too old to sing

Too Old To Sing? 3 Ways to Keep Your Voice Young

Am I Too Old To Sing?

As a voice teacher in Austin, TX, I have the pleasure of teaching students of different ages, genders and backgrounds. One of my favorite groups of students to work with are older people who sing. But many older students are skeptical and think “am I too old to sing?” or worse, too old to even learn something as nuanced as singing.

They think “Can I really learn to sing at 50 (or 60, or 70)?” Or “I’m too old to be a singer”.

Naturally, the body changes with age and many students wonder how singing voices change with age. Some singers even lose their voice when they get older.

So I thought I’d devote some time to the question and see if I can change any minds and hearts out there, in the hopes of inspiring those who are older than 50 that they can learn to sing and even have a career in music.

How the Voice Changes with Age

Let’s start off by addressing the obvious. Yes, the human voice changes with age. But how? And when?

Much like during puberty, the voice changes in later life due to hormones and a variety of other physiological processes including the hardening of cartilages into bone (ossification), the thinning of the vocal folds (vocal cords) and the loss of elastic fibers in the larynx (voice box).

too-old-to-sing

These factors affect the voice directly, but there are lots of other changes you can expect to see past 50 which also affect singing such as atrophy of muscle and nerve tissues and changes in the chemicals responsible for nerve transmission.

Now, while all of this reads like a list of crappy side-effects you read on a prescription bottle, the good news is that it’s possible to keep all these functions working better than normal provided that there is some regular maintenance of the vocal mechanisms.

Some studies have even suggested that in the vast majority of cases, voice changes in old age are more closely related to disease than to the physiological processes of aging.

So taking good care of your body’s health could be instrumental in maintaining a great voice as you age.

3 Activities To Keep Your Voice Young

Now that we’ve (hopefully) answered the question “Am I too old to sing?”, the question is what are you going to do about it.

When we talk about how singing voices change with age, the old saying “If you don’t use it, you lose it” applies.

We’ve seen that regular use of the voice in a healthy way can help ward off some of the most common issues associated with the aging voice, but if you’re new to singing, where do you start?

I’ve compiled a list of 3 activities that can keep your voice young and your body healthy.

1. Sing in the shower/car/karaoke room

Too Old to Sing

For those who are a bit shy about singing or learning to sing, ANYTHING is better than nothing. So, any low-pressure place where you can sing along with music is great.

Be listening for what your voice sounds like. How does it feel to sing in your own voice? If singing doesn’t feel good and sounds hoarse or flat, consider having a professional listen. Part of becoming a great singer is understanding your instrument, so you’ll be glad to get more information about your voice.

2. Join a choir

too-old-to-sing

Choirs are a phenomenal group activity renowned for their ability to get large groups of people to enjoy singing and create music together.

I can’t speak highly enough of my experiences learning to sing music with so many people who have a deep appreciation for music.

If you’re ambitious, of course, you can always find a choir that sings in different languages and reads music. I highly recommend this route for those who want to learn more about how singing fits into the huge world of music.

3. Take singing lessons

Voice Lessons in Austin

Whether you’re trying to start a singing career or just have some fun, there is no quicker and easier way to learn to sing that taking singing lessons with a qualified teacher.

During my lessons with students, we work on exercises that are designed to develop your breathing, strengthen your voice and maintain vocal agility. Then we work with the songs that you love, always putting our goal of vocal balance and health first.

It can be a heck of a lot of fun and there’s a strong case this can extend the quality of your voice as you age. Consider booking a trial free voice lesson to get started.

Am I Too Old to Take Singing Lessons?

Look around you, there are tons of amazing older singers that are still out there performing.

Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are all over 70! And many of them are performing at a very high level.

I can hear the protests now: “But I’m too old to sing. Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand have been singing for YEARS!”

While this is true, there is a lot more to singing than just performing. Singing is actually very healthy for you also.

There are lots of studies showing that music lessons and singing in old age can be healthy for both physical and psychological reasons.

During singing, you’re working the aerobic and muscular systems in your body resulting in improved circulation for vital organ function. Singing is also a very effective de-stressor and ups your doses of the natural “feel-good” endorphins dopamine and serotonin.

So even if you’re not planning a multi-city tour, maybe you’ll consider singing for your health. Voice lessons can be a really great activity for later in life, keeping the mind focused on a developing skill set where you can take pride in instantaneous results.

