Singing and Healthy Aging

Whether taking up a new activity or continuing a lifelong practice, older adults who sing are reaping a host of social and health benefits.

After a long and fruitful work career as a tire company executive, winery owner, and California county supervisor and assemblyman, Brooks Firestone reached retirement age with a bit of trepidation. He and his wife Kate were well, with only a few of the aches, pains, and ailments that often accompany advancing age. Yet it was clear that previous pursuits such as skiing, cattle roping, and long bike treks were mostly memories. 

What now? It is a question that catches many new retirees unawares, because, frankly, they haven’t thought about it, or just don’t want to think about it.

Brooks and Kate Firestone

For the Firestones, the answer came from unexpected quarters. First, Brooks followed Kate into the church choir, where he discovered in the bass section a talent as a singer that had previously been hidden from view. Then the couple auditioned for and got into the Santa Barbara Choral Society, a community chorus with exacting standards. 

“What the musical muse saw in me as a singer…was hard to fathom for the first few years of my new career,” Firestone writes in his book Evensong. “Fortunately, I possessed some vocal capacity, and a serious learning effort that sometimes discourages people in later life was never a burden for me…Kate and I drifted together into choral singing and gradually came to realize that this new avocation was becoming an important commitment and, also, a joyful dimension in our lives.”

In addition to regular performances with their church and community choirs, the Firestones have been swept into an array of musical adventures, including tours of Europe and participation in serious choral singing vacations that the Berkshire Choral Festival offers every summer. “Kate and I have learned that older marrieds, like ourselves, do well to devise late-life activities that can be nurtured and shared together,” Firestone writes. “We discovered that our partnership thrives in these later years partly because we have found a passion for choral singing as a communal project.”

A Lifelong Activity

Barring a failing voice or failing health, longtime choral singers fully expect to continue singing well into their sixties and beyond. Others, like the Firestones, have discovered singing as a delightful and unexpected latter life activity. The benefits for both older singers and their singing communities are many. A growing number of studies are examining the impact of singing in a choir on the health and well-being of older adults.

In 2011, Julene Johnson, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, spent several months in Finland, one of the world’s great singing cultures, studying the impact of choir singing on older adults. She and her colleagues asked older singers specifically about their quality of life using a standard scale from the World Health Organization. They also looked at how the singers were handling the physical aspects of aging, and, because depression is common in older adults, administered a depression questionnaire. The final scale measured resilience, or the ability to respond to stressful situations in life. 

Researchers also asked the singers to identify some of the aspects of choir that were important to them. Was it the social support or the outlet for emotional expression? Was it that they were feeling refreshed or that that they were attending cultural events?

For these singers, the desire to perform was the least significant motivator. Instead, a majority reported that factors such as being a member of the group, having artistic and emotional experiences, and forming social contacts in the choir were most valuable. Improving self-confidence, developing singing skills, and increasing their knowledge of music also played a role.

“I am interested in providing more scientific evidence about the effectiveness of participating in community singing,” Johnson says, “because I think it is particularly cost-effective and accessible to anybody from any background. It could be a good community-based health promotion option for older folks.” - Julene Johnson 

“In Finland, it was so important to have access to choirs across the lifespan—not just children’s and adult choirs but to really think about access to choir throughout life,” Johnson says. “I know that many folks in the U.S. retire from their choir when they get too old and think their voice cannot handle it anymore. It was amazing to see how the Finns really could sing from a very young age up until the golden years and they were supported for that.”

In September 2012, Johnson secured a grant from the National Institutes of Health to start a series of choirs for low-income seniors in San Francisco and to study the impact of choral singing on their health and well-being. “I am interested in providing more scientific evidence about the effectiveness of participating in community singing,” Johnson says, “because I think it is particularly cost-effective and accessible to anybody from any background. It could be a good community-based health promotion option for older folks.”

Surprising Impact of Choral Singing

Johnson’s five-year study will build on previous research conducted in the early 2000s by the late Gene Cohen and colleagues at George Washington University in Washington DC. Their study measured the impact of a professionally-conducted chorus on the general and mental health of 166 community-dwelling older adults. The chorus met for weekly rehearsals for 30 weeks and held several performances during this time period. 

The seniors involved in the chorus, as well as seniors in two separate arts groups that involved writing and painting, showed significant health improvements compared to those in control groups that did not participate in arts activities. Specifically, the arts groups reported an average of 30 fewer doctor visits, fewer eyesight problems, less incidence of depression, less need for medication, and fewer falls and other injuries. 

The findings surprised even Cohen. “My surprise was not a factor of whether the intervention would work, but how big an effect it would have at an advanced age," Cohen is quoted as saying in a Cisco report about the impact of the arts on well-being. “The average age of all the subjects was 80. This is higher than life expectancy, so, realistically, if an effect were to be achieved, one would ordinarily expect to see less decline in the intervention group compared to the control. The fact that there was so much improvement in many areas was the surprise factor."

