Are older people welcome in your choir? They should be.
I wrote this post last summer but waited to post it because the time never felt right. I decided to post it today because it's the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple when we remember and celebrate the voices of two old people who praised God—St. Simeon and the Prophetess Anna (read more about the feast here and about Bach's cantata for the day, here).
Since giving birth a few months ago, I’ve had a wealth of quiet hours to ponder the prickly questions niggling at the back of my mind, at least once I was sleeping enough. One night back in June, I lay awake thinking about old voices, about how a certain timbre makes a person sound old. And I wondered why that particular sound isn't welcome in choirs? Why do people tend to prefer young sounding choirs, not elderly sounding ones?
This isn’t about older vocalists being more likely sing flat or having a more limited vocal range. This is something about simply sounding old.
So I drafted a blog post about the topic and sent it to a friend who said it was “on the depressed side, but, then, the topic is not an inherently cheerful one.” I was, after all, pointing out that most of the younger members of a church’s volunteer choir would eventually become less and less valued for what they could offer the ensemble.
Think about it: if you’re an average amateur singer with a pleasant, unremarkable voice, your sound is eventually going to waver. When someone hears you sing, they will immediately pin you as an older person, not a young one. And because of that sound, your own voice will become undesirable, at least in the setting of a church choir.*
*To be clear, I'm talking about volunteer church choirs, not professional ones.
Our call to sing God's praises has no expiration date.
Last week, a member of a choir I had directed passed away after just a brief illness. She was on the younger end of retirement. She was someone who’s quiet, older voice I initially discounted because, well, it was older and quiet.
Then I rearranged the seating chart for the choir, and, with us sitting nearer each other, I realized that she sang every anthem knowledgably. She learned the notes by inputting them into a music notation software and came to rehearsals prepared to sing.
I am sad to have discounted her voice at first.
In fact, I am ashamed at my deep-seated mentality that “younger voice=good” and “older voice=bad."
I’ve been thinking about this problem in conjunction with Jennifer Fleeger’s essay about Florence Foster Jenkins—the philanthropist who famously couldn’t sing operatic music according to expected aesthetic standards (the album of her singing isn’t called “Murder on the High Cs” for nothing). But she sang anyway, even to the point of having a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall when she was in her 70s.
Foster Jenkins’s singing wasn’t problematic just because she sang flat on the high notes, but because she sang at all in her old age. According to Fleeger, Foster Jenkin’s singing was embarrassing: “When people write about Jenkins’ oddities, and there were many, they tend to discuss the curious concurrence of her inability to sing and her confidence that she had every right to do so. They ask, ‘Didn’t she realize everyone was laughing at her?’ That she seems not to have cared produces a collective shudder of sympathetic embarrassment.”
Is that sympathetic embarrassment because we hope we would never outsing our welcome? That we would know when to stop singing, when our voices are too old to be lovely?
Part of the issue is that most church choirs sing within a musical tradition—vaguely aspiring toward western art music ideals—that prizes a mature vocal sound, neither adolescent nor old.
In other words: a tradition whose aesthetic priorities do not include older voices.
But church choirs should be welcoming to older vocalists, regardless of what some aesthetic ideal handed down to us says. Our call to sing God’s praises has no expiration date!
I want my idea of a “good” church choir to reflect that reality. So I am beginning by changing my own attitude toward older voices.
+Memory Eternal, Bethel+
P.S. Too many older people in the choir? How about too many sopranos and altos?