What Really Happens When a Singing Voice Gets Old

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Where the top notes go. Photo: Christoph Wilhelm/Getty Images

When a global pop star hits the road — as a conclave of elder rockers will do on October 7 at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California, a.k.a. Oldchella — truckloads of cables, computers, instruments, lights, and audio gear follow along. But the singer’s most delicate and irreplaceable apparatus is the larynx, the object of immense care and constant torture. Like everything else in the body, that agile apparatus tends to lose its powers over time. Within the throat’s protective enclosure, two supple bands of tissue flutter over an opening the size of a penny like a pair of doll’s-house curtains. But that description doesn’t get across the repeated violence to which humans subject their vocal cords, even humans who don’t sing for a living. Every time a woman speaks, those tough little folds go slamming against each other around 200 times each second. If she’s a soprano and she sings an A above middle C (the note that orchestras tune to), the number of impacts rises to 440 Hz, or 440 impacts each second, so fast the human eye can detect that movement only in slo-mo. Over the course of a singer’s career, millions of collisions can leave the vocal cords scarred and stiff. If you want to get a feeling for what it’s like to sing through that level of damage, try plucking a few notes on an ancient rubber band. 

You can hear that inexorable process play itself out in singers who keep at it long past their prime. In his youth, Paul McCartney produced a wondrously pure schoolboy tenor, with a touch of sandpapery sexiness. At 74, he can still usually hit the high note on “night” in the opening line of “Blackbird,” but the lightness has been scrubbed away, replaced by an uncertain warble. There is almost always a trade-off between agility and age. Singers don’t want to retire, and fans don’t want to lose them, but the price of longevity can be steep. Paul Simon has kept his voice in remarkably good shape, but when he found himself in vocal distress singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the Democratic National Convention in July — a song Art Garfunkel originally sang, in his higher range, though Simon’s been performing it for years — Twitter reacted with a hailstorm of condescension and scorn.

The voice is the most primal of instruments; it’s also among the most technologically advanced. A piano produces the same sound, in the same way, no matter whether it’s playing “Chopsticks” or a Brahms concerto. But a voice can swoop in milliseconds through a dizzying range of timbres and techniques. The modernist composer Luciano Berio pushed that versatility almost to the breaking point more than 50 years ago in his “Sequenza III,” but even the untrained voice is capable of astonishing acrobatics. Try speaking a short sentence, switching every few syllables from a Don Corleone rasp to a hooting falsetto, then to a nasal honk, finishing on a guttural, drill-sergeant bark. The mechanism responsible for that cartoonish variety — and for the ability to utter a monosyllable in tragic, comic, or ironic mode — rests in a dense bundle of musculature and nerves. “All the vocal muscles would fit into one corner of one facial muscle. Nothing else in the body moves with that precision or speed,” says Steven Zeitels, a Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Center laryngeal surgeon and throat doctor to the stars.

When people sing or speak, the lungs expel a column of air that travels up through the windpipe, where it is obstructed by the vocal cords. “As pressure builds up, it pushes the cords aside and makes them vibrate,” explains Milan Amin, director of the NYU Voice Center. “The sound stops when you run out of air, or when the cords are separated.” If the folds don’t join properly, or if a nodule interferes with their even vibration, then air leaks through. “You’re trying to generate pressure and you can’t,” says Amin. “So you have a breathy, weak voice or you push harder and get tired.” (For more from Dr. Amin about Bob Dylan, see here.)

It’s not the vocal cords that give a voice its richness, personality, or depth, however. Adele’s brassy beam of sound, Renée Fleming’s iridescent pianissimos, and Tom Waits’s smoke-and-whiskey croak all acquire most of their character after the vibrating air has pushed past the vocal folds and goes swirling around inside the resonating chambers of the head. The size of the tongue, the palate’s curve, the shape of the nose — that whole internal topography changes little over time, which is why you may still recognize an old flame’s voice on the phone even if you haven’t heard it for 40 years.