You’re Not Too Old to Sing

One of the most important things to understand about the aging voice is the importance of setting expectations.

While I believe that it’s very important that everyone find a way to enjoy singing (whether it’s an arena performance or just in the shower), it may be unreasonable to expect your voice to behave like it did when you were 20. So don’t expect to be able to hit a high C like you could in college.

The reality is the aging voice does change and those changes will not always have a positive effect on your singing. However, by continuously exercising the instrument, your singing voice will get better with practice and you’ll have a great time doing it!

Vocal Style

How to Find Your Vocal Style | Octave Higher TV E50

The Basics of Vocal Style

Vocal style is one of the most popular concepts that my students want to learn about. Here in Austin, TX, there are as many vocal styles to listen to as there are singers.

That’s because the truth is that for every unique singer, there is also a unique voice in music.

And while it can be very tempting as a beginning singer to try to imitate your favorite singers (ahem, Adele and Sam Smith wannabes raise your hands), the most important and beautiful thing about taking singing lessons at Octave Higher East is that we work with your voice as it is. Without all the baggage of imitation, you’ll experience what your true voice sounds like.

Sound good?

It’s amazing, and one of the most rewarding parts of being a voice teacher.

But, how do you find your vocal style?

First let’s talk about the elements of vocal style, then we’ll talk about how you can find your unique voice.

The Elements of Vocal Style

Since people began singing, there has been vocal style.

From opera to rock, RnB to musical theater (legit and belt) styles, vocal style is a term that distinguishes one singer from another and each style of music from another.

That means that vocal style is unique to each person and each genre of music.

Vocal Style

But when we talk about unique singing voices, what really causes someone to have or sing with a vocal style?

There are two parts to this explanation: a genetic and a musical component.

Genetic Components of Vocal Style

Genetics are definitely at play in vocal style and techniques. Last week, we talked about the three systems that make up singing.

With vocal style, we’re talking primarily about the phonation and resonation systems of the voice.

Phonation is the system of singing involved at the vocal fold or cord level. Phonation is the vibration that results from the vocal folds coming together to make sound.

Breathing for Singing

Resonation is the system of singing where we see an interaction of the frequencies produced by the vocal folds and the cavities and spaces within your body (i.e. throat, nasal passages, and cranium, etc).

Breathing for Singing

Both the phonation and resonation systems of singing are genetic. Which means that you’re born with a unique voice because your vocal folds and resonating centers are totally specific to you.

This is why you can never successfully imitate another singer. Unless you have the same genetics, chances are your body and therefore your vocal folds and resonance chambers will be somewhat different.

This is why it’s unfair to expect a 12 year old girl to imitate Janis Joplin’s vocal style for instance. Janis had a very thick belt vocal sound and a 12-year-old doesn’t have the structure and thickness of an instrument to pull this off.

The same is true for David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and even Elvis Presley’s vocal style.

vocal style

In one of my recent articles, we talked about the 3 Traits All Great Singer Share. One of the most important traits we discussed was Self Awareness. For singers, that means gaining an understand of what your voice is built for.

This is why it would be a poor choice for a high Tenor to sing Tom Waits.

Or if you’re a bass, then Sam Smith might be a stretch.

But genetics aren’t everything. After all, there are some fantastic singers out there that have an amazingly unique voice or remind us of some other singer. Which brings us to the musical component to vocal style.

Musical Components to Vocal Style

While genetics are hugely important in determining a person’s vocal style, there are singers that are able to find a unique voice in any genre because they are good musicians.

Every genre of music has its own vocal style. While there are unique voices in every genre, each musical style has a tendency to have a certain kind of singing.

You’ll notice that Metal vocal styles are quite different from legit musical theater. That’s because these genres have evolved to create some conventions of what works and what doesn’t.

After all, it’d be pretty weird to hear the vocal effects of a metal singer in a musical theater song. I can hear it now: “One…EE-YAAAHHHH…Day…GRRRRRRR…MOOOOOORRRRE.”

vocal style

The point is that as a singer, you can begin to learn the conventions of each music genre so that your vocal style matches the genre. The best way to do that is to listen to lots of different music and begin to speak the language of singing.

