Vocalizing Through Menopause: Regaining Lost Vocal Function

It can be challenging to find published information regarding the female voice and how to deal with the effects of menopause. There are several questions to ask when considering this subject. What symptoms often arise that can create vocal difficulties? How does a singer deal with these vocal changes that can trigger low self-esteem? This article will reflect personal experiences in teaching the female singer who is experiencing vocal issues related to menopause. What might seem strange to some is how few professional singers want to breech the subject of menopause and how they have had to deal with it. Shirley Verrett speaks of it in her new book. Perhaps it is time for this subject to be discussed and information shared in broader forum. This could help younger female singers facing these difficulties in the future..


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The Age Factor: Determining the Early Stages of Menopause

Symptoms of menopause can occur as early as the late 40's or as late as the mid 50's. Believe it or not, it is not over at 50, or 60, or 70. Having worked with singers in their 80's who were still singing well, it is important to note correct vocalization is the most critical factor in recovery and in keeping the voice young.

As a male singer and teacher, it might seem presumptuous for me to be writing about the female voice and menopause. Consider that there is limited published information written on the subject, especially material that focuses on how to healthily vocalize as the voice goes through physical changes. Correct vocalization can minimize the negative effects of menopause just as exercise of any other part of the body can help an individual in shape during the aging process. In my 30-year teaching career, I have taught many singers between the ages of 50 and 60 who were dealing with menopause. The emotional frustration can be overwhelming. I have found that working with singers during this process can be psychologically challenging for them. The instructor is working against the clock in trying to help the voice heal before the singer psychologically gives up. Not only do these singers need a lot of psychological support, but also solid vocal tools that assist in recovering from the vocal confusion caused by hormonal changes. Alan Lindquest once made a comparison between menopause and the changing boy's voice because both situations deal with major hormonal changes in the body. These changes demand drastic adjustments in how the voice is to be vocalized. The following list outlines some of the vocal symptoms due to the menopausal process. Some singers may suffer from all of the following, while others may only have one or two. This list is to help a singer verbally identify specific vocal difficulties brought on by this transition.

Vocal Symptoms of Menopause:

    1. Voice becomes dry with less flexibility.

    2. High range suffers because the upper passaggio becomes difficult to negotiate. (This is due to incorrect vocalization of the middle register.)

    3. Break between the lower head voice and the chest register becomes larger and more difficult to negotiate.

    4. Low head voice loses color and can become weak.

    5. Voice becomes pushed due to registration imbalance.

    6. Larynx assumes a higher position in the middle voice, sometimes accompanied by a large hole in the voice where the cords have become bowed. This lack of proper adduction of the folds creates insecurity in this range.

    7. Chest voice becomes overly dark due to tongue pressure and the use of the thicker vocal cord mass rather than the thin edges.

    8. General hardness of tone. Rigidity due to laryngeal muscle tension, often accompanied by a vocal wobble. The singer might also report a general feeling of thickness in the voice.

Case Studies

Case Study #1: Soprano:

Approximately 3 years ago, a Soprano come to my New York studio who was 57 years of age. She had sung as a Coloratura Soprano in her youth, developed vocal problems due to lack of healthy technique, and finally suffered loss of high range from menopause. She was a superb musician and in parts of the middle and chest registers you could hear a beautiful color in the voice. However, this color did not continue as the singer went higher toward the upper passaggio and into the higher range. The voice became strident and there was a tremendous amount of tension in the base of the tongue. This was accompanied by an unusually high larynx position. What had once been the most beautiful and effortless part of her voice had become difficult and challenging. She had lost the entire range above the high C and was beginning to lose the high C and even the high B natural.

I immediately put her on Lindquest's cuperto exercise. This is the tiny u vowel with the open throat space behind it. We worked on decreasing the breath pressure and making sure that the cuperto u felt similar to an ng. In other words, the sound should be a pure tone without any breathiness. Within weeks this singer began to rediscover her high B and C in the function she had before menopause. This was extremely encouraging for her. She could not sustain these pitches in the full voice for about one year, but with time these notes began to function properly. She regained the slight register flip at the B natural, which took more weight out of the high notes. Because this singer was an incredible musician and loved repertoire so much, we began to work on Schubert Songs. She had basically sung everything, which made it difficult to find new repertoire that had no old vocal habits. Often we were re-working old repertoire from the beginning: a frustrating yet necessary process.

Another much needed correction was that of the tongue posture in the high range. The tongue tip tended to lift up and back. This absolutely distorts healthy singing in the upper range. Working toward arching the tongue more and using some French nasal sound in the upper range, the root of the tongue began to release.

About 9 months into the realignment process, this singer re-discovered her high C-sharp and D within the cuperto function. This marked the beginning of the release of the high range once again. Now, three years later, she can sustain the high D and E-flat within the cuperto function. Because the female voice drops slightly after the menopausal process, we are now working on Lyric Soprano repertoire. Today, this singer performs regularly and is enjoying singing once again. This is an example of how a singer can rediscover the upper range even after menopause.