Fewer sopranos than baritones keep singing into their sunset years. That may be partly because menopause tends to dry out tissue and deplete collagen, though the science is not firm on this. The proteins elastin and collagen gradually dissipate, thinning the vocal folds and making them less pliable. The cords have a harder time vibrating at high frequencies, so the voice’s default pitch drops. Thinner, more sluggish vocal cords pull even the ordinary speaking voice down a notch or two and reliably cut off the high part of a soprano’s range. Few singers have been able to manage that transition with more aplomb than Barbra Streisand, who (with a little help from some clever arranging and a producer’s light touch on the volume fader) sustains a blazing B natural at the end of “Fifty Percent” in her new album, Encore. Some people battle age with potions and denial; Streisand has deployed a perfectionist’s technique, which allows her to regulate the air that passes through her pampered larynx with unequaled control. Her power lies in her breath, her timing, and the way she doses her energy.

In every genre and style, some singers defy the years, thanks to wise artistic choices, good training, or plain luck. When Tony Bennett celebrated his 90th birthday with an appearance on The Late Show in August, he sang “This Is All I Ask,” a tune he had first recorded 53 years earlier, and though he strategically let his croon drift into Cabaret-style song-speech from time to time, the pliant warmth remained intact. Bennett’s a baby compared with the Brazilian chanteuse Bibi Ferreira, who at 94 can still rumble with style through “New York, New York” and caress a fado ballad with her husky quasi-baritone.

Throughout their careers, McCartney, Simon, and Bennett have shared a couple of stylistic advantages: They confined themselves within a relatively narrow range, and they let the microphone supplement intimacy with volume. The same cannot be said of Steven Tyler, the 68-year-old Aerosmith front man who has required surgery to keep his voice in shape. The scratchy holler and crow’s screech that he pioneered in the early 1970s should have left him with a rattling whisper at 40; instead he still surfs over the octaves with the abandon of a dissipated teenager.

Zeitels, the voice doctor who operated on Tyler, Roger Daltrey, and Adele, has a mantra about the cause of most vocal troubles: “It’s not senescence; it’s use.” Just as athletes can reach middle age hobbled by arthritis and concussions, so singers often hasten the end of their careers by abusing their gifts. Violinists, bassoonists, and ukulele players need to make sure the tools of their trade don’t get banged around or left in the sun, but they can’t generally damage them with too much practice. Singers, on the other hand, are constantly trying to find a balance between training their muscles and blowing them out. When your instrument is housed deep within the body, health and habit can separate singers who flame out early from those whose voices will last.

Damage can start early. In June, 13-year-old Laura Bretan stunned TV audiences with preternaturally adult renditions of Puccini that sound like they should be emerging from a 35-year-old diva — and voice coaches of the world despaired. “Her sound is created by severe muscle-manipulation tension,” says the noted voice teacher Bill Schuman. What he hears is a talented little girl depressing the back of her tongue and unnaturally stretching her throat to the point that her muscles will never regain their tautness. He predicts that by the time she is 19, her voice will acquire an uncorrectable wobble.

Cultivating the voice is a lifelong project. Operatic veterans pay regular visits to their teachers, and even for amateurs, a little advice never comes too late. The choral conductor Kent Tritle recalls having to tell a member of the Oratorio Society of New York in her late 80s that her pitch was sagging and maybe it was time to retire. Instead, she went off to work with a vocal coach and returned to the choir a year later. Newly secure, she sang for four more years before she died.

Good technique and a lifestyle free of smoke, drink, stress, shouting, and desiccating intercontinental travel can help preserve the voice for the long term. That’s a tall order for a rock-and-roll vocalist or an international diva. And even properly trained singers can veer toward disaster. That’s when they call Joan Lader, a voice therapist who starts diagnosing voice problems with a barrage of seemingly unrelated questions: “I try to find out if they have arthritic joints, if they suffer from acid reflux, what their stress level is like, how they’re sleeping, whether they keep themselves properly hydrated, what their diet is like. Then I look to see if their jaw is tense, what their tongue is doing, and how firmly rooted they are on the ground.”