Are the vocals in rock music more or less aggressive? In general, rock vocals are more aggressive.

Is the vocal tone clean or dirty? Usually they’re dirty.

Does the lyric or the emotion take priority? The emotion. Rock n’ Roll is about passion!

Compare this to operatic vocal style where we are looking for very beautiful and full singing with a clean tone and emphasis on a lyric. You can see just how much your singing style is dictated by the genre.

So if I can’t successfully imitate someone else’s vocal style, but I know the kind of music I’d like to sing and some of the conventions of the genre, how do I find my own voice?

Here’s one exercise to help you find your own unique voice.

One Daily Exercise to Find Your Unique Vocal Style

I’m going to start with one of my absolute favorite exercises to give to students.

*You may want to record yourself doing this exercise for proof of your progress.

  1. Start by gently saying the word “Mum” (as in British mother) out loud at a comfortable volume
  2. There should be no strain or breathiness in your voice
  3. Next pick one of your favorite songs. Ideally, one that you don’t consciously imitate
  4. Take a part of the chorus that’s in a comfortable range and rather than singing the words, sing the melody on the word “Mum”
  5. For every change in melody or syllable, sing the word Mum instead
  6. Continue singing this melody on “Mum” a few times until you have forgotten that you’re singing your favorite song and are just singing the melody on Mum
  7. Now, using the same relaxed “uh” feeling that you found on the “Mum”, begin to sing the words. The idea is that you’re transferring the relaxed and natural “uh” sound to the melody you’re singing

A Few Things You May Notice

You will notice that the melody sounds more relaxed and feels more natural to you. Try recording this version and seeing if you notice anything unique about your voice. It should sound like you and no one else. If at first it’s not clear, repeat this process until you begin to hear your own voice, rather than that of the original singer.

For the science nerds out there, we used the “Uh” vowel in “Mum” to relax all the articulators in the resonation system (especially the tongue), forcing you to sing in your own voice.

Pretty cool, huh?!

Please note, you may not like the sound of your natural voice at first, but I absolutely promise you, there is something unique and beautiful about every voice. You just may not have found it yet.

If this exercise doesn’t help, consider booking a free trial lesson so that I hear exactly what’s happening in your voice.

Breathing For Singing

Breathing for Singing | Octave Higher TV E49

Everything You Need to Know About Breathing for Singing

As a voice teacher in Austin, Texas, one of the most common goals new students have is to learn breathing for singing and to breathe through the diaphragm.

Often times, students will ask for breathing exercises or breathing warmups and they think that I am going to make them hold their breath or give them an aerobic workout so they learn how to breathe properly for singing. I promise, I don’t do this often in my voice lessons.

The truth is that while breathing for singing is very important, recently it’s been proclaimed as the ONE BIG SECRET to singing success. One that no one knows unless they take lessons.

Here’s why that’s not the case:

First of all, singing involves three big systems that work together.

Respiration System

We have the respiration system which involves the diaphragm and lungs and provides the fuel for singing.

Breathing for Singing

But that’s only ONE part of a large system.

Phonation System

Next, we have the phonation system which is the vocal cords (vocal folds) coming together in your throat to resist air. The resulting vibrations from that resistance produces sound and creates the raw material for the voice. Using the fuel analogy from the respiration system, phonation is like the motor that’s converting the breath from the lungs and diaphragm into energy.

Breathing for Singing

Resonation System

Finally, we have the resonation system which is the way the vibrations and frequencies produced by the vocal folds vibrating interact with the cavities around them. The mouth, pharynx, nose and nasal cavity are examples of resonating chambers. To use the fuel analogy, this would be the carburetor in the car ensuring the best use of this energy.

Breathing for Singing

Before your eyes start to gloss over with boredom from all these science terms and you start to wonder “Why the heck isn’t this guy giving me breathing exercises? I just wanted to know how you sing from your diaphragm!”, I say all this to prove a simple point. The breath is only one small part of the whole system that makes up a great singer! And in my honest opinion, it’s also the easiest to master.

The truth is there are lots of singing problems and vocal issues that no amount of breath support will help because the issues are not with the respiration system.

All that said, there are a few important things that you should know as a developing singer, especially if you want to learn how to breathe when singing high notes.