Case Study #2: Mezzo Soprano:

Approximately 4 years ago, a Dramatic Mezzo come to my studio who had been through the vocal changes due to menopause. Although a full-time professional singer, she had lost her fullness of sound. The larynx was extremely high and the tongue root extremely tense. She could no longer sustain upper passaggio notes because of the high larynx position. By the time she came to my studio, this singer suffered greatly from feeling as though she had lost her voice completely. In actuality, she simply needed to re-train her voice to a healthier function. Some of the early work was grueling and depressing, plus she had developed a vocal wobble and a shaking solar plexus. The voice was driven and had lost most of its color. Because of a lack of proper vowel alteration, the pharyngeal wall was closed into the back of the tongue, so the result was little resonance or ring in the voice. Only in her mid-fifties, she had lost much of her vocal identity because the voice was so closed down and dysfunctional. Of course the most difficult aspect is that of working with the psychological response. In such a case, it is critical that the instructor be encouraging and supportive.

The cuperto function would take longer for this singer, approximately 18 months. Finding the cuperto function is dependent upon finding the thin edge function of the vocal folds. This takes longer to discover for a dramatic voice. However, using the ng and the tiny u vowel in the lower range established a basis for taking this function higher later on in the training process. While I was teaching in Europe she discovered the cuperto function in the higher range. When I returned, I was delighted to find that she could then vocalize above the high C. It would then take about 6 more months to sustain these notes in the high range in full voice function.

Today, this singer has re-established her professional standing and has expanded one of the finest Dramatic Mezzo voices I have ever taught. What is exciting to observe is the psychological release that comes from releasing the voice. A singer's identity is connected with the act of singing. When the voice is no longer healthy, this vocal self-esteem suffers. The ending for this singer was indeed a happy one.

Case Study #3: Mezzo-Soprano:

While teaching in London, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent Mezzo-Soprano who is now age 72. She has had a career as a music teacher and has carefully vocalized her voice through the years. I started her on exercises 4 and 5 in the following list in order to release any holding in the larynx. Because the yodel function makes the tongue release, this allows for more throat space to drop open. The next exercise is designed to bring the head register as low as possible blending the voice from the top downward. This singer was in good condition partly because she never stopped vocalizing during the process of menopause. She also never pushed her voice with too much breath pressure, so the muscles were relatively flexible. This is a critical point. When singers stop singing during the process of menopause, the muscles literally atrophy from lack of proper exercise. The most important point for any singer is to keep vocalizing healthily during this process. Proper exercise is the only way to regain lost agility in the laryngeal muscles, therefore making it possible for a singer to rediscover lost function.

Case Study #4: Coloratura Soprano:

Some consider the Coloratura Soprano to suffer the most during the menopausal process. Three years ago I had a professional (Coloratura Soprano) singer come to my studio who had been trained on the cuperto function originally. However after years of singing in different acoustical environments, she had lost that function, primarily through spreading the voice too much. Menopause simply magnified the problems further, robbing this singer of the range above the high C. The high C and B natural were brittle and hard with little vibrato. There was a large hole in the middle voice (low head voice range) due to the bowing of the vocal cords. This made the break between lower head voice and the chest register quite large. Over the first year, we were able to re-establish the cuperto function (tiny u vowel with open acoustical space) and the high range began to recover. Into the second year of the realignment process, she was able to rehabilitate the middle register through the use of the Garcia 'coup de glotte', an exercise that must be taught with extreme care. Recently this singer performed at Lincoln Center as a soloist. Her dream of vocal recovery had become a reality in approximately 2 and 1/2 years.

Important Note: Two of these case study singers were advised by their doctors to discontinue hormone replacement therapy. Their greatest fear was the loss of the vocal range from the hormonal changes. Healthy vocal exercise was the single factor that restored their voices to a youthful former production. Both singers are now singing well as soloists.

Critical Exercises for the Menopausal or Post-Menopausal Singer

(1) 1..2..3..2..1..2..3..2..1 (breath) 8..7..6..5..4..3..2..1
    ae........................ u.....................

(Tongue out over the lower lip for the ae as in 'apple' in the beginning 3-tone scale. This is a chest voice scale. Then within the descending scale us the small 'u' with jaw slightly down and back to insure proper adduction of the folds.)


(2) 5....5....5....5....5....5....5....5....5...4....3....2....1
    Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu  Lu   Lu   Lu   Lu

(Start sequence with 2 sets of 16th notes, then descending 5-tone scale on 8th notes. Use this exercise in the middle register.)

(3) 1..1..1..1..1..1..1..1..1..2..3..4..5..4..3..2..1

(Staccato 'i' on the repeated beginning notes, then legato on the ascending 5-tone scale. This exercise is designed to get to the thin edges of the vocal folds. The singer must image simply touching the finest point of the folds on the staccato section.)

(4) 1.......8.....1

(One-octave yodel allowing the voice to crack across the register break between chest and head registers. This exercise must be immediately followed by exercise #5 in order to strengthen the middle register.)

(5) 5..3..1.
          i . . . . . . . . .
(Rounded 'i' vowel bringing head register as low as possible. Start in the upper middle register. This exercise should immediately follow exercise #4.)

These exercises have been listed because they have proven to be extremely helpful in reducing the effects of menopause. While they have proven over the years to be helpful, it is important to remember that every exercise does not work for every singer. Anyone trying these exercises needs to be careful to approach them with great concentration. Remember that the jaw needs to be slightly down and back. The back position of the jaw allows for a lower larynx position, a critical factor in the re-strengthening of the middle register. The vocal cords will not approximate correctly if the larynx is too high in the middle register. (See article on "Understanding Middle Register".)

Principles contained in this article are included in David Jones' instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones", available for purchase on the homepage at www.voiceteacher.com.

(c) David L. Jones/2004

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