Talking on the telephone is particularly dangerous, she says. We don’t feel the need to support or project, so we slump and let the air swirl inefficiently around in our throats. Lader interrupts a phone interview to reproach me for speaking in a flat croak. “Your voice isn’t sustainable like that,” she says. “Try leaning forward and dropping your head, then say, ‘Mmmh, yes.’ ” I do as instructed. “That’s better! Now thump your chest a few times and breathe out, then say it again.” I do, and I can instantly feel — and hear — the difference. A three-second voice lesson already had me sounding a tiny bit more stentorian.

As the vocal cords lose their pliability, singers give up control over the top of their range and the voice tends to drop, finding little zones of persistent elasticity. Lower pitches vibrate more sluggishly and require less air pressure, which is why years of cigarettes have turned Joni Mitchell’s once radiant, gymnastic voice into a rutted grumble. Some singers figure out how to use the vocal version of gravity to their advantage. In the late 1960s, Plácido Domingo emerged as a lyric tenor with a bronzed tone and a killer high B. Over the years, he has forged into heavier dramatic roles like Verdi’s Otello and Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre. While some singers fend off retirement by sticking to the familiar and allowing themselves plenty of rest, the workaholic Domingo plowed relentlessly on. As he entered his 70s and his voice continued to darken, he began a second career as a baritone, adding Verdi’s aging king Nabucco to his repertoire of 137 roles. That move puts him in the company of other senior low-voice singers like Samuel Ramey, James Morris, and the astonishingly powerful septuagenarian Leo Nucci, who as Rigoletto can still snarl and boom with the best of them. The response to Domingo’s switch has not always been enthusiastic — “He’s not a baritone, but rather a tenor without high notes,” the critic James Jorden wrote in the New York Observer last year — but it’s allowed audiences who missed the glory years to enjoy a live taste of that old romantic elegance.

Singers who keep working long past their prime have dodged a lot of bullets. Broadway baritone Michael Cerveris, who at 55 has hit the sweet spot where sonorousness combines with experience, points out that the theater world’s punishing routine of eight shows a week comes bundled with oscillating doses of stress. Learning a role, doubling up on rehearsals and performances during previews, managing the adrenaline of opening night, impressing voters during the Tony-nominations period, singing a benefit on your only night off, recording a cast album — this ceaseless barrage of worry and obligations can have a toxic effect on the voice. “The whole business aspect is set up and designed to the detriment of the performers,” Cerveris says. 

Because so many shows depend on their stars, singers like Cerveris rarely have the luxury of taking the night off when they feel a cold coming on — or two weeks off when a vocal coach advises rest. “I pretty much have to be bleeding from an open wound not to go onstage. I don’t feel I have to sound perfect every night. If my top notes aren’t ringing out and my voice feels stuffed up, I figure, well, that’s just how my character sounds today.” Singing sick is always a gamble: Swollen vocal cords can get more inflamed, blood vessels can burst, scars can harden, and polyps can be aggravated. But Cerveris has figured out a range of techniques to protect himself: “If certain parts of your vocal cords aren’t meeting properly because they’re inflamed, you can use other parts. If you move the voice forward into your sinus cavities, you’re going to get a more nasal, slightly harsher sound, so you can be equally audible with less work.”

Time has it in for singers more than for other musicians. Daniel Barenboim began his professional career as a pianist at 7; nearly 70 years later, he still plays and conducts all over the world, on a schedule that would exhaust a decathlete. Singers’ careers start later and end earlier, which means that their voices begin to go just as their wisdom peaks. Sometimes that hardly matters. The German lieder singer Peter Schreier continued to record and perform well into his 60s, confident that though age eroded his timbre, it also deepened his musicianship. Even with some of the color bleached out of his voice, he could still find a shade of sorrow in Schubert that lay just shy of sentimentality.

The dream of merging long experience with the fresh timbre of youth has prodded Zeitels and other scientists at the Mass General voice center to focus on developing a synthetic biomaterial that might restore elasticity to worn-out vocal cords — first for the voiceless, but eventually, perhaps, for performers. “If we were to succeed, we would ultimately create super-singers,” Zeitels says. That prospect excites and unsettles me. I love the singing voice, with all its personality and imperfections. I imagine, with dismay, a post-surgical future in which young singers can never get their start because companies of ageless voices never go away, like an electronic bell that never fades but just keeps tolling on and on, until one day it stops.

*This article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.