20 April 2015

How to keep on singing

Young Nana Mouskouri
Nana Mouskouri as I remember her
Do you ever experience a jolt of surprise when you discover that someone famous, who you still think of as being 30 or maybe 40 years old, is now over 80? That happened to me recently when I saw a post on facebook about an upcoming concert by Nana Mouskouri. (Sorry if you were hoping to go, it was last weekend in Perth).

"She must be getting on a bit" I thought, "She'd be at least 60 by now." So I googled her name and found that she turned 80 last year. Eighty! Oh my! Sometimes I forget how old I am. She was 30 or 40 when I was watching her shows on Saturday nights as a teenager with my family, and that was long, long ago.

But my next thought was "How can she possibly still be singing in concerts at eighty?" So I had a look on youtube and found a clip of a concert from last year. And yes, she can still sing. And no, she doesn't have quite the voice she once had. I suspect most people who go to her concerts will do it out of nostalgia, or because of her charming personality. Or maybe just to see those glasses again. But she looks fantastic and sings well enough.

That got me thinking about why it was that I thought that she couldn't still be singing at eighty. Perhaps its the critical remarks I heard as a child about older women who "thought they could still sing but really shouldn't". Or maybe it's that I've accepted the idea that older women have weak and quavery voices. I've noticed over the past few years that my own voice is not the same as it used to be, and sometimes I can't hold a tune as well as I could.

It's apparently true that both men and women's voices change as they get older, due to stiffening of the larynx (the windpipe), stretching of the vocal cords, and changes to the nervous system that control voice production. Hormonal changes play a part. Men's voices tend to get higher in pitch, while women's voices get deeper.

But do our voices have to become weak and quavery with age? What is the secret behind Nana Mouskouri's strong voice? The first thing to note is that Nana Mouskouri was trained as a classical singer before she began singing jazz and popular music.

So she knows a lot about voice production and how to care for her voice. She has never strained her vocal cords. No doubt she ensures that she doesn't let her throat become dehydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, and she avoids those things that are known to damage the vocal cords such as cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol.

I don't know what Nana Mouskouri's exercise programme is, but I'm sure she also keeps her whole body fit. She couldn't look so amazing, or travel the world the way she does, if she wasn't in good physical condition. One of the benefits of being fit, well known to professional singers and actors, is that it improves the ability to support the voice with adequate breath. Lung capacity reduces steadily as we age, but the reduction can be slowed by exercise.

Nana Mouskouri in 2012
Nana Mouskouri in 2012
(photo courtesy of Spree Tom)
Second, she uses her voice all the time. Many of us, as we get older, have less need, or less opportunity, for speaking and singing. Perhaps we've retired from work where we had to use our voice most of the day and now we spend a lot more time at home, in silence or only in occasional conversation. Maybe we spend less time talking to (or yelling at!) our children now that they've left home.

Apart from the many other benefits of face-to-face social contact, it's worth adding that it allows us to use our voices regularly. Like any other muscle, the muscles that control voice production work better if exercised. Some people recommend reading aloud for ten minutes or so every day, or singing scales to keep our voices in trim. Joining a choir, or even just singing in church, are other ways of using the voice regularly and give the added benefit of social contact.

The third thing we could note is that Nana Mouskouri, while certainly not obese, is pleasantly rounded compared to her younger self. For older people, being healthy doesn't mean being stick-thin. One article I read suggested that a little body fat helps to produce estrogen that helps to keep the vocal cords more flexible.

Finally, perhaps her attitude to life has a lot to do with it. Apart from singing she has been active in humanitarian work, and even had a stint as a member of the European parliament for a while. But singing is her main love. "Everything I do is for love and with love. I love music and that's why I sing,"*

*Quoted by Kathy Evans of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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