May/June 2022

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Effect Menopause Has On The Voice

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Effect Menopause Has On The Voice

Singing Through ’The Change’: The Effect Menopause Has On The Voice – After the 21st gig of a 22-date tour, I stayed with friends for a much-needed breather. As documented in a previous Finding Your Voice NZM column, I’d physically, vocally, emotionally, and psychologically melted down whilst touring: losing my voice after, and even during, performances; suicidal ideation; depression; anxiety; despair; insomnia; exhaustion; heart palpitations; breathing difficulties; cold sweats; hypertension and hot-flushes. I was down for the count.

My well-meaning host asked if I had an alternative revenue stream. Her mother-in-law boldly stated that, “You can’t sing past the menopause. You’ll lose upper-range and can’t sustain phrases.” Though the tour hadn’t finished, and gigs lined up ahead, I received a clear message – for this 50 year old professional vocalist, my singing career was over!

I googled ’menopause and singing’: loss of breath control, bowed vocal cords, wobble, uncontrolled vibrato, pronounced register breaks, vocal fatigue, etc. The outcome looked grim. I was terrified. But then, I’m a woman of faith, and a strange demonstration manifested the next day. While singing a cappella on the steps of Parliament, I’d pitched the song in a higher key to better project. Because of this, my usual High D6 became a high F#6! So much for a loss-of-range. That’s higher than I’d sung since early teens, warbling along with Bronski Beat and Phoebe Snow.

The post-tour rebuild was a crash course in multi-modal healing. I needed to ascertain where my body/mind/spirit/voice was at, and sort myself out somehow. Sadly, online research from vocal coaches specialising in ’the mature female voice’, isn’t open source. I didn’t have time, or money, to sign up for courses or see an endocrinologist.

Rebuilding necessitated a deep dive into all dimensions of health/wellbeing/hauora: taha tinana (physical), taka hinengaro (mental/emotional), taha whanau (social) and taha wairua (spiritual).

Taha Tinana – Physical

Hormonally: The Dutch Test provides an expensive picture of where your hormone-processing and organ function is at. It showed virtually no oestrogen or progesterone, and compromised thyroid and adrenal glands. Working with a wonderful naturopath, I began a regime of supplements and herbs to boost mood, rectify vitamin and mineral deficiencies, regulate glandular function, reduce menopausal symptoms (chaste, black cohosh) and balance hormones to help pick me up off the floor. Fantastic if you’re rockin’ the HRT, but I’m still waiting on that endocrinologist’s appointment!

Vocally: The female voice breaks more subtly and later than the male. Because our hormones are similarly changing, we may need to navigate and negotiate the break again in midlife. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Use ’ng’ to move the voice forward around the C#5 ’break’. Conceptualise your range as horizontal rather than vertical. (I’ve a NZ Musician column dedicated to this topic.)

Menopause necessitates using/understanding good vocal technique (even if you’ve never had issues before). Just as we target triceps and belly when working out as our body matures, we must prioritise vocal fitness so that our vocal muscles don’t get tired and flabby. Warm-up every day including breathing exercises, facial stretches, scales, and exercises that deploy tools like the silent giggle, twang, ’ng’, body anchoring, etc. 

Make relieving tension a fulltime job. Diminishing levels, or an absence of oestrogen, mean we don’t have a buffer for dealing with the stress hormone cortisol. Consequently, we often suffer tremendous amounts of tension in the chest, shoulders, back, neck, jaw, and throat. This must be loosened to sing openly and freely. I use and love Feldenkrais, belly dance, massage/self-massage, Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), yoga, walking, swimming, Reiki. Find your bliss… and that’s an order!

Bad postural habits tend to ossify and get stuck. Counteract hunched shoulders, jutting and/or lifting the chin by using micro reminders to align posture: shoulders over the ribs over the hips. To open your chest, turn arms outwards, palms facing away, thumbs pointing behind you. Bring shoulder blades together and downwards, bring arms back at your sides keeping chest and shoulders as they were.

Be prepared at gigs. Have scarves and warm clothing within reach, should you experience cold-sweats or chills. Bring a thermos of herbal/medicinal tea. Pop a couple of Naprogesics should you lose your voice or become paralysed with fear.

Taka Hinengaro – Psychological/Emotional

Deal with anxiety as you would any other serious disease. Focus entirely on joy! Give no thought, time, or attention to what could potentially go wrong. Don’t get scared. You’ve got this… as did Tina Turner, and so many before us!

Taka Whanau – Socially

Menopause is an invitation, an initiation that used to be celebrated. We’ve been disconnected from that process because of the devaluing, denigration, dismissal, and invisibility of mature women. Feel your wisdom and power as that of the crone/the oracle/the wise woman.

Feel empowered as truth speaker/singer within your increased authority and maturity. Menopause can increase the desire to withdraw and isolate. However, some of the most powerful conversations come from sharing lived experiences through peer support. We’re here to help one another. Let’s.

The accumulated wisdom, knowledge and insight of a mature woman lends itself perfectly to more profound and meaningful songwriting. Listen to the increased depth of expression, subtlety, emotional honesty, and colour of your voice (and other mature female artists). Even though the record industry worships youthfulness, we’re blossoming into our fullness.

Taka Wairua – Evolutionarily/Spiritually

Astrologically, Chiron returns at 50 – 51 years. This wounded healer/teacher-of-heroes archetype asks us to look at, understand, and heal our most painful psychic, or physical wounds. The lessons and blessings of a conscious menopause create space for self-compassion and awareness like never before. What do we stand for? What must we communicate? Your voice and perspective deserve to be heard.

Don’t be discouraged… be curious and have courage. You will come out of this stronger, as will your voice – the top of your range won’t diminish, but the bottom-end increases! To borrow from Dory in Finding Nemo… “Just keep singing!”
Be curious, enjoy, and I’ll meet you on the other side (if not before), as we move through this transition together.