Hello Sweet Adelines Barbershop singers!
I had the pleasure of being a guest presenter at your Albuquerque conference and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you in this blog post.
First and foremost, I want to express my deep admiration for the hard work and dedication that each and every one of you brings to this art form. Singing in a Sweet Adelines group requires a unique blend of skill, passion, and commitment. It is not an easy task, but it is a rewarding one, and I applaud you for the effort you put in to make beautiful music together.
As a woman in Sweet Adelines chorus, you know the joy of singing in harmony with other women. But did you know that menopause can bring new challenges to your vocal abilities? For the book, Singing Through Change, my co-authors and I did a research study which included in-depth interviews with 56 women. Most of the women had noticeable voice issues during their 40’s and 50’s. One of the women, Elaine, a 56-year-old professional singer and voice teacher, experienced this firsthand. Her vibrato was wider than it used to be, her usual songs didn’t feel good anymore, and her flexibility and agility had decreased. On top of that, the vocal transition, or break, between her high and low ranges was difficult to navigate. She was frustrated and sad, not knowing if she would ever enjoy singing again. “I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Plus, I felt I was losing my vocal identity.”
Like other women, Elaine wondered if she was good enough to sing in performances anymore. The burden of self-doubt and anxiety impacted everything she sang. But, one of the goals of Singing Through Change is to help every woman understand that she is not alone. Until recently, voice changes from menopause and aging have been almost unmentionable. If a woman talked about her challenges, especially if she was a professional singer, it could have meant decreased opportunities and even the end of her career. Most women have stayed silent, coping as best as they can, assuming that they have to deal with their baffling voice issues by themselves. But that is not the case. Millions of women around the world are on the same path, and we no longer need to walk that path alone. Working together gives us a better understanding of the vocal issues women might face and how to minimize them.
So what exactly is the vocal impact of menopause and the changing hormonal landscape that women experience? Much of the impact is holistic - involving the whole body-instrument as well as mindset. Our singing is challenged by sleep issues, emotional turmoil, brain fog, stressful lives and careers, and so much more. But as far as the specific impact of the hormones on the vocal folds themselves:
Estrogen is a major player, vocally speaking. It causes suppleness of the vocal folds’ upper surface (the mucosal layer), supports the glands that produce the thin mucus that coats the surface of the vocal folds, maintains tone and bulk of skeletal muscles, including the deepest layer of the vocal folds, which produce lower pitches, and the tiny muscles that produce higher pitches, blocks the effects of androgens (testosterone), preventing lowering and thickening of the voice, and increases oxygenation to the folds by improving permeability of the blood vessels and capillaries.
Progesterone has positive and negative effects on singing. It balances effects of estrogen throughout the body, encourages the surface of the mucous membrane of the folds to slough off, causes decreased and thickened secretions of the outer layer of the vocal folds, resulting in drier vocal folds, decreases permeability of the fold capillaries, leading to swollen vocal folds, and may be involved in neuromuscular activity, supporting quick responsiveness of the laryngeal muscles.
Androgens, including testosterone, are naturally secreted in women’s bodies. Androgens can cause the vocal folds to thicken, which lowers pitch, and increase dryness of the vocal folds due to changes in the glands that secrete fluids near the vocal folds.
During the menopausal transition, which can start ten years before menopause and last for several more years after, there will be times when hormones fluctuate substantially from day to day. The voice, unfortunately, can feel unreliable and unpredictable because of the hormone roller coaster. Even a singer’s pitch perception can be off from time to time. At certain phases of the hormonal journey, many women need empathy and skilled assistance. Support comes through respecting what singers are experiencing, assisting with solutions as needed, and encouraging them to continue singing. Knowing they are not alone can be an enormous relief. Voice is intimately linked with identity. When a woman’s voice is not functioning as expected, it can throw her life off balance. Encourage women to listen to their bodies and hear what their bodies are telling them through their symptoms.
Experiencing changes in your voice during the menopausal transition can be a frustrating and confusing experience. However, it's important to remember that you are not alone. Millions of women around the world are facing similar vocal challenges, and there are resources available to help you navigate these changes. Whether it's seeking the guidance of a well-informed singing teacher or choral director, finding support from a community of women who are experiencing similar changes, or simply listening to your body and giving yourself the time and space to adjust, there are steps you can take to care for your voice and continue enjoying the gift of singing. So don't give up hope! With patience, perseverance, and a little bit of support, you can continue to sing through change and rediscover the joy of making music.
Nancy Bos, along with Cate Frazier-Neely, and Joanne Bozeman are the researchers and authors of the book and audiobook Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond. Learn more at singingthroughchange.com