Well, you can be if you like…
Or you can choose to make like an Orca instead!
A couple of days ago when talking to some (much) younger friends, they referred to me as “an elder”. This was the first time in my life that someone has called me that and I took it as a great compliment, as it was meant in the sense of “Wise Old Owl” rather than “knackered old has-been”. I think…
This set me down the path to thinking what “being an elder” means, both to me and to society at large. Now, I think of it as being in a really positive phase of life. I’m old enough to have sufficient common sense to avoid having a different disaster every day, I have decades of experience in my field of work, and I remain passionate about what I do. I’m still young enough to look forward to many more years of improvement, research, and fun, and I can still party all night when the mood takes me (although admittedly it takes a bit longer to recover from it than it used to). So all things considered, I’m doing just fine.
What’s noticeable, though, is that lots of people aren’t. Last year I had an influx of enquires from students – all professional singers and all “ladies of a certain age” either peri- or post-menopausal, whose voices weren’t quite doing what they used to do, and who were all asking basically the same questions: “Am I just too old now? Do I have to stop singing? Has my voice gone?”
I was horrified. Some of them had been told by their GPs “It’s your age, you can’t expect your voice just to carry on being what it was in your 20s. Look for a new career.” And they were devastated.
“Here’s the thing”, I told them, “you don’t have to stop singing just because your body’s decided it’s past the age of reproduction, and not only that, you don’t have to accept that your voice quality will deteriorate horribly, or become an unusable instrument.”
Would you throw out a Steinway just because it’s 100 years old? Or replace a treasured vintage Strat? Or your granny? Thought not.
“Make like an Orca”, I told them. Orcas know how it’s done. The matriarch of a pod truly comes into her own when she’s past menopause. She becomes the leader, the all-knowing one, the giver of wisdom. Did you know that there are only five species on earth (that we know of) that experience menopause? And the other four are all whales. A post-menopausal Orca is the most powerful expression of herself, so why do female humans decide once we’re no longer capable of bearing children, that our useful life is done? Surely it’s at that point that we’re free to truly inhabit our accumulated wisdom? This stage of life is the part where you’re awesome, if you choose to be!
But how does being an elder impact the voice, especially for women? It’s easy to say ‘embrace your own power” but what if the voice gets weaker, stops working, or becomes something other than the instrument you’ve always used? Well, there’s no doubt that the changing hormones associated with menopause have an effect on the voice. All hormonal change has an effect on the voice. It happens most noticeably to boys but also to girls during puberty but then it happens to women on a (more or less) monthly basis throughout their reproductive years! And what do we do about it? Do we give up singing for roughly a week each month? Do we say “Oh dear, my voice is different, I must therefore be rubbish, so I’ll stop altogether”? Or do we accept that the voice behaves differently on those days and find ways to work with it? I’m guessing most female singers do the latter, so I don’t understand why hormonal changes during and after menopause should be approached any differently. Does the voice change? Yes – a bit for some, and a lot for others. Does it deteriorate massively? Only if you don’t work with it. Only if you don’t adjust. Only if you don’t train. Only if you give up.
Having worked with countless ladies experiencing vocal problems at roughly the age of 50, give or take a few years, what I’ve discovered is that very often, the problem isn’t hormones – or at least, the whole of the problem isn’t hormones. In addition to the pesky physical changes that take place whether we like it or not, the singer has often simply arrived at an age wherein whatever bad vocal habit they’ve been getting away with for years has run out of track. The singer has done a not-quite-right-thing too many times for too many years and now there’s wear and tear, misalignment and vocal stress going on at the same time that hormonal changes are causing the vocal folds to become stiffer and the pitch range to gradually lower. At that point instead of being proactive, lots of ladies exclaim “it’s my age!” and simply give up. And there’s no need. An experienced and savvy teacher will be able to spot a long-term bad habit a mile off, and put you on the path back to a healthy voice that will last throughout the second half of your adult life. Then they’ll advise you as to how to keep training and working with the voice as it transforms into its “Orca Form”. Fix the problem, accept the changes that come with a voice that is no longer 25, learn to work with them, then carry on with your career! Just in the same way that you don’t stop wearing clothes just because you no longer have the body of a 20-year-old (please, don’t stop wearing clothes just because you no longer have the body of a 20-year-old…), you don’t need to stop singing just because your voice has changed and entered a new stage of awesomeness.
Me? My voice is as good as it ever was, thanks for asking. Maybe better. And I’m fully embracing being “an elder” (with thanks to my younger friends).
So, anyone for a swim?