Vocal Fitness: Keeping the Youthful Voice

Photo by Michael Cummo

You speak, and you sound like a longtime smoker with a chest cold. You sing, and it comes out as wavy as South Beach in a hurricane. You laugh, and it’s a cackle worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West — unless you’re a male. Then it’s her younger sister.

What’s happened to your voice? Why, for the first time since adolescence, do you open your mouth and out pop sounds that you’re hard-pressed to identify as your own? You’re aging. And like the skin under your triceps, the muscles in your chin, and the girth around your middle, your voice is getting saggy. There are fixes: injections of fat and other fillers into your vocal cords — even surgery. But these are drastic measures, and given the availability of exercises for vocal fitness, superfluous.

For the last two and a half years, Heidi Carter has been teaching Voice Craft on-Island: a system of vocal exercises for tuning up the speaking voice. According to Ms. Carter, “as with the aging body, you’re working against the forces of time when it comes to vocal work. The goal is to keep the voice limber and as strong as possible. Everything is dependent on correct breathing and a raised soft palate. The two strengthen your core and enable your voice to be resonant, strong, and healthy.”

Ms. Carter is the best advertisement for her services. She speaks with a clear and lilting strength, and gives the impression that she’s well in control of her vocal faculties. A singer since age 13  — first folk, then classical — her background includes several degrees in music-related studies and a stint with the Boston Opera Company chorus (appearing twice at Tanglewood). Other degrees include counseling, geriatric, and disabled work, always with a musical bent.

After a singing career, work with the aged and challenged, and facilitating the building of a cultural center in New York, Ms. Carter decided, 10 years ago, to become a voice teacher. “My students started asking similar questions,” she recalls. “‘Why is my voice getting tight?’ ‘My voice is getting lower.’ ‘I’m losing my vocal range.’ I was hearing this enough that I decided to go on the Internet and see what was up. It hadn’t occurred to me in all my years of singing that the voice ages just like the rest of us.”

Ms. Carter discovered through her research that the deterioration of the voice occurs as follows:

  • The joints and cartilage of the larynx stiffen
  • Muscles and nerve tissues weaken
  • The mucosal layer of the vocal-fold edges depletes
  • Facial and speaking muscles atrophy
  • The craniofacial structure of the head enlarges symmetrically
  • The tongue loses strength
  • Pulmonary functions decrease
  • Respiratory functions weaken
  • Vocal range and pitch change in both men (higher) and women (lower)
  • Lung volume remains the same, but capacity decreases

These discoveries led Ms. Carter to develop Voice Craft, which incorporates exercises for posture, breathing, listening, articulation, expression, and language. There is a lot of overlap.

“You can’t help but improve posture with your breathing,” she explains. “The moment you take a deep breath, yours lungs expand, your ribs expand, your back has to straighten out. So the first thing I do is teach how to improve your posture and strengthen your core.”

She slouches to illustrate. “You notice, if I bend over my voice gets drier-sounding. It’s actually pushing nine little bones together in the larynx, which causes it to calcify.” She notes that many teenagers are beginning to sport this gravelly sound due to slouching at computers, over cell phones, and under backpacks. “They’re deteriorating their voices just like elderly people,” Ms. Carter says.

Listening is a given for vocalizing. Ms. Carter quotes Alfred A. Tomatis, a French pioneer in ear, nose, and throat therapies: “You can’t re-create with your voice what you can’t hear.” But Ms. Carter uses listening in an unexpected way. “We listen to feel what’s going on inside the mouth, and the pharynx, the back of the mouth, the sinuses, and how it’s affecting the rest of the body,” she explains.

Articulation follows, where the voice moves to the front of the face. Ms. Carter says, “The moment you begin to articulate, everything comes forward in your speech, and your voice becomes more and more resonant.”

The class then concentrates on primal sounds, re-experiencing the beauty of vowels and consonants and how they come together. “I want to restore how words are really archetypal,” Ms. Carter says. “The more you express them from an authentic place, the more lively and colorful your voice is.”

“Language is just building on the primal sounds,” she adds.

It may seem to be a lot of work for something as organic as speaking, but, Ms. Carter claims, there are other health benefits to vocal exercises. In the process of posture, listening, and articulation, the bones vibrate and resonate, creating, as Ms. Carter says, “a beautiful sonic massage to the whole body. It brings the body to stasis.”

“The language and expression,” she adds, “are just perks for working on those other things.”

Ms. Carter is currently writing a book on Voice Craft, and is teaching a course for ACE MV at the high school. She also teaches workshops at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard.

Tips for Maintaining Your Healthy, Youthful Voice:

  • Warm up the voice at least 10 minutes a day
  • Refrain from shouting or unsupported whispering
  • Avoid throat-clearing
  • Maintain abdominal support
  • Sip warm or tepid water
  • Eliminate milk and caffeine from diet
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit intake of alcoholic beverages
  • Keep an exercise regimen
  • Read aloud
  • Sing in the car and shower, or join a chorus
  • Speak gently
  • Laugh and smile a lot