First, we have to make sure that the respiration system of singing is supported. And a lot of this comes down to breathing muscles and singing. So here are the most important exercises to ensure that your breath is supported.

  1. Maintain a healthy posture

As simple as this sounds, posture is an incredibly important component to breathing while singing, especially if you’ve been having problems with losing your breath while singing or experiencing shortness of breath.

*You may want to grab a mirror for this.

  1. A general rule of thumb is that you want to ensure that your head is even above your shoulders, not jutting forward or pulled back.
  2. Then make sure that your shoulders are comfortably positioned at your sides.
  3. Using your shoulders as a guide, ensure your hips are evenly spaced and in line with your shoulders.
  4. Finally, using your hips and shoulders as a guide, ensure your feet are evenly spaced and in line with your hips.

Got it? Good!

It’s really not complicated.

You should feel that you are in a powerful stance and ready to take on anything.

If this feels uncomfortable or new, double check your position in the mirror and ensure the previous steps are accomplished.

Congratulations, you have taken a huge step in making sure you are breathing effectively and efficiently for singing

2. How to sing from your diaphragm

Now, with your posture corrected, we can move on to the fun part of engaging the right muscles for breathing.

In this section, we’ll be moving from chesty and costal breathing to abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing for singing

*Again, a mirror can come in handy here.

  1. Standing with your correct posture (see above), place your hands on the bottom edge of your belly, like you’re pregnant and holding your stomach.
  2. With your hands in this position, begin to feel the movement of your breath.
  3. Take a deep inhale through your nose and see if you feel any movement in your hands around your stomach. If you’re in front of the mirror, you can also check visually to see if there’s any movement in your body as you’re inhaling.
  4. Exhale and begin to breathe comfortably.
  5. Now that you’re aware of your breath, see if you can begin to breathe in a way that physically moves your hands on your belly. We want the belly to extend and push the hands out as you inhale, and the belly to contract and bring the hands in as you exhale.

As you practice moving your breath to the much stronger diaphragmatic breathing, you are beginning to find the proper breathing techniques for singing.

Again, check in visually to make sure that you don’t see these things:

  • The shoulders rising
  • the arms moving outwards or sideways
  • The stomach contracting with the inhale (remember, you want the opposite. Your belly should always expand with the inhale and contract with the exhale)

These are tell-tale signs that you’re breathing in a less-than-efficient fashion. This would be clavicular or costal breathing, rather than abdominal or diaphragmatic.

If you catch yourself doing any of these things, simply reset your posture and try to move your breath to the abdomen.

3. One Daily Breathing Exercise for Breath Support

With the posture and diaphragmatic breathing in place, I’d like to show you the most effective breathing exercises for singing.

You can do a lot vocally with just the posture and breathing in the right place. So if you’d like to grow your breathing capacity for breathing while singing a fast song for instance, follow this exercise and repeat it daily.

This exercise was made famous by the castrato singer Farinelli. Farinelli was famed for his ability to sustain notes an incredible amount of time. I like to use these breathing exercises for singing warm ups.

*You will need a metronome or a clock with a second hand to do this exercise.

Set your metronome to 60 beats per minute. Don’t worry, your clock is already set to this tempo (ha!).

  1. Gently inhale through your mouth for 4 counts. *As an aside, it’s always better to breathe through your mouth than your nose when singing. Just be careful not to make a sound as you inhale through your mouth. Ideally you want to take what I like to call it a “scared breath” because it’s a quick inhale through your mouth but it is very quiet.
  2. Next, hold the breath in the diaphragm for 4 counts.
  3. Finally, exhale the breath for 4 counts.
  4. Repeat this exercise immediately after the exhale, but this time inhale for 5 counts.
  5. Continue to inhale, hold and exhale for greater counts until you feel ANY discomfort. Please don’t pass out or hyperventilate trying to get to 12 on the first day.

A couple of things you will note

First, you will have to very gradually control your inhales and exhales as the counts get higher. This is fantastic practice for your breath support.

Second, take note of the feeling of “holding” the breath. This is the feeling we want to have as we are singing. This small amount of pressure creates a strong tone, but it shouldn’t feel like a huge rush of air escaping like you feel when you exhale. While technically we sing on the exhale, the feeling of “holding” the diaphragmatic breath is much closer to the feeling of sustaining a long note.

