How Age Forces Rock Singers to Adjust: ‘It Happens to All of Us’
During an interview a few years back, Billy Joel discussed the challenges of maintaining his singing voice as he got older.
"There was a moment back in, oh, [the '90s], when I said goodbye to that high note in 'An Innocent Man,'" he told this writer. "It was there, but I could tell that was probably the last time I'd hit it, so it was like, 'See ya. That's it for Billy's high note.' It happens to all of us. That's just reality."
It's a reality that's being noticed more and more these days, as music fans notice the toll age is taking on some of their favorites' voices. Jon Bon Jovi, Journey's Arnel Pineda and Vince Neil are among those who have made news this year over reported vocal issues. Neil — currently playing stadiums with a reunited Motley Crue — even ended a June 2021 show prematurely while having a hard time singing.
A recent bout with COVID-19, meanwhile, was blamed for Rod Stewart's subpar performance at Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee concert on June 4 in London. "I apologize," he later tweeted. "I thought it better it to make an appearance rather than let everyone down so sorry."
And more and more artists are speaking out about the matter, acknowledging that time is not always on their side — or their voices'.
"Obviously within the next five years, I think my voice will go. Age will get it in the end," the Who's Roger Daltrey told this writer in 2019. He was diagnosed with vocal cord dysplasia in 2010, but after two surgeries feels that his voice is "better now than it's been in 25 years." Daltrey's continuing on The Who Hits Back! tour of North America this year and is also playing solo dates in Europe.
"It's only a small little muscle," Daltrey notes, "but it's like any other muscle in the body. Age is not usually kind to voice. I'm very aware that at my age, if I stop singing for any length of time, then my voice won't be there as I need it — in quite a short space of time. I've been very fortunate. I can still roar like I used to, but only by taking good care of it."
That, according to voice professionals, is the key. "We know aging affects multiple systems of the body — the skeletal system, the muscular system, among others," Dr. Michelle Adessa, a clinical speech-language pathologist in the Cleveland Clinic's Voice Center, tells UCR. "A lot of those same concepts apply to the aging of the voice, but then there's an overlay of the complexities of singers' voice demands on top of that."
Adessa works with singers regularly, and she says the vocal aging issues include vocal fold atrophy, in which the vocal cords don't close as tightly as they did before, as well as hormonal changes that make men's voices higher and women's voices lower. Adessa adds, however, that "not one size fits all." Vocal tremors, a lessening of flexibility, increased raspiness and changes in clarity and power are all issues she frequently sees in her singing patients as they age. Wear and tear often leads to polyps and lesions, sometimes requiring surgical repair.
"With singers, especially rock singers, we certainly don't want to discount the idea of vocal cord trauma, which just means injury," Adessa explains. "People who use their voice a lot tend to injure their voice a lot — not every singer, but you're at greater risk if you use your vocal cords more. The top layer of the vocal cord is not as forgiving compared to other muscles in the body.
"And the particular requirements of rock singers — increased volume, certain kind of stylistic things they do with their voice, may lead to increased risk of vocal trauma. There's more chance for things like scarring."
It becomes a question, then, of not if but when singers will have to deal with age's effect on their voices. Many have adjusted techniques and circumstances.
Peter Gabriel, for instance, told The Quietus in 2011 that he will "cheat on occasion. I used falsetto rather than full voice in some bits. There's a particular high note on 'Don't Give Up.' But I think my voice has probably dropped a tone ... and most of the songs that have high notes I've had to lower a tone for the set. On the other hand, you get given some notes down the bottom end. You only have to look at people like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, who have done more with their old voice than they were able to do with their youthful voice."
Heart's Ann Wilson, meanwhile, told UCR she uses arnica pellets after shows: "That helps with bruising and swelling. And I drink a lot of water and try to get sleep." Whitesnake's David Coverdale, who also had both knees replaced, acknowledged to Antihero that he's surrounded himself with band members "who are good enough to be frontman singers. ... Listen, I cannot hit all the notes I used to all by myself."
More and more singers are also adding vocal coaches and therapists to their teams to help them both recover and maintain their prowess. When Kenny Loggins started losing his voice in 2020, he sought out Los Angeles vocal coach Ken Stacey, himself a singer with bands such as Ambrosia and an adherent of the Bel Canto ("beautiful voice" in Italian) method that kept Tony Bennett singing at a high level through his 80s.
"It suddenly dawned on me I should be working with a trainer to keep my voice in shape," Loggins told The Washington Post during a recent streaming interview. "We worked five days, six days a week." Loggins said his voice was back to performing par within half a year.
"A human voice is not meant to go at the pace of the economy that the music industry insists," Stacey, who's also toured with Elton John and was part of Michael Jackson's This Is It band, tells UCR. "The entire industry is built on the premise the artist is going to stay out there and work. The problem is that is not conducive to a healthy voice. A lot changes in the voice, and when you expect yourself to tour like you did back when you were 18 or in your 20s and 30s, it doesn't work the same way."
Stacey favors a holistic approach with his clients, focusing not only on technique and mechanics but also on personal lifestyle, diet and stress management, among other factors.
"When you hear about someone having to have vocal lessons, that means that for whatever reason their vocal cords are worn: They're tired; they're abused," Stacey says. "They might be singing too much. They might not be getting enough rest between singing. Are there stressors in their life that are leading to stress on their vocal cords?"
Stacey says he's as likely to steer his clients toward therapy, meditation or journaling as he is to assign specific vocal exercises. The Cleveland Clinic's Adessa adds that "basics" such as hydration, sleep and general exercise "have a huge impact on the voice ... so we examine those as factors in vocal health, as well."
Stacey says "it's so imperative that singers of every ilk and every style get good information about how to maintain the health of their voices." He also uses "visualizing" as part of his regimen. "If you had a guitar, I can say, 'OK, hit this string. See how your pressure is holding that string? What if you do this different thing ...' In the case of the voice, the instrument's inside you. You have to learn and envelop a sense of awareness of when your instrument is firing at its best and how you experience that sound. and what it's like to hear that sound not behind your ears but in front of you and project it at any volume."
The result, of course, is that as singers age they won't be able to sing like they used to. During a recent appearance on The Jasta Show (as Blabbermouth reports), former Queensryche frontman Geoff Tate acknowledged that he "can't hit those high notes like that anymore in standard tuning" and, like many of his peers, has adjusted by lowering the song keys to accommodate.
"Tuning down a half step makes a huge difference because you're not just killing yourself to hit it a note, and you can do it consistently seven days a week," Tate explained. "If you are tuned up to standard tuning, I think you'd probably only get three shows before you'd need to take a break — and economically that's just really, really hard to do."
Adessa, meanwhile, endorses that strategy no matter how many nights a week you're talking about. "If you have to lower your key by a half-step, a step, after you've been singing for 45 years or something, I think that's a reasonable accommodation," says Adessa, who also works with clients on the pacing of their sets.
"If it makes it easier for you to do and to reach your goals and just to keep singing well, why not do it? The goal is to help keep people singing."