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Back in 2008, the documentary Young@Heart was winning awards and moving audiences with its fl y-on-the-wall account of a New England seniors chamber choir. With an average age of 80 and boasting an impressive array of both infirmity and life experience, they were seen singing rock ballads and coping with the death of two of their members whilst winning the respect of inmates at a local penitentiary. The message seemed to be that in an ageing society, the sense of a shared community through singing can be a potent force in the face of the inevitable losses that growing old entails.

This new book, authored by the vocal clinician Brenda Smith and the head and neck surgeon Robert Sataloff (somewhere between his medical commitments and writing 42 books he fits in a career as a professional singer) looks to help conductors deal with the issues facing the older vocalist. As the authors point out, there are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, there is the inevitable decline in vocal prowess – likened to losing the ‘sweet spot’ on a tennis racket or the seamless follow-through of a golf swing. But there can be advantages too – self-knowledge, less time wasting, long familiarity with repertoire, a deeper understanding of text. And music directors beware – the older singer’s trust must be earned. After all, they may have more life experience, and more experience of the music, than their younger conductor.

All these, and many more issues associated with ageing are sensitively discussed in this 368-page volume. However, readers hoping to find a user-friendly manual may be frustrated. Much of the space is taken up with a detailed analysis of the relationship between physical health and singing, of which ageing is a part. Each chapter reads rather like the contribution to a worthy medical symposium. Some stiff editing might have helped – samey sentence lengths, over-long paragraphs, a didactic tone and screeds of medical terminology make for heavy going. Perhaps the best contribution is left to last, where Brenda Smith’s first-person account of working with a choir of Florida seniors (youngest member, 68) brings the preceding text to life.

MATTHEW GREENALL Read the full review on Agora Classica


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