As the pandemic raged on last fall, it was no surprise when veteran folk singer Arlo Guthrie called off his plans for future live performances. After suffering a series of strokes over the past three years, Guthrie, 73, decided he no longer could perform “up to the standards I expected of myself, let alone the expectations that our friends and fans had come to enjoy,” he said in announcing the move.
While Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and other venerable artists have toured energetically far into their 70s, the shutdown of live entertainment has proved to be a last straw for others. Country icon Kris Kristofferson, 84, quietly retired from performing in January. Even living legend Tony Bennett, 94, who had become the gold standard for a gravity-defying career — his most recent concert was in March — revealed early this month that he has been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease since 2016. It’s safe to assume that many others will not return to full-scale touring even when the music world does.
Nothing keeps a performer in shape like performing. But in the absence of a regular touring regimen — and with no confirmed dates for a return to the road in sight — how do middle-aged musicians keep their voices and physiques fit? Like any physical activity, singing and performing rely on muscles that need to be kept in tone, according to physical therapist Julie Wiebe as well as Kiss frontman Paul Stanley. Kiss concerts, by definition, are physically and vocally demanding for band members. But even after 10 months off the road, Stanley, 69, was in strong form for the group’s one-off, socially distanced New Year’s Eve global livestream concert in Dubai last Dec. 31 (pictured above).
“The best way to be in shape is to be in shape, and once you get there, stay there,” Stanley tells Variety. “Once you have that momentum, it’s much easier to maintain than to create.” For middle-aged musicians hoping to have a couple more decades of performing, there’s no time like the present to start, notes Wiebe, who has helped an illustrious clientele (which she declines to disclose publicly) with their vocal performances through her practice. “The decisions you make in your 40s or 50s will determine what happens in your 60s and 70s, and hopefully beyond,” she says. “You can optimize your health and longevity by the choices you make now — and obviously COVID puts that demographic at an even higher risk. So reduce all risk factors: Be mindful of heart disease, check with a nutritionist and get adequate exercise.”
The latter category is crucial, even for artists whose performances don’t require the physicality of a Stones or Kiss concert, because vocal strength relies so much on other parts of the body. “It takes a lot to support vocal capacity,” Wiebe says. “How you’re using your diaphragm, your postural control system, your endurance, your vocal cords — it’s all very intertwined.”
Stanley notes that building the strength and endurance needed for a long and energetic performance, night after night for months on end, has little to do with stereotypical notions of bodybuilding. “You might be able to lift really heavy weights, but that’s not gonna mean squat when you’re onstage,” he says. “Your aerobic capacity and core strength are really what it’s all about — and the size of your muscles can actually become a detriment, because endurance is based on cardio fitness.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries from the decadent 1970s, the Kiss singer eschewed most excesses and began working with a trainer in his early 30s. “When you’re young you’re fairly invincible,” he says, “but as you get a bit older, things just don’t come as easily — and they go very easily.”
He developed such a regular regimen that he says he didn’t really need to ramp up before the group’s “End of the Road” farewell tour, which launched in January 2019 and rolled on for more than 120 dates before grinding to a COVID-induced halt last March. “I was pretty much already there, but I was doing a dance-bar workout three times a week — stretching and a lot of no-impact exercise, along with what I’ve always done: low weight/high reps for my arms.”
Although Stanley has a high voice that would seem to risk straining his vocal cords, he takes care of it and has never had serious issues. “Your vocal cords are muscles, and as you get older, they lose pliancy and it takes more air to get them to vibrate,” he says. “So as time goes on you’re challenged by how much air you can push to get them to respond.” However, he says regular warm-ups before a performance usually do the job, and also a lesson he learned when performing in a Toronto production of the “Phantom of the Opera” musical in 1999: “When I was doing eight shows a week, I realized that I couldn’t drink alcohol the night before a performance, because it tended to dry out my sinus membranes,” he says. “But other than that, it’s just common sense. Obviously, you don’t want to run around screaming.”
Indeed, when Wiebe is asked about a hard-touring septuagenarian musician whose voice is clearly showing strain, she says that he had met with her and found her vocal exercises, which she admits can be tedious, to be “too much work.” Years later, “Perhaps now he may be experiencing some of that fallout,” she says. “After a lifetime of hitting that system so hard without supportive activities, he may not be able to compete at an Olympic level vocally anymore.”
Meanwhile, Stanley has used lockdown to get in even better shape: He recently released an album with his ‘60s-style R&B outfit Soul Station, and, “During COVID, I’ve been bike-riding 25 miles, three times a week,” he says (pictured below). “That’s a great aerobic workout, and it’s also a great core workout, because you’re leaning forward on your bike and tensing you abdomen and your back, and of course it’s great for your legs. Along with some light weights, you really don’t need much more than that.”
Although he’s had several surgeries over the years, including hip replacements, Stanley says, “I feel great and I’m good for another 50,000 miles,” when Kiss resumes its COVID-postponed “End of the Road” farewell tour … whenever that may be.