The Amazing — And Mysterious — Human Voice

My financial planner and I frequently have a good laugh whenever he does  a basic “check-up” to make sure my financial strategy is on track; when he asks the stock question: “Projected retirement age..?” I beam: “Never!”

I am blessed to love what I do so much, that the idea of packing it in and retiring is almost anathema to me. So long as I’m able to make these same, recognizable, (and hopefully pleasant-sounding) noises (and get paid well to do so) I’d like to keep doing it as long as it brings me pleasure.

Then it occurred to me: how long can I realistically *expect* to be a professional voice talent – and keep that desired consistency; that level of quality? Still — dare I ask — sound like me? Visions of Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond warbling: “You old Poop!” plagued me as I became determined to learn more about the physiology of the human voice and what changes can be realistically expected as we age normally.

OK, vocal folds do NOT look pretty. Not even Renee Fleming’s vocal folds in mid-aria would be suitable for framing (maybe in her otolaryngologist’s office…as some sort of bizarre trophy..) – or even the stunningly healthy ordinary folds pictured to the left. But their function is one of precision and wonderment.

The voice is essentially produced by the vibration of the vocal folds, which are pliable shelves of tissue stretched across the trachea. In order to produce voice, the lungs blow air against the vocal folds until the covering of the folds, or the mucosa, vibrates — this is known as the venturi effect. As air passes through a constriction (or venturi) it speeds up and creates a suction in its wake. The cycle of repeating undulation is known as the mucosal wave, the regularity of which is essential to the production of good voice.

That’s the basic wiring.

What really interests me is the pathology of how the voice matures (seen most dramatically in pubescent boys, whose vocal folds grow 0.7 mm compared to a typical female’s vocal fold growth rate of 0.4 mm in the heyday of puberty — with 16mm being the average final vocal fold span of a post-pubescent male, as compared to a girl’s span of just 10mm — which accounts for the deeper voice in males.)

Similarly fascinating is the common knowledge among professional singers and their vocal coaches/teachers about the effects of hormones on the singing voice: when estrogen levels drop prior to menstruation, water-retention levels in vocal tissues increase, causing an increase in blood supply to to the vocal folds. The increase of mucous has a dire effect on clear diction or clarity of sound; many singers experience a husky or fuzzy quality to their voices in the pre-menstrual phase, as well as decreased volume, a breathy quality, and intonation problems.

As for the effects of ageing on the voice: 48 female and 24 male long-term singers were studied regarding the occurrence of possible changes in their voices around the fifth decade of life — the emphasis of the study was actually aimed at understanding the effects of menopause on the female voice — the males were merely a control in the study, but what a useful and revealing control they were. Evenly 70% of both males and females encountered changes in their voices around the age of 50. Female singers emphasised a compromised higher register and felt greater challenges in voice control than the men. Overall, though, only 29% of women expressed negative changes in their voice, compared to 38% of men. So much for hormonal gremlins stealing our voice careers away.

What generally happen to the ageing vocal folds is a loss of volume in the vocal fold edges due to normal wear and tear — where the vocal edges used to meet together fairly snugly in youth, there may develop a slight “spindle-shaped gap” where the folds don’t “seal” completely — and this manifests itself in a high-pitched, reedy roughness associated with age. Collagen or fat have been known to be injected into the folds, which can greatly help to “seal” the rift (in fact, certain physicians introduced the idea of a “voice lift” — a concept to rejuvenate the voice along the same lines as a face lift, now seen as huckersterism and deemed largely unneccessary for the general population.)

Much is made about vocal health among voice professionals — I recently read Broadway virtuoso Kristin Chenoweth’s biography  A Little Bit Wicked (after seeing her in “Promises, Promises!” on Broadway this summer) — she recounted  a story of being stranded on a series of cables above the stage while stagehands were testing her flying sequences for Wicked – she was left suspended for about a half hour while they got distracted with other duties and she absolutely *wouldn’t* yell down at them for fear of damaging her voice. While that may be seen as extreme (it’s the repeated, regular, and on-going abuse of the folds which can cause permanent damage, as Rod Stewart, Steven Tyler, and even Harry Belafonte can attest to), it did occur to me that the act of me racing out onto my back deck throughout the day to yell at the magpies and crows to stay out of the bird feeder (meant for the smaller birds) may *not* be the best practice for my voice, nor one which I should continue if I hope to voice past 50. Same goes for the occasional bursts of “encouragement” I give other drivers as they try to manuever around the new traffic circles and ring roads which seem to be popping up daily in our city.

This voice we have is an amazing, complex, and invaluable component to our identities — to imagine life without it is a bleak thought beyond compare, and personally, it makes me want to make each utterance important, meaningful, and as sweet as I can make it sound.

Join me here next week for an interesting exploration of privacy, confidentiality, and the measures that must be taken to make sure your outbound dialer or intake IVR  is talking to right person.

Thanks for reading!

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4 Comments »

  1. nehamashira Said:

    Thanks for your post- if you have any good tips and exercises for maintaining vocal flexibility past menopause, I am all ears. I have been studying with a great coach for some time, but have been noticing subtle changes in my voice. Not all the changes are negative, but I want to make sure that I am doing the ‘right’ things and not making the mistake of trying to make a 50+ year old instrument behave like one 30 years younger.

    • voicegal Said:

      Thanks for the feedback — I found a very good website: http://www.vocalessentials.com/faq.html — which delves deeper into the issue. Your point of not expecting a “50+ year old instrument behave like one 30 years younger” is a good note for everyone. The flipside of that? someone in their 20′s may lack the depth and richness of an older voice ;)

      • Marilyn E. B. Betts Said:

        Can you recommend any other sources of info?
        I am 79 yrs. old and have sung all my life, a good
        share of it with elementary age children. I have noticed
        my mid range is no longer dependable, but lower and upper much better. I had a virus last year and coughed a
        lot and fear I may have damaged it further, but that mid
        range has had problems for about a year. Please any
        advise would do. IT IS VERY SAD!!

      • voicegal Said:

        Marilyn —

        Thanks for writing — it sounds like like a very stressful situation! Of course — I’m a voice talent, and not able to assess or treat vocal problems, but what I’d reccomend is getting an Otolaryngoloist to have a look and give you their opinion. I think it’s actually encouraging that your lower and upper ranges are solid — to my understanding, those are usually the first aspects to be compromised (Julie Andrews noticed a huge “lopping off” of her range on either end after being intubated for a surgery a few years ago.)

        Best of luck, and keep singing no matter what!


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