When entertainment media wants to portray an exaggerated stereotype or caricature, one of the first tools it uses is vocal manipulation. The Italian (or Italian-American), for instance is often portrayed with an exaggerated broken English or dummied down speech. Witches are portrayed with a nasal, squeaky voice or laugh. And then of course in the true spirit of ageism, an older protagonist usually takes on a wobbly, creaky vocal quality.
There is no denying that physiological changes take place as part of aging. Our respiratory system (i.e., the motor that powers our sound) tends not to be as hearty as it was in our youth. The collagen and muscles used in the production of sound involving our vocal cords may also start to decline; just as happens throughout the rest of our body. However, similarly to how certain self-care routines and physical exercises help the rest of the body to stay strong for as long as possible, the same is true with respect to keeping a beautiful, youthful tone quality to the voice—no matter what our age; provided we are not suffering from a major disease that affects the voice directly.
As a singer, I have studied with several vocal coaches; each of whom has emphasized the importance of good vocal hygiene if I want to preserve my voice and keep it clear and strong. Unlike a piano or guitar, many variables can make the voice unreliable or inconsistent (such as allergies, acid reflux, talking too loudly when in a crowd or noisy event, etc.). The one thing we can do consistently, is take good care of our voice.
Proper vocal care is even more important as we age if we want to be taken seriously and avoid becoming that ageist media stereotype. The tone and quality of a confident voice is ageless and commands respect, not ridicule. Having a wobbly or weak voice influences how we are perceived, and how others relate to us.
Here are 11 ideas for making your voice the best it can be, at any age:
1.Record your speaking voice. Just open a book or newspaper and read into a voice recorder. Yes, that really is how you sound to others. What are the qualities you love about your voice? What are the aspects of your voice you would like to improve?
2. Don’t habitually speak either too loud or too soft. Speaking loudly all the time can lead to hoarseness and swollen vocal cords. The same is true with speaking too softly or whispering as too much air passes through the cords and dries them out.
3. Avoid breathing too shallowly and stop to take in more air when you need it as you are talking.
4. Enunciate your words clearly. This will prompt you to speak more slowly and use less energy to make yourself understood.
5. Stay hydrated. Water keeps the vocal cords from drying out and makes them more pliable.
6. Steam your voice safely if you feel your voice is tired. I use a facial steamer by Conair, but there are also inexpensive portable nebulizers available online.
7. Use a humidifier at night if the indoor air is dry; especially during the winter.
8. Practice the lip trill. Singers rely on this exercise, and it is often recommended to public speakers, who want to avoid overtaxing their voices. Simply hum up and down the scale through lightly closed lips; like you are making a raspberry.
9. Eat right and exercise. The body is one whole unit. Keeping the whole unit as healthy as possible will also have a positive effect on the voice.
10. Maintain good posture. When we are slumped over a computer all day or habitually hunched over, our air flow is crimped, possibly leading to vocal strain. Check your position a few times a day in a mirror. Your head should not be thrusted forward but rather, resting directly over your shoulders (which should not be rounded).
11. See a professional if you have persistent hoarseness or feel that you need some extra help in maintaining a vibrant, ageless speaking voice. I will occasionally seek consultations with two professionals when I feel I need it: One is an ENT doctor, who can scope you and let you know if you have nodules on your vocal cords or acid reflux; the other is a speech therapist who can point out ways you may you have been overtaxing your voice; and suggest the appropriate corrections.
©Raeleen Mautner, Ph,D.
References (or for further information)
Coyne, Audrey (2020) Opera Singer’s Tricks to Have a More Attractive Voice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJsgL5vmtqw
McMillen, M . 5 Ways Not to Sound Old. AARP Media. https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2014/improve-aging-voice.html
Stoney, J (2020) Sing Like Never Before. Mission Point Press