I ran into an old friend recently and was taken aback at how he had aged. Not because of how he looked, but how he sounded. It was his voice. It was kind of croaky. It’s bad enough to worry about looking old, I thought to myself. Now I’ll have to worry about sounding old.
First the bad news: the deterioration of the voice is an inevitable part of aging.
“Around the age of 70, in men, the cartilage starts to thin and the joints between the pieces of cartilage in the vocal cords become more unstable. The vocal cords produce sound when they clash against each other – the changes in the cartilage weakens their action, so the voice becomes quavery and higher pitched. In women, the hormone oestrogen protects the cartilage, delaying changes to the voice. However, after the menopause, lack of this hormone can cause swelling in the vocal cords, which makes the voice sound much lower.”
There’s a word for what happens to the voice box and the muscles that support the vocal folds as part of the normal aging process: “presbyphonia“. Everyone experiences presbyphonia. Even – no, especially – Bob Dylan. Whose recently released 36th studio album consists entirely of Frank Sinatra covers. At the age of 73, it’s no suprise that Dylan sounds nothing like Sinatra when he crooned those ballads in his prime. Of course, Dylan has always had his trademark “raspy, phlegmy bark”, as The New York Times once described his voice. But who knew Bob was so thin-skinned about the criticism he gets?
“Critics have always been on my tail since day one. Seems like they’ve always given me special treatment. Some of the music critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits? They say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? What have I done to deserve this special treatment? Why me, Lord? …Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’ Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.”
– Bob Dylan’s speech on receiving the 2015 MusiCares Person of The Year award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammys) in Los Angeles
Some think he doth protest too much.
“If anyone ever wondered if Dylan reads his press, this comment (and references to write-ups of his new album of standards, Shadows in the Night) settled that question. Of course, Dylan has a point about his voice being the target for critical barbs dating back over 50 years. But his two fellow singer-songwriters have come in for their share of criticism. Rolling Stone‘s review of Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, noted his ‘strange voice’ and its write-up of the followup, Songs from a Room, noted, ‘It doesn’t take a great deal of listening to realize that Cohen can’t sing, period. . .The first thing that has to be withstood is his voice. It’s monotonous in a literal sense of the word.’ Of Waits, the magazine’s Record Guide noted that his ‘gravel-voiced poetic renditions can become tedious for all but cultists’. At least Dylan’s in good company.”
Dylan has long been lauded as the voice of a generation. Now he and his generation are sounding old. To use a more specific description of Dylan’s presbyphonia, a “gurgly thinness” has been detected in his aging voice. The Dylanologists are worried.
“What Happened to Bob Dylan’s Voice? A Doctor Explains
The top part of Dylan’s pitch range has dropped, so he can’t access that. When he’s trying to go up in his pitch with certain words and phrases, the voice gets rough. The other thing is that his whole tone is lower.”
Now here’s the good news. (Bob should pay attention if he wants to counter bad reviews.) Aging voices can be improved. With a lot more success than efforts at fighting wrinkly skin or thinning hair. The antidote is – you guessed it – exercise. Nothing too strenuous, and with rather impressive results if you get with the program. So if you don’t want to sound like Dylan in your dotage, try these quick and easy ways to exercise your vocal chords.
Basically it’s all about use-it-or-lose-it. Talking, singing and humming will help your voice stay youthful. While standing, not sitting, and definitely not slouching. Good posture helps open up your lungs for deep breathing, offering optimal use of your vocal chords. You may recall that My New Old Self has recently discovered the benefits of standing over sitting. Now here’s a chance to combine that anti-aging tip with voice improvement.
This voice expert says you can learn a lot from 80-year-old Sophia Loren. By looking at – where else but – her cleavage.
“Sophia Loren has a great voice. She sounds sultry and sophisticated, but not old. If you look closely, you’ll barely see her cleavage move when she’s speaking. Her breath control — long, deep breaths, not gasps or shallow breaths — is fantastic… When we breathe shallowly, our voices sound breathy and weak. So the first thing to do is breathe deeply. Letting the air into the diaphragm rather than keeping it in the upper chest makes your voice sounds resonant and strong.”
Voice exercises can be done anywhere and any time. Singing in the shower is highly recommended. Shouting and screaming are not, for fear of straining your voice.
Exercise often requires equipment and this also applies to some of the exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the voice. You don’t need to buy anything from a sports store. You can give your vocal chords a good work-out with a simple paper or plastic drinking straw.
“Like other muscles in your body, your vocal folds need exercise to stay fit. So does your respiratory system. Here’s a simple workout for both: Grab a straw and hum into it. Start with a wide straw and progress to a smaller one, such as a coffee stirrer, as your voice gets stronger. Warm up with simple ‘hmmm, hmmm’ hums, then vary your pitch by imitating a siren. Do this for about 10 minutes a day. Stop sooner if your voice feels fatigued. As with any exercise, you’ll build stamina over time.”
Voice exercises are so non-taxing they lend themselves to multi-tasking. You can do them while walking, driving, gardening, washing the dishes – even while reading.
“Do you start your day with the newspaper? Read one article out loud each morning – to your spouse, your pet or just yourself. You may feel shy or a little silly about it at first, but it’s a great way to build some regular voice use into your day.”
– Aaron Johnson, an assistant professor of voice and speech science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, AARP
This last bit of advice makes me rather sad. Many older people already chat less because of living alone or no longer working. So now they’re reduced to solitary reading aloud? Surely it would be better to combine voice exercises with social activities, to mix the physiological with the psychological. Many older people find it rewarding to do volunteer work, so perhaps our voices can be used to help others. If it’s good for old voices to read aloud, we could find people who want to be to read to.
Academic jargon for this field of study is “communicative sciences and disorders”. This implies that the reason for keeping our voices in shape in the first place is to improve our ability to communicate. Thus we should ideally exercise our voices while interacting with others, not alone.
This ties into my recent efforts to do more phoning, skyping and voice messaging rather than always texting and emailing. And to do more talking with people, face to face. Of all the many vocal exercises, chatting with others is clearly the most enjoyable.
I’ve set myself a further topic for my research into presbyphonia. If talking, humming and singing can improve your voice, what about laughing? I’m going to check out whether chuckles and guffaws qualify as voice-enhancing activities.
Meanwhile, here’s a role model to inspire us who is living proof that old voices can still sound great. The astoundingly voice-fit Tony Bennett won a Grammy at age 88 for his album of duets with pop star Lady Gaga, who is 60 years his junior.