In Conclusion

While there is no ONE BIG SECRET to singing, breathing for singing is incredibly important. A lot of breathing singing exercises are helping your body become more efficient at breathing and singing from the diaphragm.

Once good breath support is accomplished, there is still a lot of work to do with the other two systems of singing: phonation and resonation. Consider checking out this blog or booking a free trial lesson to get you on the road to a more beautiful voice.

Musical Theater Audition

The #1 Mistake in Musical Theater Auditions and How to Avoid It

I work with so many great singers preparing for a musical theater audition here in Austin, TX. From observing tons of great singers prepare for showcases and auditions, I can tell you that this city has a very active and evolving musical theater scene.

While it can be tempting to think that preparing for a musical theater audition is all about making sure your singing voice is perfect, sometimes the strongest singer is not the one who gets the part.

Let me explain:

In the voice studio, we’re usually working exclusively on vocal technique. For example, a singer is having a hard time hitting a high note. When they do, they flip to falsetto, or sing flat due to strain.

My training and experience has given me the tools I need to help this singer through their bridge; so instead of singing in falsetto, they’re singing in a strong head voice.

But sometimes, we need to put vocal technique aside and work on “acting out” or “performing” the song. This is because unlike pop music where the raw-gut emotion and vocal chops ARE the performance, in musical theater acting out the song is a MUST.

But where do you begin? You have the audition next week, you’ve picked out your song (for soprano, alto, tenor or bass) and you’re singing it pretty well. But after seeing some professional musical theater auditions, you know there’s more to it than just a good voice and the right piece.

You need to learn to “Act Out” the song

While singing Adele, Sam Smith or Freddie Mercury in the past has helped you develop a phenomenal voice, now they’re no use to you because they don’t act their songs and are not playing a character.

For musical theater, you are playing a character with LINES. Some of them sung, some not.

It’s very important for you to understand this character WANTS something.

What do they want?

Start by looking at the lyrics.

If we use the Tenor piece “Lost in the Wilderness” from Children of Eden as an example, we see that the characters Cain and Abel are in the wilderness starving and lost.

Let’s take a look at a section of the lyrics to see what these characters want:

“CAIN:
All these years of this cruel joke
The best harvest going up in smoke
Praying for a future from these silent stony shelves
How much more of this must we take
This is the morning we finally make a future for ourselves!
ABEL:
But Cain if it’s God’s will…
CAIN:

Is it God’s will or have we all been conned

Brother we will never know

We will never grow

If we never go

Beyond”

In the first verse, we see that Abel is trying to remain faithful and follow God’s orders, but Cain has a tremendous amount of doubt whether God will come to their rescue in the wilderness.

We can also see in the first verse that Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness and join him in search of a better life.

If you listen to this performance, you will naturally hear Cain’s emphasis on the lyrics: “joke”, “smoke”, “take” and “conned”.

Why is that? Are those the most important part of the melody?

Not at all.

In fact, the most important part of the melody is the middle of each line (“years”, “best harvest”, etc…).

But the singer chose to emphasize these words because he knows that it his job as an actor to embody Cain’s desires and his singing must ALIGN with those motivations.

Since, Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness, it makes sense that he is emphasizing the negative side of things (“joke”, “smoke”) as well as appealing to Abel’s sense of self-preservation (“ourselves”).

And while the melody doesn’t reflect the importance of those words, the singer certainly emphasizes them.

As a result, we have a clear understanding of what Cain wants and how he’s trying to get it.

How can you apply this to your own musical theater audition?

Begin by looking at the lyrics. Read them out loud normally like you’re reciting a speech.

You’ll notice the natural emphasis of the words may be different from the melody’s emphasis. Begin highlighting those words on your lyrics sheet.

Once you’ve found the natural emphasis of the piece and you’re starting the understand the character, write your character’s motivation for singing at the very top of the paper. In musical theater, there is almost always a reason your character is singing. Find it.

In our example, we would write: “Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness and join him in search of a better life.

Finally, you can begin to “act out” the song by emphasizing your highlighted words when you sing the melody.

In conclusion, “acting out” a musical theater piece comes from an understanding of the character and his/her motivation. With an understanding of their motivation, you can make educated choices in which parts of the lyric to emphasize. Then you’re well on your way to successfully acting out the song and getting the role of your dreams!