The seniors themselves also noticed health improvements, says Jeanne Kelly, director of the Levine School of Music, Arlington Campus, who led the choral group. The seniors reported that they felt better both in daily life and while singing, that their everyday voice quality was better, that the tone of their speaking voice did not seem to age as much, and that they experienced easier breathing and better posture.

When the study was complete, many of the seniors in the choral group wanted to continue. With funding from the MetLife Foundation, Kelly formed Encore: Creativity for Older Adults, a new nonprofit which currently oversees 13 senior chorales in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC, as well as chorales in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

“Good for the Soul”

Choirs specifically for seniors have proliferated across the United States. In Minneapolis, the MacPhail Center for Music has partnered with Friendship Village, a senior residence in Bloomington, to create Sing for Your Life. The brainchild of Stuart MacPhail, whose father William founded the MacPhail Center in 1907, the vocal ensemble now has 50 active participants ranging in age from age from 76 to 98. “Singing is so good for the soul. It just makes all of us feel good to sing,” says MacPhail, who turns 95 in May.

At each session, conductor and composer Jeanie Brindley-Barnett and her assistant Jeanne Bayer lead the group in a variety of activities designed to improve vocal health and wellness and foster creativity and song preparation. The group sings mostly repertoire from the Great American Songbook and performs two concerts per season. “Singing is great because it uses the entire body with movements, vocal exercises and breathing, and develops the brain at the same time.” Brindley-Barnett says in a Friendship Village newsletter. “My greatest gigs have not been on the stage of the London opera, but doing this kind of work. These singers are talented, creative lifelong learners who are not afraid to try something new.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, the Larimer Chorale collaborated with AARP and Volunteers for America to launch Singing for Seniors, a six-month pilot project that offers an avenue for older adults to engage in recreational singing. When the group launched in May 2012, it immediately filled its 100 slots—the largest number that could be accommodated in the rehearsal space.

“Singing is great because it uses the entire body with movements, vocal exercises and breathing, and develops the brain at the same time.” - Jeanie Brindley-Barnett 

The program is designed to emphasize wellness and to maximize the health benefits of singing. A board-certified music therapist selects warm-up exercises for the body and voice such as tongue twisters, stretches, and rhythmic arm and leg movements. The Chorale’s conductor and artistic director Michael Todd Krueger selects music and conducts the choir. 

After a short hiatus to study the results of the pilot, Singing for Seniors plans to reopen in the spring of 2013. Already choir members are informally reporting an array of benefits to their health and well-being, including improved posture and increased lung capacity. They also say the program helps keep their minds active and allows them to reap many other social and emotional benefits. 

Don’t Dumb it Down

Members of Singing for Seniors are “clamoring for more challenging music and longer rehearsals,” the Chorale notes on its website. It is a theme heard often among active singing seniors. While they don’t mind singing in a chorus of people around their own age, there is no need to “dumb down” the repertoire selected.

In partnership with the MacPhail Center and the Minnesota Chorale, Jerry Rubino, a conductor, pianist, and arranger, is heading up a new “artistically ambitious” chorus for mature singers. Called Voices of Experience, the group offers an opportunity for choral singers 55 and older “to achieve vocal excellence, to share their art with others, and to enrich the community through song.”

“The average age is somewhere in the 70s,” Rubino says. “These are long-time choral singers who don’t want to give it up. They take it very, very seriously and really want to be challenged and keep their voices in good shape.” Rehearsals always involve work on vocal technique, and the repertoire, ranging from classical stalwarts in several languages to the Great American Songbook, keeps singers on their toes. The ensemble’s debut concerts in 2010 included a side-by-side performance with the Minnesota Chorale and the Minneapolis Youth Chorus—part of the Chorale’s Bridges community engagement project, Sing On!

Brooks Firestone found participating in a singing week at the Berkshire Choral Festival along with several hundred choristers from around the country a challenge as well. He describes the long hours of rehearsals that culminated in the Festival’s performance in Montreal of Hadyn’s Creation Mass. Conductor Jane Glover was “charming, witty, demanding, and persuasive—in the most insisting manner,” Firestone writes. “She was able to round up the stray herd of 140 singers and move them in the direction she desired.” 

The performance brought the kind of pleasure that only comes from hard work. “I actually enjoyed every minute of the hours of study and practice,” Firestone writes. “When you love doing something, it is not a chore, and the music learning preparation is, for me, much of the fun.” 

The work involved in preparation explains much of the benefit of ambitious choral singing to the body, mind, and spirit, researchers are concluding. Julene Johnson’s research with singing seniors in Finland has reinforced her belief that older singers gain much through the challenge of creating an excellent choral product. “In the senior choirs in Finland, they are singing the serious repertoire and not assuming that they can’t do it,” Johnson says. “The thing that was shocking to me was how strong their voices were, and how musically competent all of the singers were. The expectations are high and they are backed up by many years of singing.”

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2013. In this special issue devoted to singing and wellness, Chorus America explores current research and tells stories about how singing together contributes to the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities. Our Singing and Wellness Resource Guide explores the studies cited and further reading.

Get News