first have multiple color stainings, each one bringing out more of the richness of the wood.  One of the traditional goals of a good violin restoration is to make the instrument look and feel old (a process called antiquing).

Blending in artificial wood

Some of the great old master violins such as those of Stradavari were originally varnished as Rebecca had been, but others were not varnished, but given a process referred to as French polishing, a simply rubbing on of a color and oil mixture, dried and repeated until the preferred amount of gloss results.  Thinner than actual varnish, the process of using polish results in richer sounds from the violin.  All varnish eventually wears off of old instruments, but when that happens, Strads are never re-varnished.  They are always French polished instead, to protect their sound.  If it is good enough for a Strad, we decided, it is good enough for Gus!

Filing indentations in the fingerboard

When the color and oil were ready, we used a tight circular wad of cheese cloth, bound together with a strong rubber band, as an applicator (the term actually used in luthier books for this homemade applicator is “French rubber”), pouring a small amount of the liquid color and two drops of oil on it for each rub.  Then the mixture is quickly rubbed over the entire back plate, using all circular movements and never stopping the motion on the wood, which would cause unevenness.  At the end of each motion, the hand should keep going into the air to guard against accidental jerkiness.

First coat of stain on back plate

I rubbed in the first layer of French polishing, immediately followed by a second layer, then left it to dry overnight.  It is interesting that the sealant coat and all separate color staining coats need to dry outside in the sun, and therefore the work needs to be accomplished first thing in the morning to make use of the most sun.  French polishing coats, on the other hand, because they are thinner, dry right there on the work table overnight.  The next morning, I took a small piece of the finest steel wool and gently rubbed over all the newly French polished areas to remove any minute nubs of polish.  The area must be completely smooth before applying a second French polish coat.  At this point the gloss is already beautiful.

French polish ingredients

Tomorrow morning I return to steel wool once again and then add a third and final layer of French polish.  Returning the next day, the “birthing day”, the strings, pegs, tail piece, button, and chin rest are set-up for playing and the sound post reinserted under the bridge directly under the E (highest pitch) string.  Then we tune Gus up and get set to hear the sound for which we have waited for over three months.

At that point on the birthing day, Harold and I will take turns playing Gus for each other, discussing candidly the richness, sensitivity, and consistency of each string.  Then comes the “Harold magic”, the part of the process I cannot explain.  First Harold takes a specialized, curved 6 inch tool with a flat, paw-like end and sticks it through the F hole on the high string side, gently tapping the sound post to minutely adjust its positioning.  Then he takes a delicate, slender carving knife and carves out a tiny strip from the center of the bridge itself.  This is all artistic instinct from 40 years of luthier experience.  He then has me play again, listening acutely for changes in the sound.  We continue this mystical process over and over, gradually uniforming and enrichening the sound until Harold sits back and smiles, finally satisfied.  May I say that this man is a genius, besides being Gus’ personal mid-wife!

Applying French polish

So wherever you are on Thursday morning, March 8 at about 11:00 am, raise your coffee cups to celebrate Gus’ completed resurrection.  I’ll be bringing him around to all rehearsals and family gatherings for you to see and hear for yourself!

First coat of French polish on back plate
Second coat of French polish on back plate
First coat of stain on top plate
Second coat of stain on back plate